Inside a classroom at the National Center for Aviation Training, Jeremiah Craigler picks up a spray gun, points it at a large screen and pulls the trigger.
Craigler smoothly moves the gun side to side in painting motions.
But there is no real paint – or a surface to cover.
Instead, colors appear on the screen of a virtual paint booth.
Red and gray show where paint would have been applied too heavy or would have had runs, meaning wasted materials and rework.
Blue areas show where paint would have been too thin, compromising appearance, performance or a plane’s protection against corrosion.
The simulator monitors the paint gun’s speed, distance, pressure, thickness and other attributes.
“Basically, it’s a big video game,” said Rodney Ganzer, a Wichita Area Technical College adjunct instructor and research technician.
The device is part of the Wichita Area Technical College’s comprehensive Aerospace Coatings and Paint Technology program taught at the training center in northeast Wichita.
The virtual paint booth helps hone paint techniques, so when students work with the real materials, they’re more confident and skilled, said Brandon Hunt, an instructor in the program. Hunt has spent 16 years as an aerospace and industrial coatings technical professional.
Painting an airplane is a complex process. Airplanes must function in extreme temperatures.
“That’s why we have a whole program dedicated to understanding what they’re working with,” Hunt said.
The program teaches students to prepare surfaces, mix and apply paints and coatings, do specialized detailing and read blueprints.
They learn about color technology, lab technologies, special applications, regulations, design and layout and finishing. And they work with metal, plastic, wood and composite materials, and small to large parts.
“This class teaches you everything about paint technologies,” Ganzer said.
Students have two options with the program: a one-year technical certificate in aerospace coatings and paint, or a two-year associate of applied science degree. The two-year program adds general education classes.
Part of the training is how to work with small parts on a conveyor system and with robotic paint applications.
The program added a robot in January.
“They get exposure to it,” said Hunt, who prepares students to work in aerospace-related companies.
He stresses reliable attendance, respect, a good attitude and appearance, and teamwork.
Hunt is trying to make students better employees so they will have a higher chance of getting a job and keeping it, he said.
“We score them,” he said.
That way potential employers can evaluate them as well.
Some students entering the program have never held a job.
“It helps them understand what’s going to be expected from them,” Hunt said.
Craigler, 18, is in his first semester at WATC.
A friend who owns a paint shop sparked his interest in the field.
The training will prepare him to paint airplanes, automobiles, bridges, railroads and amusement parks, he said.
“I just want to learn how to paint,” Craigler said.
Corby Pennock, 18, began a paid internship with 3P Processing last week, where he sands parts to prepare them for paint. He works evenings and attends classes in the day.
He’s found his niche.
“I’m loving the program and everything about it,” he said.
He likes being able to see a project through from start to finish, Pennock said.
When he graduates, Pennock wants to work on military airplane programs.
Graduates are finding work, Hunt said.
A white board in a classroom last week listed 14 companies, most of them local, with current openings.
“There are more jobs to fill than I have students,” Hunt said. “There is a need for well-trained people.”
WATC began classes in 2010 with a focus on helping the aerospace industry.
Without the programs, aircraft manufacturers hired employees without experience and trained them, or they recruited from the automobile industry, Hunt said.
New classes begin in January.
The industry has changed over the years.
Equipment and paint materials have changed with efforts to protect the environment. Among the current goals is to reduce solvents emitted into the air.
“New technologies have less solvent,” Hunt said. “From a paint application standpoint, that can create a significant difference in how the coatings are applied.”
Paint equipment has also changed to lower the amount of waste, he said.
Most shops in North America have made the transition, but older equipment is still used in some places, especially outside the U.S.
Students work with new and old equipment. That way they can work anyplace in the world, and face any challenge, Hunt said.
“They’re not going to be experts at everything,” he said. “But at least they experienced it.”
3P Processing employs about 28 painters, and six — four full-time employees and two interns — are from the WATC program.
Through the program, 3P Processing has built relationships with WATC.
“When we need to go and find some painters that have a little bit of experience ... it’s easy for us to go and pick a person or get a recommendation from them,” said Shawn Bretthauer, 3P Processing production supervisor.
That background makes the training process easier once they’re hired.
“They can hop right in and get their feet wet with the knowledge that they have,” Bretthauer said.