Painting our piece of history, Team Kingsley tail flash

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt Daniel Reed
  • 173FW

The constant drone of equipment accompanies a crew of four 173rd Aircraft Structural Maintenance Airmen who are painting divested F-15C Eagle tails to display the 173rd Fighter Wing’s iconic eagle tail flash.

Changing a tail flash is not merely peeling off the old one and slapping a new one on; it takes hours and hours of highly detailed work said Staff Sgt. Sean Green, 550th Fighter Squadron.  “With the current setup it takes five full days to complete one tail flash,” he adds.

Tail preparation begins with a thorough pressure washing and ends with a meticulous hand scrubbing for each piece, ensuring no grease or grime is left on the surface. The wash process spans several days, because the surface must be perfect. Any imperfections on the surface will show through the final finish and are avoided at all costs, adds Green.  

Once the aircraft has been washed and prepped for paint a stencil is created bearing Kingsley’s unique tail flash.

“Building a stencil takes multiple layers, built up, to produce a single image,” said Green. “The key to getting it right is to take your time and ask for a second opinion while paying particular attention to detail.”

Green produces the stencil design using commercial graphic design tools in tandem with a Roland printer, a very large material cutter, much like an industrial strength Cricut.

He double checks his work taking precise measurements and verifying them before he cuts a stencil. Then, the stencil is placed on the tail and checked for exact alignment before peeling the adhesive backing and sticking it to the surface; something you can only do once with each stencil as they are a single use product.

The tail flash is then painted in layers, again carefully because one wrong step means starting over with a new stencil.

It is a time consuming, exacting process but it’s an improvement over what structural troops used to do; sketch the eagle by hand and free-hand it with a brush, which required a high level of artistic talent.  

Prior to any painting or stencil mounting, structural troops also create a custom frame from PVC pipe and plastic sheets to cover the tail and create a vacuum-tight seal to prevent overspray from getting onto other surfaces.

The corrosion control facility, commonly known as the paint barn, has four HEPA filter vacuum pumps plumbed to the paint area, which pull toxic fumes from the workspace. Clean air is also supplied to the workspace with an aircraft cart, thus balancing inflow and outflow. This raises another issue for the painters, that of temperature. It must remain stable at 100-degrees Fahrenheit—yes, these painters emerge from the booth dripping sweat—and so two heaters are also piped into the booth.  

The stencil itself is in layers, allowing Airmen to paint a layer, let it dry and remove the top stencil material revealing the next section to be painted. Each successive layer reveals the eagle taking form. The eagle emerges from the talons, then the head and then the body. Thirty-six hours later the Kingsley Field tail flash is complete.

Finally, a special primer layer is added to keep the tail flash looking. This work ensures it can withstand the harsh conditions of flying at altitude and the unique weather it will encounter being nested at Kingsley Field. After the final coat, it cures for 48 hours before flying again.

“It’s nice to see the tail completed to show Kingsley pride; being active-duty, I’ve seen a lot of different tails, but this is the most in-depth one I’ve had to do,” said Green.

Many consider the tail an icon, having graced every airframe since the F-4 Phantom II in 1983 where the eagle tail flash made its appearance, the F-16 Fighting Falcon (1989) to the current F-15C Eagle and continuing into the future with the F-35 Lightning II.

“It is bittersweet seeing the iconic Kingsley Field tail flash on the last of our F-15 fleet here at Kingsley,” said Col. Lee Bouma, 173rd Fighter Wing commander. “That tail represents the dedication and attention to detail Team Kingsley is known for, and there is a huge sense of pride knowing it will be seen for many years to come on the F-35 Lightning II as we transition to a 5th generation fighter pilot training mission.”

The aircraft acceptance process begins in Phase where each F-15C Eagle is inspected upon arrival and ends with the iconic “stamp” of approval with the Kingsley Field eagle painted on its tail letting everyone know it’s officially part of the 173rd Fighter Wing convocation—the official title for a flock of eagles.

“The tail flash reflects pride of ownership,” said Bouma. “It represents all the Airmen here at Kingsley Field everywhere it flies, which has been from Australia to Finland, to Poland, and everywhere in between.”