The Battle of Midway Roundtable

The SBD in Combat

by CDR Clayton E. Fisher, USN-Ret

©2005-06, The Battle of Midway Roundtable

(Editor’s note:  Clay Fisher was an SBD pilot with VB-8, USS Hornet, at the Battle of Midway.  On the morning of 4 June 1942 he flew as wingman to air group commander Stanhope Ring.  The following text is taken from e-mail messages to the BOMRT in 2001 and 2005.  In these messages, Clay describes his dive bombing and other combat experiences  in the SBD.)

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Check list before diving:


1.   Shift to Low Blower.

2.   Shift to low prop pitch.   (We wanted full maximum power setting as we broke our dives.

3.   Hit full split flaps.   (In early 1942 the SBD had to reduce speed to be able to split the flaps, which was tough when under attack.   Douglas came out with an engineering change that allowed splitting the flaps at any speed.   Also, we could dive at various split flap settings.)

4.   Open the cockpit hatch.   I think this was to prevent the windshield from fogging up due to the changes in temperatures during the dive.   (Our gunner's hatch was always open due to the twin gun mounts.  In combat, the gunner was facing the tail during the dive.  For  training dives, he turned his seat to face forward.  Those gunners were some of the bravest!


If I remember correctly, at our standard 70-degree dive with full extension of the dive flaps, our maximum diving speed was only about 240 knots.   You felt like you were hanging on a string.   That slow speed let us release a bomb between 1500 and 1000 feet.   We could do a "snap pullout."   The blackout was more severe but of a shorter time period.   I always tried to lower my head for the pullout, and it reduced the blackout.   In our standard dive, the plane was vertical to the water or ground, but the track downward was 70 degrees.   You felt no pressure on your butt or seat belt when you had it right.   It was like you were floating.


The SBD did not have shoulder straps.   Sometime after the BOM, our mechanics made us a single chest strap that we could tighten for ditching, etc.   I ditched at Santa Cruz without landing flaps, and I think that makeshift chest strap saved my life.  I still banged my head on the instrument panel and was momentarily knocked out.   I didn't remember anything after I chopped my throttle, until the cockpit filled up with water.


Our standard squadron tactic was to try to position the formation so we could roll down in either a left of right 90 degree turn to pick up the target's course.   We did not form the old pre-war "Hollywood" echelon for the individual breaks from the formation.   We flew 3-plane sections and 3-section divisions.   On the break, the #1 plane dropped down and immediately broke 90 degrees (either right or left).   The following sections ditto.   The longer we could stay in formation so our gunners could fire, the more protection we had against the fighters.   We practiced to see how fast we could break into our dives.   With sufficiently close intervals, we could have all 9 dive bombers in a column.


The inside of the split flaps were painted red, and the last plane could see eight red bars.   That prevented possible midair collisions if a pilot got out of position.   If our flight leader rolled left into the dive, he turned left after his dive recovery and continued straight ahead.   The other 8 planes would expedite a join-up on the inside of his turn.   Getting back into formation for mutual protection was essential.   We practiced this tactic, and were good at it, although in combat it was almost impossible to get all 9 planes back into formation.


I think out dive bomber tactics were far superior to the Japanese.   The long initial glide and then the final pushover that the Vals used had 2 weaknesses:   (a) their initial long shallow dive made our fighters' job easier, and (b) it was difficult for them to get into the final dive position.  I don't know if the Vals made 70-degree dives with only the fixed landing gear acting as dive brakes.


The SBD had a glass window below the pilot's feet, which I guess was for sighting the target, and for a straight pushover dive.  The glass was cleaned before takeoff, but engine oil always smeared up the glass.  The SBD engine threw quite a lot of oil.  You could always tell an SBD pilot by the oil on his flight helmet!



Questions on flying and fighting the SBD:

--did you commence a dive by the famous half-roll into a dive, pulling positive G, or by diving straight ahead, pulling negative G?

--where was the dive brake extension handle located?

--where was the bomb release located?

--the SBD apparently had a telescopic sight in front of the pilot. Was it used for bomb aiming or gun aiming or both?

--even in summertime, it should have been pretty cold flying at 15-19.000 ft altitude. Contemporary photos show pilots & crewmen in thin clothing--no fur jackets. What did it feel like, actually?

