SBD Checkout

Very few of these Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive-bombers are left, and even fewer are flying. The Dixie Wing of the Commemorative Air Force has one, and it provides a very memorable checkout at Falcon Field in Georgia.


There are no more than a handful left. You can count the ones that are currently airworthy on one hand, and the ones that are flying regularly can be counted on the fingers needed to hold a good cigar. Of the more than 5900 built between 1940 and 1944, that’s all there are in the world. I am privileged to be one of the latest airmen to discover the fine flying qualities of the Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive-bomber.

(click photos for larger versions)
Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless (41 Kb)

Dauntless dive-bombers achieved fame and notoriety (depending on which side of the Pacific you were standing on) during the Battle of Midway. Lt. Cmdr. Wade McClusky, leading 33 SBD-3s of VB-6 and VS-6, by a stroke of luck in sighting the Japanese destroyer Arashi and following it, located the main Japanese Carrier Strike Force and sunk three Japanese carriers with help from SBDs from VB-3. In only three minutes, these three squadrons, VB-6, VS-6 and VS-3, sealed the fates of three Japanese fleet carriers, the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, and turned the tide of the whole Pacific war. Not too shabby a performance for an airplane that was considered too slow, underarmed and pretty much already obsolete by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Design and Construction

The Dauntless design was conceived by Ed Heinemann of Northrop Corporation, first as the XBT-1, then the much-improved XBT-2, first tested in 1938. The XBT-2 was significantly damaged in a landing accident, and returned to the factory for repairs. By that time Heinemann had gotten permission to replace the original Pratt & Whitney and two-blade propeller with a Wright Cyclone R-1820 and a three-blade prop. In addition, he added the leading edge slots and different ailerons and elevators. The result was a vastly improved airplane that became the prototype Dauntless. While all that was being done, the Northrop Corporation was dissolved and became the El Segundo Division of Douglas, which had owned 51 percent of the Northrop stock. The contract for the reworked dive bomber was placed with Douglas in April of 1939, and the first production Douglas SBD-1 Dauntless was delivered to the Navy in September 1939.Dauntless aircraft were produced from 1939 until July of 1944. The variants were numbered SBD-1 through SBD-6, and the Army flew them as A-24s through A-24B. The version that sunk the Japanese aircraft carriers during the battle of Midway was the SBD-3. The version that I get to fly has been restored to being an SBD-5.

CAF Col Gerald Carlson and gunner on a photo mission (33 Kb)
CAF Col. Gerald Carlson and gunner on a photo mission.

“My” airplane was built in El Segundo as an Army A-24B. As far as we know, it never saw combat, and after the war it was sold to a party in Mexico (along with several others) who converted them into photo ships by removing most of the workings in the rear cockpit, cutting out some structure in the belly just behind the cockpit and installing a big camera window. That also required the re-routing of the rudder control cables, as they are supposed to go down the center of the empennage. The airplane returned to the U.S. sometime in the early 1960s, and was eventually acquired by the Confederate Air Force in Harlingen, Texas, now known as the Commemorative Air Force, headquartered in Midland, Texas. Members of the CAF flew the airplane for a number of years without much changing it from its Mexican configuration, until it was determined to be unsafe and retired. The CAF put the airplane up for adoption, and it eventually came to the Dixie Wing of the CAF currently located at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, Ga. After an extensive eight-year restoration, with many parts being built from scratch, the airplane was transformed into a very authentic SBD-5.

Refurbished and Updated, Slightly

The aircraft is currently painted and armed (just dummies, of course) as it would have appeared during the Battle of the Marianas in June 1944, also known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.” About the only nod to modern airspace requirements is the single VHF com, transponder with Mode C, a VFR panel-mounted GPS, and two modern-style gyros. Everything else in the cockpit would have been found there in 1944. The rear cockpit is even more original, with only a vertical card compass and headset jacks to give away what year it is. The twin 30-caliber swivel mount machine guns are in place with ammunition belts feeding to both, and they are fully stowable and operational except for the little detail of not being able to fire. The twin 50s sticking out the front cockpit have the same drawback. Under the wings there resides a 1000-pound bomb in the center shackle, and two 100-pound bombs on the wing racks.

