SBD Dauntless, U.S. Carrier Dive Bomber

Photograph of SBD Dauntless prepared to land

National Archives #80-G-6678. Cropped by author.

Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless


Crew 2
Dimensions 41'6" by 32'2" by 13'7"
12.65m by 9.80m by 4.14m
Wing area 325 square feet
30.2 square meters
Weight 6293-10,360 lbs
2854-4700 kg
Maximum speed       253 mph at 16,000 feet
407 km/h at 4900 meters
Cruise speed 150 mph
241 km
Landing speed 75 mph
121 km/h
Climb rate 18 feet per second
5.5 meters per second
Service ceiling 26,000 feet
7900 meters
Power plant 1 1000 hp (746 kW) Wright Cyclone R-1820-32 nine-cylinder radial engine driving a three blade propeller
Armament 2 0.50 fixed nose machine guns with 360 rounds per gun
1 0.30 flexible rear cockpit machine gun with 2000 rounds
External stores 1 1000 lb (454kg) bomb under the fuselage and two 100 lb (45kg) bombs under the wings
Range 1370 miles (2200 km) as scout
1130 miles (1820 km) with bomb load
Fuel 310 gallons
1173 liters
Production At Douglas Aircraft Company,  El Segundo:
57 SBD-1 from 6/40
87 SBD-2  from 11/40
752 SBD-3 from 3/41
950 SBD-4/A-24 from 10/42
3639 SBD-5/A-24B from 5/43
451 SBD-6 to 7/44
Variants SBD-1 and –2 lacked the flexible machine gun, and had cowling guns of only 0.30 caliber.

SBD-4 introduced twin flexible 0.30 machine guns and ASB radar.

SBD-5 used a 1200 hp (895 kW) R-1820-60 engine and could carry up to 1600 lbs (726 kg) of bombs or up to three depth charges.

SBD–6 used a 1350 hp (1007 kW) R-1820-66 engine.

Although the Dauntless SBD ("Slow But Deadly") did not enter service until 1940, it was already considered obsolescent by Navy fliers in 1941. However, because of delays in the development of its intended successor, the SB2C Helldiver, the Dauntless remained the standard dive bomber on American fleet carriers until mid-1943 and continued serving from escort carriers to the end of the war. A typical carrier air group of 1941-1942 included a scout squadron and a bombing squadron, each equipped with 18 Dauntlesses. The Dauntlesses of the scout squadron typically flew in pairs for mutual protection when performing tactical reconnaissance, but they were also frequently pressed into service as a second dive bombing squadron.

The design went back to 1934, when the brilliant aeronautical engineer Ed Heinemann of Northrop began work on a all-metal stressed-skin carrier dive bomber. Ordered in quantity as the BT-1 in February 1936, the design was heavily revamped as the BT-2 during the final production run, which was redesignated the SBD-1 when Northrop became a subsidiary of Douglas.

Surprisingly, the Dauntless proved to be one of the most successful ship killers of the war, sinking some 300,000 tons of shipping and 18 warships, including six carriers. It was two squadrons of Dauntlesses that sank four Japanese carriers at Midway and changed the course of the war. The Dauntless also had the lowest loss rate of any Navy aircraft. It was stable in flight and could maintain a very steep dive of 70 degrees, permitting high bombing accuracy.  Because the lightweight multicell wing could not be folded, Douglas designed the aircraft to be as small as possible, only slightly larger than a Wildcat fighter. It proved surprisingly maneuverable when not encumbered by a bomb, and it was actually used as a low-level fighter against unescorted Japanese torpedo bombers at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Early models were equipped with a smoke tank and were employed during prewar exercises to lay smoke screens around friendly ships and to conceal the approach of torpedo bombers from "enemy" ships, a capability that appears to have never been put to use during the war.

The scouting squadron of an American carrier typically searched out to 150 to 200 miles (240 to 320 km), or 300 miles (480 km) in rare cases. Searches were usually flown each morning and afternoon. The effective combat radius of an SBD was reckoned at 225 miles (360 km) with a 500 lb (227 kg) bomb or 175 miles (280 km) with a 1000 lb (454 kg) bomb, the largest carried by early models. This was considerably less than half the theoretical maximum range, reflecting the higher use of fuel during combat maneuvers and the need for a fuel reserve.

The plane proved popular with its crews. One pilot told Bergerud:

A military aircraft is built differently than a civilian plane. They're made to do very demanding maneuvers: an upside-down spin, barrel rolls, anything you can thing of. You'd get up to 10,000 feet, dive out, and put stress on a military plane that no civilian pilot in a private plane would dream of -- they'd simply come apart. When you're in that power dive you heard that Wright radial just a'hammering out there -- it's so noisy in the cockpit because it's being blown right back at you. After a bomb run it was very pleasant in the cockpit. When you pulled out of the dive and cleared the target my gunner and I would light a cigar. You were still alive and had no reason to take it home. It's warm and you're perspiring. In a very few seconds you're coming from about 1,500 to 2,500 feet and the temperature changes a lot. So the SBD was a workhorse. It would come home with huge holes in the wings and pieces shot off all over. She was a real workhorse, a gorgeous airplane, and I was very lucky to fly it.

About a thousand Dauntlesses were allocated to the U.S. Army as the A-24.  These proved unsuccessful.  Ships are extremely valuable targets compared to most land installations, and a loss rate that was acceptable in the antishipping role was unacceptable in the ground support role.

Photo Gallery

SBD landing on carrier


Dauntless releasing its bomb

U.S. Navy

SBDS at the Battle of Midway

U.S. Navy

Dauntless over Hawaii


Dauntless in flight

U.S. Navy

Dauntless under maintenance


Dauntless instrument panel

U.S. Air Force


Bergerud (2000)
Dunnigan and Nofi (1998)

Gunston (1986)

Lundstrom (2006)

Tillman (2006)

Wilson (1998)

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