Arguably the best night fighter the Luftwaffe ever produced, the Heinkel He 219 entered the war in mid-1943 and was so immediately successful against Royal Air Force bombers that the British must have been glad that no more than 294 were built. Today, only one remains. So when the National Air and Space Museum decided to restore and repaint the world’s sole surviving 219, a group of curators, restorers, and conservators met to discuss the project.
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“Every artifact is different: its background, its service history, and the people involved,” explains Russell Lee, a curator in the Museum’s aeronautics division. “So a curator has to look at all of those things as he or she formulates a [restoration] plan.”
The Museum’s 219 was captured toward the end of World War II, at Grove air base in Denmark, taken as part of Operation LUSTY, a U.S. Army Air Forces Intelligence program to bring enemy aircraft, weapons, and scientific data to the United States for study.
“We’re not sure whether this aircraft flew operational missions,” says Lee, “or how fully equipped it was.”
After arriving in the United States, the 219 was flight tested at Freeman Field, Indiana. At some point, its German markings were painted over, and U.S. markings applied.
After flight testing, many captured enemy aircraft were displayed at airshows, a practice that may explain the 219’s third paint job, an attempt to return the aircraft to its original configuration.
When the restoration began, says project lead David Wilson, “we didn’t know the full history of the aircraft, and we were sort of confused at some of the things we were finding.” He notes, for example, “The insignias seemed to be in the wrong location and of the wrong proportions.”
The fuselage restoration was completed in 2003, but Wilson continued to puzzle over how to paint the wings. Restorers used a technique called wet sanding to learn more about the aircraft’s history. During this time-consuming process, restorers take very fine sandpaper—between 1,000-grit and 2,000-grit—soaked in water, and carefully sand the artifact. Wet-sanding the entire wing took approximately six months.
The Museum tries to keep original paint whenever possible, “but in this case,” says Wilson, “the paint seemed very unstable. We were concerned that if we overpainted it and left the original remnants there that we would have adhesion problems with both the new and old paint.”
The 219’s upper fuselage was painted in German Wellenmuster camouflage, informally known throughout the restoration shop as “the squiggle.”