When we purchased Kevin Smith’s Dauntless project in 2021, the decision was guided principally by a desire to accelerate the restoration of our own SBD. In addition to major fuselage sections - enough, perhaps, to form the basis for two additional SBDs - Kevin had amassed a whole host of hard-to-find Dauntless components over a nearly four decades period of searching. The essential ingredient his collection provided our project, however, was a set of outer wing panels. Kevin had received these now-elusive items in 2004, following a trade with the National Naval Aviation Museum. These wings had once belonged to an SBD-5 which A&T Recovery had salvaged from Lake Michigan, but no one could remember precisely which airframe they once belonged to - and there were a number of potential sources.
Raising the Past
The recovery of WWII-era naval aircraft from Lake Michigan reached its heyday in the mid-1990s. Indeed, by the end of that decade, the Navy Museum’s storage yard in Pensacola, Florida was teeming with an array of historic aircraft awaiting restoration - either in-house, or on loan with other institutions. The bulk of these airframes consisted of Douglas Dauntless dive bombers and Grumman Wildcat fighters. Interestingly, both of these types were practically extinct prior to the Great Lakes salvage operations, so it was truly exciting to see so many important aircraft re-emerging from the murk. While airframes with the most significant combat history soon found their way into restoration queues around the nation, others lingered far longer while the Navy pondered their fate. Some of these remaining aircraft surrendered components to expedite the restorations of their more historic siblings. Our SBD, for instance, suffered the indignity of losing its outer wings and other parts during this process, and it was not the only example so afflicted.
While this commingling of historic aircraft parts to speed up restorations may seem unfathomable to many, we must remember that such a practice was commonplace when the aircraft were new as well! In wartime, damaged aircraft are routinely cannibalized for spare parts to help speed the process of rebuilding others for the front lines. Even in peacetime, it is not unusual for an aircraft in depot-level maintenance to receive previously refurbished components from other airframes during its rebuild. Such was the case, for instance, with the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum’s Avro Lancaster B.X (FM213) - a visitor to our own museum on occasion. In 1953, during its post-war service with the Royal Canadian Air Force, FM213 received a replacement wing center section from the recently-retired Lancaster B.X, KB895, to repair its own wing - damaged in a ground loop. Oddly enough, unlike FM213, KB895 was an actual combat veteran, flying five missions over Europe before war’s end. While FM213 still retains its original service serial, since an aircraft’s identity typically rests with its forward fuselage, the restored Lancaster also celebrates KB895’s history and, more importantly, the lives of those who flew her too. This enriches the story that the Canadian Lancaster can share, which is precisely why we wanted to know which Dauntless may have provided ours with its wings!
Which Wings are These?
At this point, some readers may be curious to know just which wings our Dauntless now has - we were too! After all, the salvage photographs from September 14th, 1994 clearly reveal that the aircraft had a complete set when it came out of the water. Those wings, however, were long-removed by the time our project arrived at the Museum.
Over the past forty years or so, salvagers have fished at least nineteen different Dauntless wrecks out of Lake Michigan, mostly on behalf of the Naval Aviation Museum. Our aircraft was one of these, and our purchased wings came from one of them too. Five SBD-5s were amongst this total, with one being our own example: Bureau Number 36175. However, only four of these ‘Dash Fives’ had made it to dry land before Kevin Smith acquired his set of wings - narrowing our search by one - but which of them had supplied our wings? The timeline suggested they could only have belonged to Bureau Numbers 36173, 36175, 36176 and 36177… that’s right – our own aircraft was a possible source for our purchased wings!
Providing great aid to our investigation, Kevin Smith was recently able to supply us with some images he captured at the Navy Museum’s Pensacola storage yard during the 1990s. While these images were of poor quality, the damage visible on the wing leading edges seemed strikingly similar to what we had seen on our Dauntless as it rose from Lake Michigan. The number “22” was even visible on the leading edge of the left wing too, just like on Bu.36175. Could this be possible?
Because it is common for restoration parts to originate from different airframes, it seemed almost inconceivable that we might be able to reunite our fuselage with its original wings. But even if the wings depicted in the Pensacola images were definitively from our SBD, were they also the wings which Kevin Smith had actually received? There had been an eight year gap between when the deal was struck before Kevin had taken delivery of his prize. Thankfully, Kevin sent us some additional images over this past weekend which showed the wings soon after their arrival at his now former home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. They were indeed the same wings as those in the Pensacola photos, as each of the key areas of damage matched exactly what we saw in Bu.31675’s recovery photographs. While this discovery may seem a minor triumph, it is one of great satisfaction. We had finally learned the identity of our wings and successfully wrapped up a mystery we thought we might never solve - thus adding to the history, authenticity and originality of our Dauntless!
We wish to offer a hearty thank you to Kevin Smith for enabling this revelation, and for his continued support of our Dauntless restoration efforts!