Military Aviation Museum Acquires an SBD-5 Dauntless

While the painted squadron codes may have flaked away a little since Bu.36175's recovery from Lake Michigan in 1994, the exterior paint is in remarkably well-preserved condition! The Dauntless, which arrived at MAM in mid-February 2021, will soon undergo a restoration back to flying condition. (image via MAM)
LIFT SEPT 2021


In mid-February, the Military Aviation Museum (MAM) in Pungo, Virginia took delivery of a Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless project which will soon begin a full, airworthy restoration. However, prior to commencing her rebuild, the MAM is placing their historic naval dive-bomber on display in a temporary exhibit which they presently expect to run from noon today through 5pm March 31st. These days, most major rebuilds are presented publicly only as the completed article, so it is a rare treat for the aviation history enthusiast to get a beforehand look! Museum visitors will see the original patina of this long-forgotten artifact prior to any restoration taking place, from the original paintwork, to simple details like wartime boot-scrapes in her paint and the dents resulting from her January 1944 crash into Lake Michigan.

The aircraft’s engine section and wing leading edges took the brunt of the impact during the Dauntless’s ditching, which is clearly in evidence here. The placard pop-riveted to the fuselage skin in the foreground is a Navy Museum-applied dataplate detailing the conservation measures taken on the plane, and when they occurred. The data plate lists the type and Bureau Number in the top left, the date the aircraft arrived at the museum (14 Sep 1994), the date of first corrosion treatment (21 Sep 1994) and the date of last treatment (17 Sep 1997). (image via MAM)

The U.S. Navy first accepted Bu.36175 for service on October 4th, 1943, but given the type’s impending frontline obsolescence, the Dauntless quickly found herself in a training role guiding young naval aviators in the art of carrier operations from the relative safety of the Great Lakes. But her service life was brief indeed. According to MAM’s press release: “[On January 20th, 1944,] Lieutenant Charles L. Ford III was attempting a landing on the training carrier USS Wolverine. He was too slow on his approach and was given “come on” signals by the Landing Signals Officer; when he was issued a subsequent “wave-off” command, the pilot banked away from the carrier with too little power, leading to a crash. According to the Navy accident report, the airplane hit the water at a near vertical angle on its back. The pilot was lucky to survive with just a few deep cuts to his forehead.”

USS Wolverine under steam in Lake Michigan in August, 1943. The MAM’s newly acquired SBD came to grief in a landing attempt on this carrier on January 20th, 1944. (image via Wikipedia)

With her engine ripped away and wing leading edges crumpled, what remained of the Dauntless soon sank beneath Lake Michigan’s waves to rest in the mud 177 feet down. And there she sat for the next fifty years until A&T Recovery raised her wreck in 1994, similarly to the several dozen other submerged naval aircraft they’ve raised from the Great Lakes and elsewhere. Indeed, A&T Recovery has almost single-handedly ensured the relatively widespread preservation of what had previously been exceedingly rare WWII naval aircraft types, some of which are unique to their breed.

SBD-5 Bu.36175 soon after she arrived in port following her recovery in September, 1994. While the wings are no longer with this project, having gone to another restoration effort, it is clear to see how significantly the leading edges suffered during the crash. The engine was ripped completely from the airframe too. (image by A&T Recovery via MAM)

With such a short operational life and no combat record, Bu.36175 sat in storage for 25 years at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, becoming a Christmas tree of sorts to provide much-needed parts to repair/restore other more storied examples of the breed. In the process, she lost her outer wing panels, engine section and a number of other components, so that what remains today consists mostly of the fuselage, from the firewall back, and the tail feathers.

Despite the SBD’s present lack of wings, MAM’s director, Keegan Chetwynd, expressed confidence in being able to obtain a set in due course. He also noted that while they haven’t firmed up who will conduct the restoration yet, that too will also be resolved and made public before too long. Furthermore, we also hope to report more details about the deal with the Naval Aviation Museum which saw the SBD’s ownership transferred outright to the Military Aviation Museum, a rare feat indeed in recent decades. This is a great day for the Dauntless though, and a sign of new beginnings for the breed. Be sure to pay a visit to the Military Aviation Museum this month to get a closeup look at this near-time capsule on display. We look forwards to reporting more details in the coming weeks!

The SBD display at the Military Aviation Museum

Many thanks to the Military Aviation Museum for providing the images shown here and to Keegan Chetwynd for taking the time to talk with us about this exciting development!



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