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An image from August 2023 during the fuselage teardown which reveals the two parachute flare canisters when they were still in situ, as seen through the baggage hatch. Note the ribbed grey tubes at image left. The large tube at the upper right is the housing for the life raft, accessed from a hatch on the other side of the airframe. (image via Pioneer Aero Ltd.)

Flare Canister Restoration Begins:

While Pioneer Aero has rightly focused on rebuilding the SBD's major structural items, they have also made time to work on some of the aircraft's smaller components. Recently, this effort involved working on the parachute flare canisters which sit in the lefthand rear fuselage just behind the gunner's compartment, as the above image illustrates quite effectively.

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The parachute flare canister assembly for the Museum's SBD Dauntless in as-removed condition before Pioneer's boss, Martin Hedley, began their restoration. The tubes are still attached to the fuselage mounting structure in this image. (image via Pioneer Aero Ltd.)

Naval Parachute Flares:

During the 1930s, the U.S. Navy equipped many of its combat aircraft with the ability to drop parachute flares. These flares, theoretically, allowed pilots to illuminate a target at night, or a runway if necessary, and their use formed a staple in pre-war training regimens. However, it does not appear that the Navy actually employed them for that purpose during WWII. Even so, the SBD Dauntless (developed from the Northrop BT-1 of 1935) came equipped with a pair of parachute flare canisters of an identical design to those which featured in the earlier Northrop aircraft.

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Northrop BT-1 BuNo.0606 of VB-5 circa 1938. The type's link to the Dauntless is quite clear in this image... indeed the SBD evolved from the BT-2 variant in development when Douglas Aircraft bought Northrop in 1939. The flare canisters in the Museum's SBD bear the same part number to those used in the BT-1, meaning that their design is identical. (US Navy image)

What is in a Parachute Flare Canister?

Each tube could hold a 27” long 4.75” diameter illumination device such as the Navy Flare Mk.5. These flares, actuated individually from separate controls on the left wall of the pilot’s cockpit, fell vertically from their housing with the arming plate remaining fixed to the airframe. A lanyard spools out and then actuates the ignition timing mechanism (which both deploys the parachute and the illuminant) once the flare has fallen a sufficient distance. It was also possible to adjust the flare ignition delay time (prior to loading) so that the device would light up at the appropriate distance from the ground. A Dauntless pilot could deploy these flares from between 2,500’ and 15,000’ altitude. The parachute, naturally, allowed them to linger in the air above the target area; they burned for roughly 3 minutes, with a peak illumination of up to 750,000 candle power.

A cutaway illustration of a Navy Flare Mk.5 as used in the SBD during WWII. (page 241, US Explosive Ordnance manual OP 1664 Vol.1 of May 28, 1947)
The original Douglas assembly drawing for the SBD's Parachute Flare Container. This component dates back to the SBD's ancestor, the Northrop BT-1, which first flew in August 1935 when parachute flares were an integral aspect to U.S. naval aviation tactics.
A view of the left side of the SBD's cockpit showing the two parachute flare release handles (item 13 just below the map case). A cable links each of these release handles to their corresponding flare tube release mechanism. (image from page 57 of SBD-3 pilot's handbook)


The following images offer a detailed view of the flare canisters prior to their disassembly. It is worth noting the generally excellent condition of the tubes and their supporting structure.

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Another view of the flare canisters and their mounting structure before disassembly began; this image shows the outboard side. The upper mount at the far left of the image lies across both tubes. The pulley brackets half way down the each tube channel the release cables for opening the lower doors in flight when a flare is deployed. The structure at right in the image mounts the flare canisters to the lower left side of the fuselage behind the life raft tube. (image via Pioneer Aero Ltd.)

Disassembly & Refurbishing:

Martin Hedley began the restoration process by disassembling the canisters and their associated mounted structure into their component parts. He then assessed each item as to its potential future airworthiness, media-blasting those items which held promise. Thankfully, most of the structure proved reusable, so Hedley began refurbishing these parts, while remanufacturing those beyond redemption or salvaging substitutes from the donor airframe. The following images show this process as it unfolded.

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A view of the various flare canister components which proved airworthy. The corrugated tubes still require minor repairs, but each of the other parts is ready for primer painting and reassembly; all minor corrosion has been removed. Note that each component has a small aluminum tag attached. These tags all have an appropriate part number and basic location for the part stamped on them to allow for easy identification throughout the restoration process. (image via Pioneer Aero Ltd.)