Willy Messerschmitt's famous Bf 109 series of single-seat fighter airplanes was produced in larger quantities than any other combat airplane in history except the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik. The first prototype Bf 109 flew in September 1935, powered by a Rolls Royce Kestrel 695-hp engine because suitable German aircraft engines were not yet available-engine development had been hindered by the Versailles Treaty. Follow-on prototypes of the Bf 109 used several other engines until Messerschmitt and the Air Ministry settled on the Daimler-Benz DB 600 series inverted-V, liquid-cooled engine. (Note: The Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG, abbreviated Bf, is the company that built and flew the prototype Bf 109. The firm was renamed Messerschmitt AG in July 1938 but many official German publications continued to refer to the airplane as the 'Bf 109.')
The new fighter's first public demonstration took place at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, but the airplane's first real impact on the aviation world came during the international flying meet held in Zurich in the summer of 1937. Five Bf 109s took part and demonstrated outstanding climbing, diving, and maneuverability, along with exceptional speed. As these impressive demonstrations were taking place, the Luftwaffe was delivering twenty-four '109 fighters to Spain for the Condor Legion. By the time England declared war on Germany, German pilots had battle-tested the '109 in aerial combat and Messerschmitt AG was busily mass-producing the 'E' model.
Supermarine's Spitfire was the first aircraft to seriously challenge the Luftwaffe fighter. The Spitfire was slightly faster and definitely more maneuverable, but its performance at altitude was inferior. There was little difference in piloting skill between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force but in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, the RAF usually fought over friendly territory. The Bf 109s limited fuel capacity reduced fighting time over Britain to about twenty minutes. Many '109 pilots exhausted their fuel and crashed into the icy waters of the English Channel.
Bf 109s saw heavy use on the Eastern Front after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In the West beginning in 1943, daylight raids by U. S. Army Air Forces heavy bombers steadily increased. The Luftwaffe pressed the '109 into service intercepting the massive bomber formations, battling heavy defensive crossfire and increasing opposition from escort fighters. In most air encounters over Europe, Allied pilots expected the 109s to appear for a fight.
As new and improved models of Allied fighters became available, the Germans countered with upgraded models of the Bf 109, primarily by increasing power in the Daimler-Benz engine. When production stopped, Messerschmitt had produced far greater numbers of the 'G' than any other model. The company built 21,000 by the end of 1944. Nicknamed 'Gustav' and powered by a DB 605 engine, the 'G' carried a variety of machine guns, bombs, and cannons and occasionally, two 20mm MG 151/20 weapons slung beneath the wings. The latter combination was ideal for bomber interception but severely reduced air-to-air combat effectiveness.
For many years, the history of the NASM Bf 109G-6 was mysterious. In 1995, Jim Kitchens, an archivist at Maxwell Air Force Base, discovered a report on the defection of René Darbois on July 25, 1944. Darbois was a native of German-annexed Lorraine who claimed he was forced to fly in the Luftwaffe. He took off in the NASM BF 109G-6 on his first combat mission and proceeded directly to the airfield at Caserta, Italy. He landed and walked into the custody of the U. S. Army Air Forces 72nd Liaison Squadron. In 1989 Museum specialist Tom Dietz discovered the Gustav's Werk-Nummer to be 160756. The number falls within the range of airframes manufactured at Messerschmitt's Regensburg plant in summer or fall 1943. Messerschmitt built this particular model specifically to operate in tropical and desert climates. For desert operations, mechanics installed a sand filter but none was found with the NASM Gustav.
The Army Air Forces (AAF) shipped the fighter to the United States for evaluation. AAF personnel stripped the aircraft of all unit markings and camouflage and the Air Technical Intelligence Command assigned it an inventory and tracking number, FE-496. The Air Force transferred the Messerschmitt to the National Air Museum (later National Air and Space Museum) in 1948, along with a group of other World War II aircraft, and was stored at the Park Ridge, Illinois, facility. Later, the collection was moved to the museum's storage facility at Silver Hill, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
During the mid-1970s, plans for a new museum building on the Washington Mall became definite. The Bf 109 was one of the first aircraft restored for exhibition. No information was available on the aircraft's original markings so restorers applied the camouflage and markings of aircraft number 2 of 7th Squadron, III./JG 27 (3d Group, Fighter Wing 27) flown in the Eastern Mediterranean in late 1943. Specialists completed the restoration during April 1974.