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Even riding in the back seat, the view from an SBD as it plummets to earth is unforgettable.

One of World War II’s most significant airplanes, the Douglas SBD Dauntless was a major factor enabling the U.S. Navy to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. In June 1942, after cryptographers broke Japan’s communications code, SBDs from the carriers York town, Enterprise and Hornet intercepted the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Atoll. The dive-bomber squadrons sank four enemy carriers and a heavy cruiser, though Yorktown was also hit and later sank. The lopsided victory enabled the U.S. to take the offensive in the Pacific.

The Dauntless, designed by self-taught engineer Ed Heinemann to fill the Navy’s requirement for a scout bomber, was a great example of his philosophy: Keep the airplane simple and build it around the most powerful engine available. Heinemann, who served as the firm’s chief engineer until 1960, went on to become a legend at Douglas, designing such notable naval aircraft as the A-1 Skyraider and A-4 Skyhawk.

Today the Planes of Fame Air Museum’s SBD-5 Dauntless, a combat veteran that entered service in 1943, still makes the rounds at West Coast airshows. The SBD-5 was the most numerous variant of the dive bomber produced, with almost 3,000 built. Powered by a 1,200-hp Wright R-1820-60 radial engine, it had a top speed of 255 mph and a range of 1,115 miles. It was armed with two .50-caliber Browning machine guns over the engine cowling and two flexible .30-caliber guns operated by a gunner behind the pilot, and could carry 2,250 pounds of bombs on racks under its wings and beneath the fuselage. The aircraft’s huge “Swiss cheese” dive brakes on the wings’ trailing edge were split, permitting almost vertical dives. Since Dauntless pilots typically dropped the belly- mounted bomb in a near-vertical dive, Heinemann and his engineers had developed a sling yoke trapeze (displacing gear), so the bomb would swing down and away from the aircraft before it was released, thus clearing the propeller arc.

In late 1940, as the SBD entered Navy service, its replacement, the Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver, was already in the test phase. But while the Helldiver was faster and equipped with an internal bomb bay and advanced landing slats for slow-speed carrier landings, the new design failed to match the SBD’s reliability and flying characteristics. Many crews still preferred the Dauntless, which remained operational until war’s end.

A total of 5,936 SBDs were produced, some of which were flown by U.S. Marines as well as pilots from the U.K. and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The SBD served with distinction throughout the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942 and the Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944. By the end of WWII, the Dauntless was credited with sinking 18 enemy ships, including six carriers and one battleship, and boasted the lowest loss ratio of any carrier aircraft in the Navy. It proved equally effective against ground targets. Captain Fred Loach, who flew with the famed “Black Sheep” Squadron, recalled witnessing the SBD’s pinpoint accuracy in targeting gun emplacements.

The Planes of Fame’s aircraft, the last original SBD-5 still flying, served with the Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1943, then was transferred to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, based at Espiritu Santo in 1944. It flew 32 combat missions from Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands, before being re – turned to the Navy at Russell Island, and was later sent back to San Diego.

MGM Studios subsequently purchased the airplane—minus its wings—and used it as a wind machine on the movie lot. The cockpit was restored for its appearance in “flying” scenes in the film Midway. Further restoration, including a new set of wings from Guadalcanal, was done by the Planes of Fame museum in 1983 to make the dive bomber airworthy for the TV series Winds of War. Today the SBD-5 regularly thrills airshow crowds thanks to the flying skills of Ron Hackworth, who also helps maintain this venerable warbird.

Last fall I was lucky enough to take a short flight with Hackworth in the Dauntless. Fortunately it was a warm, sunny day, since I sat in the gunner’s seat with the canopy slid forward, an airy spot, to say the least. The aft seat swivels so the gunner can face forward or turn backward to fire the twin .30-caliber machine guns. Hackworth had installed the aft control stick to allow me to get the feel of the airplane, but that meant I couldn’t swivel the seat toward the rear.

The rear cockpit has a stick and rudder pedals as well as a throttle, but no instruments. The seat itself is suspended in a rotating ring, with a small armor plate on each side. Though I had excellent visibility to the side and rear, when looking straight ahead I could only see the back of Hackworth’s helmet in front of the roll bar.

The Wright R-1820 came to life with a belch of blue smoke, and we taxied out to the runway accompanied by the satisfying rumble of the big radial. Once Hackworth completed the run-up and checklist, he lowered the flaps for takeoff. The lower half of the dive brakes extended to provide additional lift, which meant the Dauntless required very little runway to get airborne, necessary in a carrier aircraft. As soon as Hackworth lifted the tail, we were flying.

Two spring-loaded air deflectors on each side of the canopy helped keep my camera steady as we climbed out over a reservoir south of the Chino airport. I had asked Hackworth if we could climb high enough to deploy the dive brakes and get an idea of what it would have looked like diving on an enemy ship. It was noisy and windy in the back seat, and though I was tempted to lean out of the cockpit to get a better view, I felt sure I would lose my headset if I did. As we climbed up to 5,000 feet, Hackworth passed control to me. I tried a couple of turns left and right, noting that it required a bit of muscle to roll into a medium turn. I also noticed the Dauntless seemed very stable, another essential for carrier aircraft.

Once we reached 5,000 feet, Hackworth took back control and initiated a dive. I watched as the big speed brakes split open on the wing’s trailing edge. Although this was only a shallow dive, I sensed the SBD was poised and ready to push right over— to almost straight down. As we head ed down, I thought about what combat must have been like for a gunner, nose-diving from over 20,000 feet. Of course his normal view at that point, facing aft, would have been of the plane’s tail pointing at the sky, as he kept an eye out for enemy aircraft.

Hackworth retracted the speed brakes after a brief plunge, then made a few turns over the reservoir before calling the tower and requesting an overhead “break,” to enter the traffic pattern. As we crossed the runway midpoint at pattern altitude, he banked sharply, and positive Gs pressed me into my seat. Then we rapidly slowed as he lowered the flaps and gear, making his base leg turn at around 80 knots. We touched down smoothly right on the numbers—a lot smoother landing than this plane would typically have experienced, I realized, when slamming down on a carrier deck.

As Hackworth taxied toward a tug, to hitch a ride back to the museum hangar, I thanked him for taking me along. We left the Dauntless sitting next to a beautiful F4U Corsair and a TBM Avenger.

For anyone who appreciates America’s aviation heritage, the Planes of Fame museum is certainly worth a visit. Learn more about it at


Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.