Aircraft, awful and awesome: ‘SBD’ Dauntless dive bomber fails

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian

***image1***The numerical aspects of performance – speed, maneuverability, load, range – are generally the measure of merit for aircraft, but at times a plane has a combination of characteristics that make it an outstanding performer when its individual characteristics are mediocre.

The SBD “Dauntless,” the dive bomber the U.S. Navy began World War II with, was one of these. Indeed, the SBD sunk more ships than any other aircraft in history, was the only U.S. aircraft type that participated in all five naval engagements between carriers, and won the critical battle of Midway virtually single-handedly – all during a period when the Navy was frantically trying to replace it.

In the mid-1930s, a new type of aircraft, the dive bomber, was all the rage. Dive bombers were relatively small aircraft designed to carry a large, single bomb they could place with great accuracy – within five meters of the target – by diving straight down and releasing the bomb less than 2,000 feet above the target, followed by a very sharp pull up that left it a few hundred feet above the ground. The accuracy of this method of delivery was sought for such small targets as bridges and maneuvering ships. However, designing such an aircraft produced many challenges, notably the ability to dive straight down at a relatively slow airspeed while still having enough performance to make it to the target and back without being shot down.

The Northrop aircraft company tried to meet this requirement with the BT-1, a short-lived dive bomber delivered to the Navy in 1934.  Its flying characteristics were described as “little short of vicious” and its sole claim to fame was that it was prominently featured in the film “Dive Bomber” starring  Errol Flynn. At that point, Northrop split and one part became the Douglas aircraft company, and the new company tried to modify the BT-1 and make it a successful dive bomber.  The new aircraft, the SBD (Scout Bomber, Douglas) “Dauntless,” seemed to be another failure when test pilots found that when the flaps were deployed to slow the aircraft in a steep dive there was so much buffeting that the tail section threatened to separate from the aircraft. After a great deal of experimentation, the solution was found – punching a number of three-inch “Swiss cheese- like” holes in the flaps that eliminated the buffeting but still slowed the aircraft to a steady 245 knots, even when diving at over 80 degrees.

But these improvements took until the late 1930s, and by then the SBD, though it was reliable and easy to handle, was considered obsolete.
Nevertheless, the success of the German “Stuka” dive bomber and the feeling that war was imminent forced the U.S. Navy to push the SBD into large scale production while the service scrambled to develop a successor with higher performance.

After Pearl Harbor, when outnumbered Navy carriers tried to stop the Japanese advances across the Pacific, the U.S. Navy torpedo planes and torpedoes were inadequate, so the SBDs had to shoulder the load.
The Dauntlesses  was tough and reliable, and its finest hour came during the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942 when, after a large number of U.S. land based aircraft failed to hit the Japanese carrier fleet and almost all the U.S. torpedo planes were shot down, a handful of  “obsolete” Dauntlesses dropped out of the sky and sunk all four Japanese carriers − three in the space of 10 minutes.

It was late 1943 before the Navy fielded a replacement, the SB2C “Helldiver,” for the “Slow But Deadly” Dauntless. But the Helldiver was a disaster and several “Helldiver” squadron commanders demanded their Dauntlesses back. But, it was too late. The SBD production line was closed, and from late 1944 the Navy was forced to make do with the Helldiver.

Questions or suggestions? E-mail