Author on the way to an air show (33 Kb)
Author on the way to an air show.

This airplane is what brought me back to the CAF after an absence of many years. During the intervening years, I’ve owned my own T-6 and for a while a C-45, and built up about 900 hours of T-6 time and 120 hours in the C-45. I got introduced to the SBD and the Dixie Wing at an air show at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Ala., about three years ago, and had a very pleasant experience visiting with the Dixie Wing members present. I was cordially invited to the hangar at Falcon Field (KFFC) to have a look around and meet some more members. Eventually I did get around to it, and was very impressed by the level of commitment the members had toward their airplanes, and the graciousness with which I was treated. My experience with CAF many years ago was nowhere near as pleasant. It is a changed organization in more than name. I decided to join up. Having recently sold my businesses and acquired that rarest of all commodities, time, I began to go to the hangar on a fairly regular basis. I really had no intention of trying to fly the Dauntless in the beginning, as there were three very competent pilots already on the airplane, and I did have two of my own to fly (the T-6 and the Twin Comanche). As time passed, however, one of the pilots suffered a stroke, and another a heart attack. This left one poor guy to do over a dozen air shows all by himself, and he still has one of those pesky jobs that require him to show up to work from time to time as well. I know, I know, you’re thinking that ain’t sounding so bad, but trust me, taking an airplane like this to an air show, while fun, is still a lot of work and represents a lot of time away from home. My very understanding wife gave her blessing to me sponsoring the SBD and getting checked out in it, and the Wing leadership seemed to think it was a good idea, so I sent off my sponsorship check and began the process.

Time for a Checkout

No one in their right mind is going to let a pilot of unproven skills get in what is almost a one-of-a-kind airplane without some sort of evaluation process. CAF is no different. Hard and expensive lessons have been learned over the years about just letting anyone with a pilot’s license who can write a check get into an airplane and fly. There is a set of basic experience requirements, a series of checkrides that must be passed and a personal interview with members of the CAF General Staff that must be done before one gets the opportunity to crank the engine. The requirements for different types of airplanes vary, but for the rare and expensive single-engine fighter types they include 200 hours of T-6 experience and two checkrides taken in the back seat of a T-6 with two different check pilots specified by the CAF Operations Officer and the Standards & Evaluations committee. It took me about five months to get all that done, including a trip to Midland for the interview and one to Arkansas for the first checkride with Dr. Stan Musick, a CAF fighter check pilot. It could have been done faster, but when that many people are trying to mesh calendars, sometimes it takes more than one try. My second checkride was done with local CAF check pilot John (Skipper) Hyle, and I was signed off and ready to start getting seriously acquainted with the SBD.

On the ramp at Falcon Field (53 Kb)
On the ramp at Falcon Field.

The weather in Georgia and Alabama this winter has been what you might call wet. Real wet. Trying to schedule the SBD checkout was a bit of a challenge, but one rainy day was spent doing a ground school. I had already become very familiar with the aircraft manual, but I picked up some operational tips and reviewed both CAF and FAA regs. pertinent to flying this airplane, as well as taking a written test. I was also instructed in how to start the airplane, which I soon found was one of the more complicated (for me, anyway) things you can do. We went out and did a thorough pre-flight to familiarize me with the airplane and I picked up more good operational tips.

