The Real Reason Airplanes Are Almost Always Painted White

When Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved what History describes as the world's "first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight" in 1903, their aircraft obviously had the right stuff to do the job. But as time flew, airplanes evolved. These mechanical pterodactyls used to be "made from wood, canvas, and dope," according to Air and Space Magazine. Now they're (fortunately) made of metal. As the popularity of air travel has soared, airlines have increasingly decreased seat sizes to squeeze in more passengers. But one airplane feature that seems to be trapped in amber is their mostly snowy hue.

Whether you're boarding a Delta aircraft or flying the sketchy skies of United Airlines, you will usually board a plane that looks like an oversized stormtrooper: metal, white, and devoid of individuality. But why is that? Wouldn't it be cooler if airlines decided to mix it up and paint their planes plaid or something?

Actually no, it would not be cooler to paint a plane plaid. White is decidedly cooler because, according to MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics professor R. John Hansman, "it's basically like putting sunblock on." White reflects sunlight, helping to protect the plane from solar radiation and prevent overheating. Many modern planes contain parts made of plastic or a mix of materials such as carbon fiber and fiberglass, which are better off not baking in the sun. These include the aircraft's nose cone and controlling surfaces. Plus, as The Telegraph points out, paint adds weight — a whopping 600 to 1,200 pounds in fact. That's tantamount to eight normal passengers or two normal sumo wrestlers. All that extra baggage burns fuel, which in turn burns money.

White paint also does birds a favor by making aircraft more visible. A 2011 study found that darker coats of paint might increase the rate of bird strikes due to the "reduced contrast between the aircraft and the background." The brightness also makes planes easier to see in search and rescue missions. So while a white plane might look like a flying stormtrooper, it's closer to being a Luke Skywalker.