In the Museum: Painting History

Restoring the sole surviving Heinkel He 219.

Whenever possible, original materials are saved. Project lead David Wilson (left) and chief conservator Malcolm Collum examine original fabric patches, used to cover bolt holes in the wing. (Eric Long)
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Large sheets of Mylar were laid over the upper fuselage, and Wilson and the others traced the camouflage pattern onto the plastic sheets so that it could be reproduced exactly, after they finished chemically stripping the metal.

The same attention to detail was given to stencil remnants found on two antennas under the starboard wing. Four lines of illegible text appeared on the scraped and battered surface. Wilson used a Mylar overlay to trace what he could of each stencil, but a lot of information was missing. After weeks of research, Wilson located someone who had the same antenna for sale, and was able to fill in the missing text.

Each artifact requires a different approach. Lee’s most recent restoration was the Vought V-173 Flying Pancake. Even though the restoration took eight years, the paint “wasn’t a hard choice,” says Lee. “We knew what the paint scheme was, and it didn’t change throughout its operational life. There’s lots of photo documentation, so that was easy.”

Not so with the Museum’s Hawker Hurricane Mk. IIC, which arrived with a completely stripped exterior. While Lee and Wilson were fairly confident of the authentic camouflage and under-surface colors, they couldn’t verify the original stencils. “Rather than put something on that was incorrect,” says Wilson, “we opted to leave it off.” While the restoration was completed in 1999, Wilson continued to research the Hurricane’s history, recently spending two weeks at the Royal Air Force Museum in England. The trip provided him with the information he needed to replicate the original stencils. “Dave’s discovery encourages us to hew to our goal of maintaining authenticity,” says Lee.

“The Smithsonian has one of the best collections of untouched Japanese and German aircraft,” says Wilson. “There are a lot of questions about the type of paints they used, and the stenciling. We are in a very good position to answer these questions. But we also know that once we restore an aircraft, we have only one chance to document everything. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So we try and go to the extra effort of making sure that the documentation of everything we do is exceptional.”

Wilson has confirmed that by the time the Museum’s 219 was built, the aircraft’s exterior panels were not primed at all, unless they were steel or magnesium, as the Germans were experimenting with primerless paints in an effort to save time and weight.

The restorers also discovered an inscription penciled on a spar by the left wing heater bay, an odd blend of Russian and Ukrainian, possibly from one worker to another. “The aircraft is clean,” reads the informal scribbling. “Therefore there is little work to be done.”

Not so for Wilson and the rest of the team. It will take at least a month to finish painting the wing, which will then be reunited with the fuselage already on display.

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