Cockpit Layout

Front cockpit, port side (62 Kb)
Front cockpit, port side
Front cockpit, starboard side (60 Kb)
Front cockpit, starboard side
Front cockpit, upper instrument panel and slide out desk, stowed (90 Kb)
Front cockpit, upper instrument panel and slide out desk, stowed

The airplane has some quirks that you have to be familiar with before you can be comfortable going out to fly it. The cockpit layout is a bit unconventional. For example, the throttle quadrant is on the port side where it belongs, but the gear, flap, dive brake, hydraulic pump control power push lever and manual hydraulic pump handle are on the starboard side (hey, this is a Navy airplane, so left is port, and right is starboard). This means that during takeoff, once you’re in your initial climb, you must take your left hand off the throttle, grab the stick with it, then with your right hand select gear up and press the hydraulic power push lever. This layout is different from the T-6 I’m used to, where everything you need to move is on the left side. Even though the dive brake controls are disabled as a requirement of the Limited type certificate, you still want to be sure you don’t grab it by mistake, as it is right next to the gear lever. Another little oddity is that the airplane has a sliding desktop installed under the upper instrument panel. This was so that Navy pilots could do their navigation plotting in flight and has a big whiz wheel installed on it. The problem with this today is that it even with it stowed, it sticks out enough that you sort of have to duck your head to see the gauges on the lower instrument panel.A suitable day finally arrived, and I flew my T-6 from my home in Alabama up to FFC, helped pull the SBD out of the brand-new Dixie Wing hangar, did a pre-flight and climbed into the front seat. Pilot Jim Buckley took me out for some taxi practice first, and the biggest issue there is that the tailwheel is free castering or locked straight, just like the Twin Beech. No real surprises, you just have to be careful of the brakes. They fade fast. It’s best to punch the brakes briefly to turn rather than ride them and make it smoother. Rougher ride, but the brakes last a lot longer. Visibility over the nose is comparable to the T-6. After doing that for a while, we returned to the hangar and shut down. I then attempted a hot start after only a few minutes of shutdown time, and botched it twice. The first time I didn’t get the mags on before the inertial starter wound down too far, and the second time I didn’t come off of the primer quickly enough and she quit after a very brief attempt to start. Part of the learning experience. After we got her going, I got in the back seat and Jim took me out for a little air work. As far as helping me get a feel for the airplane, it was not terribly helpful. The stick position in the back seat is awkward at best, and the throttle is very difficult to keep a hand on due to the location of the gun ring. There’s no tach back there anyway, so I left most of the throttle moving to Jim in the front seat. I did a few steep turns, keeping the altitude within a couple hundred feet which is about as good as one could expect given the lack of vis (there is a piece of armor plate between the front and rear cockpits, completely eliminating any forward visibility) and having nothing but an airspeed and altimeter for instruments in the back. Then I did a little slow flight with about the same results, and some 60 degree to 60 degree (or at least in that vicinity) banks and turns. Again, with no gyros and no vis, it was pretty much seat of the pants stuff. I also flew it a little with the gear out and flaps up and down and did one simulated go around, just to get a feel for the pitch changes and torque involved. Jim took us back to the airport and we swapped seats again.

Moving Up Front

Forward view from the rear seat (49 Kb)
Forward view from the rear seat
Rear throttle and instruments (50 Kb)
Rear throttle and instruments