--was there any trim change when extending the dive brakes?"

Answers to the above questions on flying and fighting the SBD from Clay Fisher below in order:

   The old Hollywood movies of Navy dive bombers usually showed the formation flights "peeling off" from an echelon of aircraft "stacked up" flying a "step-up" formation" (each aircraft flying above the aircraft  ahead).  This was because the early dive bombers were biplanes and the upper wing would block out the plane you were flying formation on.  The SBD was of course a monoplane and flew "step down" in all formations, which was a much better formation for combat.  The attachment below describes the SBD flight formation. 

   The trim tab and dive brake controls were located  on the left side of the cockpit just below the throttle handle.  When we were in position to open the split flap ("dive brakes"), we hit the flap handle and as we steepened our dives.  As our speed increased, we had to keep adjusting our rudder tab to keep the aircraft from skidding.  The pilot’s right hand and arm controlled the "joy stick." 

   The SBD had a manual bomb release lever down low on the left side of the cockpit and an electrical switch on the top of the joy stick. 

   In 1942 The SBDs had a telescope used as a bomb sight and also as a gun sight for the two forward .50 caliber  machine guns that fired through the propeller.  Later SBD models had a virtual image combination bomb and gun sight.

   Most of the SBDs flew at about 12 to 14 thousand feet, and it did get pretty cold but the June weather during the BOM was tolerable. 

   Estimating the correct  "lead" on a fast moving ship and keeping the rudder trimmed were the secrets to obtaining a direct bomb hit.  It took a lot of practice bombing on a moving target to become a proficient dive bomber pilot.  Unfortunately, most of the younger dive bomber pilots that flew during the BOM never had the opportunity to practice very much dive bombing in the SBD. 


In combat situations we wanted to be able to stay in  our defense formation as long as possible until  our flight leader led us into our 70 degree dives.   Our flight leader would roll into a 90 degree sharp nose down turn and his inside wingman broke next, followed by his outside wingman.  The sections behind broke the formation the same way.  We wanted to get  into our dives as fast as possible.  Once in our 70 degree  dives, the Zero fighters could not attack but had to spiral down and attack after we pulled out.  Our flight leader would always try to do a  90 degree turn after pulling out of his dive so we could join up on the inside of his turn.  Then it was a simple  relative bearing problem, just sighting through the  back edge of your windshield at the plane’s windshield you were joining up on.  Acquiring that position quickly put you back in formation.

In a 70 degree dive with those very effective dive brakes we could release our bombs as low as 1200 to 1500 feet.

So many artists concepts of SBDs attacking aircraft carriers show the planes glide bombing.  I will describe  the standard SBD dive bombing run during 1942.   It was a 70 degree dive--the plane’s track or path is 70 degrees, but the plane is in a vertical position to the  surface of the water.  You knew when you were in a good 70 degree dive when your butt was not pushed against the seat nor were you hanging on your safety belt.  You were sort  of floating between the seat and your safety belt. 

The split flaps, or what the pilots called dive brakes, were painted bright red on the inside of the flaps.  The holes  helped create more drag.  When we broke our formations started our 70 degree dives in a long column, you could see those red flaps of all the planes diving ahead of you. 

I think the Douglas Aircraft designer who conceived this  flap arrangement was a genius.  Early in 1942, Douglas made a flap modification that let the dive flaps open at high approach speeds as we started in to our dives.  Our maximum dive speeds were actually pretty slow, around  240 knots.   You felt like you were just hanging there and going too slow when the aa stuff was coming at you.

Another great feature of the flap arrangement was to  be able to “collapse” them just as you started pulling out  of the dive.  This greatly accelerated the plane’s speed and gave the Japanese gunners problems leading the  target with their guns.

All navy SBD dive bomber squadrons flew combat missions from a standard 9 plane division of 3-plane sections, with  the sections and the wingmen flying in stepped down  position.   That formation provided maximum firepower from the rapid firing twin mounted .30 caliber guns, bringing  a possible 18 guns to bear on attacking zero fighters.

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For more on Clay Fisher and the SBD, see his report of the Battle of Santa Cruz on the Pacific War Historical Society web site:

Clay Fisher at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands   (link to Pacific War Historical Society)

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