Amazing Places

Why Are Most Planes White? The Reasons Are Scientific and Economical

White airplanes are the norm. (Save for the rebellious Southwest, but we digress.) This color conformity isn't without reason. Science and economics provide plenty of solid reasons why your airplane shouldn't look like a kaleidoscope. Too bad.

It's Gettin' Hot in Herre

The main reason for snow white planes? Thermal science. MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics professor R. John Hansman told Business Insider that the color best reflects sunlight, which keeps the cabin of the craft cool (kind of like how long white clothing is your best bet in the desert). Shielding the plane's plastic parts (usually the nose cone) and composite materials from the sun is especially important. White paint also lets potentially dangerous solar radiation bounce right off. Think of white paint like airplane sunblock.

According to a 2011 study published in Human-Wildlife Interactions, birds appreciate a bright white plane in the sky too. The study, conducted by researchers from Purdue University and the National Wildlife Research Center, found that white airplanes experienced fewer bird collisions than deep blue and light blues planes. This research suggests that our feathered friends can most easily pick white planes out of the sky, and swerve accordingly.

The white paint helps humans visually too. It's not a matter of collision though, thank goodness. The whiteness makes cracks, dings, and divots stick out like a sore thumb to the human eye. And, you know, being able to detect damage on an aircraft is kind of important.

Show Me the Money

Science is one half of the white plane story, and economics makes up the other. Even airlines gotta save that dough where they can, okay? When it takes 65 gallons of paint to coat a single airplane, you need to be smart about what you're doing. White is a standard, cheap color: simple as that. If you did want to get funky with your plane (you do have an airplane, right?), whatever color you chose to paint it will oxidize and basically fade to white over time anyway. To keep it nice and brightly colored would require more painting more often — which, of course, means more money.

Here's a radical idea: No paint. Nothin' but raw metal fuselage slicing through the clouds, baby. That's been thought about too, sorry. Polishing an airplane actually requires more maintenance, thus more time and money, than a painted one. Go figure. And just in case this actually applies to you, white planes will also sell quicker than colored or unpainted planes.

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Written by Joanie Faletto August 18, 2017

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