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A “Rough Beast” Is the First Aircraft for Udvar-Hazy’s New Restoration Facility

A rare SB2C Helldiver will be restored at the center's new restoration facility

On Nov. 23, 2010, a rare Navy dive-bomber arrived via flatbed trailer at the National Air And Space Museum‘s (NASM’s) Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on the grounds of Dulles International Airport in Virginia. It will be the first aircraft to be assembled at a new restoration hangar.

The Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver (bureau no. 83479) will be restored to honor Vice Adm. Donald D. “Don” Engen (1924-1999). On Oct. 25, 1944, Engen, then a lieutenant junior grade, was at the controls of a Helldiver during the Battle of Leyte Gulf and attacked the Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku. It was a brash and fearless attack carried out at high speed down to wavetop altitude, and it earned Engen the Navy Cross.

A restored SB2C-5 Helldiver operated by the Commemorative Air Force, painted to represent a USS Franklin aircraft during the latter stages of World War II. Photo by Kogo via Wikimedia Commons.

After a distinguished career as a naval aviator and leader, Engen headed the Federal Aviation Administration. Later, he was NASM director, when he lost his life in a civilian glider accident.

The restoration facility at Udvar-Hazy is the result of a $15 million gift from the flyer’s son, D. Travis Engen – former president of Alcan, the global aluminum and packaging company – and is named for Engen’s widow, Mary Baker Engen (1925-2006). In addition to a spacious restoration facility, the new wing will include a handsome conference room available for corporate meetings, executive breakfast, luncheons, and receptions.

The Helldiver, which began to replace the SBD Dauntless of Midway fame late in World War II, inspired a love-hate relationship with sailors – some of whom called it “the Beast.”

“It had some dubious performance and handling qualities,” said former Aviation Radioman 3rd class Jim Samar, who was a radioman-gunner in the back seat of an SB2C during Pacific fighting.

“The old SB2C did ‘vertical’ pretty good,” said retired Lt. Cmdr. Leonard “Len” Plog, who flew from USS Essex (CV 9) against the Japanese home islands near war’s end. Plog was referring to flying straight down at a target, often the open stack of a warship at sea. Plog disagrees with pilots who considered the Helldiver an

In the otherwise empty Mary Baker Engen restoration facility at the Udvar-Hazy Center, workers begin to unload the SB2C Helldiver. NASM photo by Dane Penland

inadequate replacement for the older but beloved Dauntless. “I flew the SBD in training. The SB2C was faster, with a bigger powerplant, and had a four-bladed prop that was quite efficient,” said Plog. “There were some initial problems with handling and it wasn’t unforgiving but it carried a heavy load and took a lot of punishment.”

The Helldiver was a two-seat, carrier-based tailwheel aircraft built by Curtiss, powered by a 1,900-horsepower Wright R-2600 engine, and capable of carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs.

Industry turned out 7,141 Helldivers, including SBF versions assembled by Fairchild and SBWs from Canadian Car & Foundry. The versions built in the largest numbers were the SB2C-1 (978), SB2C-2 (1,112), SB2C-4 (2,045) and SB2C-5 (970). Only a handful of the planes survive today.

The NASM had long planned to restore its Helldiver, but limited space and resources at the Paul E. Garber Restoration and Storage Facility in Silver Hill, Md., kept the project grounded. Eventually, all restoration work being performed in Silver Hill will be transferred to the new wing at Udvar-Hazy.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...