This time I managed to get it started on the first try, and am slowly beginning to understand what she wants when hot. Cold starts are not a problem. The 1820 fires right up when you get the combination of starter and primer down (and remember to turn on the mags). It will run quite nicely on the primer alone, so there’s no need to get in a big rush to bring the mixture up. We taxied out again, and I did indeed remember to lock the tailwheel before beginning the takeoff roll. The only thing I forgot was the N number of the airplane. I had enough new numbers running around in my head that that one didn’t seem real important, and there is no memory jogging decal in the cockpit. Takeoff was straightforward and without surprises. I kept the tailwheel down until she told me she was ready to fly, and it accelerates quite nicely compared to a T-6. 1200 horsepower will do that. Getting the gear up is no big deal, except that my T-6 is in “G” configuration, with hydraulics on demand, so I had to remember the power push to charge the hydraulics. A little something different, but no big deal. The first power reduction from the 46.5″ x 2500 rpm takeoff power comes pretty quick. Basically as soon as the gear is up. Back to 39″ and 2300 RPM at 130 mph indicated for the climb.She climbs pretty good, despite a ground density altitude of nearly 2000 feet that day. Clouds kept us down below 2500 feet, so I didn’t do anything too radical. After powering back to 28″ x 2000 RPM for cruise (that yields about 180 MPH indicated, with close to a 60-gph fuel burn) I did some more banks, steep turns, slow flight (with some more power reduction), and a slow steep turn to the first nibble of a stall. I experimented with lowering the gear and flaps, did some slow flight dirty, and just generally got to know the airplane a little bit. I opened and closed the cowl flaps and oil cooler door, played with the trim a bit, changed fuel tanks a couple of times and just generally got more familiar with the locations of the various levers, knobs and switches. Then it was time to go back for the first landing.I got set up on downwind at 22″ x 2300 RPM, slowed to gear speed (145 MPH), lowered the gear (it falls out without hydraulic pressure required, the tailwheel doesn’t retract) then pumped down about half flaps with the hand pump. Turning base I slowed to about 110 MPH, and hit the power push to get the rest of the flaps out and put some hydraulic pressure on the gear to ensure a lock. I was a tad low, so added a smidge of power and she touched down about three seconds before I was ready. No too bad for a first landing. It was a wheel landing, but she tracked straight and the tail came on down pretty easily as we slowed. Jim wanted me to use the whole runway to save the brakes, so we rolled to the end, where I remembered to unlock the tailwheel and got off the runway to do the post-landing checklist. After cleaning it up we taxied back for another go. The second takeoff went much like the first, with smooth and fast acceleration and I flew it off from a three-point attitude. It sits a little more level than a T-6, so that doesn’t feel awkward at all. I stayed in the pattern this time but didn’t have any trouble keeping up with the airplane, though I probably flew a little farther out than I might have if I was real familiar with the airplane before I turned crosswind. The second landing was better than the first, as I had a better idea of what the sight picture should be. It was still a tail low wheelie, but was smoother, and only happened a couple of seconds before I thought it would. She is a bit taller than my T-6. I didn’t have to add any power this time either. One more time around with a good result, and we called it a day. We taxied back and went through a two-minute oil scavenge run at 1200 RPM, then shut her down.There was a concrete truck waiting for us at the hangar, so we climbed out, got out of the flightsuits and into the concrete clothes, and spent the rest of the day pouring and finishing a concrete sidewalk beside the hangar. Not the usual way to celebrate a checkride, but it was certainly memorable.

On to Air Shows

My next flight took place about a week later (again, due to lousy weather), and was my first solo flight. As expected, it went well and the airplane and I didn’t scare each other. I pretty much repeated my checkout flight, as well as diving a bit to build up some speed so I could see what the control pressures are at higher speeds (up to about 235 mph indicated, on that flight). Since then I’ve flown her several more times, including a trip to Columbia, Mo., for an air show. On that trip I found she was a dream to fly in formation with the C-45. I’ve never flown an airplane before that had enough power that I didn’t have to worry about being sucked (falling behind) and not being able to catch up. She’s light and pretty well-balanced on the stick, but is a bit heavy on the rudder. I think she’d do real good warbird-type aerobatics, but with the bombs hung under the belly and wings, I won’t do that. Being a T-6 guy, my basic impression of the airplane is that it’s a T-6 on steroids, but easier to land due to the wide gear track and longer fuselage. A lot of extra power, a little more weight, more available speed, but at the cost of twice the fuel burn of a T-6. In short, she’s a pussycat to fly. I’m honored and grateful to have the opportunity to fly this airplane.

(55 Kb)
Author on the way to a Columbia, Mo., air show.

If you’re in the vicinity, stop by the Dixie Wing hangar at Falcon Field and say hello. We’re always glad to show off the new hangar and brag about our airplanes. In addition to the SBD, you’ll find a C-45 in RAF colors, a PT-26 in AAF colors, plus a couple of member’s airplanes are usually in residence. Right now there’s a beautiful Stearman and an SNJ in the hangar. In the shop you’ll find a T-6D and a P-63 King Cobra undergoing a ground-up restoration. By July of this year, you should find a P-51 Mustang in the hangar as well. Yeah, I’m gonna fly that one, too. Life is good.