A Helldiver Story- The National Air and Space’s Museum’s Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver


The National Air and Space Museum’s Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver.

Every Warbird has stories to tell.  The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Chantilly, Virginia has many aircraft with enormous history.  From the Boeing B-29 Superfortress “Enola Gay” which was made famous for dropping the first ever atomic bomb, to the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird the top secret stealth strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed in the 1960’s, every turn at the NASM opens a door to the past.  One such aircraft in the collection, the Curtiss Helldiver, is no exception.  It is one of the newest restorations completed at NASM, and the first aircraft to be restored at the world-class Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar.The Curtiss Helldiver’s story begins in 1939 when it was ordered by the U.S. Navy, to replace the Vought SB2U Vindicator.  The Helldiver’s first flight took place on December 18, 1940, and  the prototype was lost eight days later due to stability issues.  The first production Helldivers rolled of the new Curtiss aircraft plant in Columbus, Ohio in June of 1942.  Although the Helldiver was in production, it encountered many issues during carrier trials in the beginning of 1943, most of which ended in crashes.  This earned the Helldiver respectable nicknames such as the “Big Tailed Bastard” and  “the Ensign Killer”.  In spite of its rough beginnings, the Helldiver played major roles in the Battle of the Philippines and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

At the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Helldiver which NASM’s recreates the one flown by Lt. Donald D. Engen.  Lt. Engen sank the Japanese carrier the Zuikaku during the battle.  Engen would later go on to be awarded the Navy Cross for his role in the sinking of the Japanese Battleship Hyuga, during which he was forced to fly under the bow of the ship after dropping his ordinance on it.  Engen also played a role in the sinking of the Japanese heavy cruiser Nachi.  Donald Engen retired from the U.S. Navy as a vice admiral and became an FAA executive, before becoming the Director of the National Air and Space Museum.  Shortly thereafter he was tragically killed in a glider accident in the summer of 1999.


Curtiss Cadettes, Betty Maskett and Jackie Davis standing in front of the National Air and Space Museum’s freshly restored Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver which they helped build during WWII.

After a complete restoration, the National Air and Space Museum’s Helldiver rolled out of the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar painted in Donald Engen’s Helldiver’s paint scheme in spring of 2014, 15 years after his death.  In attendance at the unveiling ceremony were two Curtiss Cadettees.  The two women, Betty Maskett and Jackie Davis, worked for Curtiss Aircraft.  Betty Maskett’s job was empenage manufacturing and Jackie Davis was in charge of quality control during WWII, while the men were off at war.  In fact, Betty and Jackie helped to build the museum’s Helldiver 70 years before at the Curtiss Factory.  A moment of history captured in the making!

Historical Side Note:


Original U.S. Navy Helldiver in VB-92 to carry ‘208’ markings, shortly before in crashed into the Pacific Ocean after overshooting the arresting wire on the carrier deck or a wire break on landing

This Curtiss Helldiver is the original Helldiver in VB-92 to carry the markings of ‘208’.  It is assumed that the pilot overshot the arresting wire on the deck, or it broke on landing.  The National Air and Space Museum’s Helldiver was the replacement aircraft for the one above.  This fact was confirmed by Scott Wiley one of the restoration experts at the museum that helped to restore this Helldiver.


National Air and Space Museum, Curtiss Helldiver. Restoration full speed ahead, March 12, 2014 -The Reilly Collection

Historical Credit:

-National Air and Space Museum

-The Nation’s Hangar- Aircraft Treasures of the Smithsonian (Pages 124-125)

-Scott Wiley- Docent and Restoration Expert at the National Air and Space Musuem

Photo Credit:

-National Air and Space Museum

-John Bretschneider (Navy Times)

-U.S. Navy

-The Reilly Collection


*This article was originally posted on The Warbird Watcher on May 17, 2015

Vintage Aviation Museum Prepares to Take Wing


Restoration work being preformed on B-17E “Desert Rat”

There is a new Warbird museum on the block.  The Vintage Aviation Museum may be young in age but not in ambition.  Sean O’Brien is the founder and president of the Vintage Aviation Museum.  Mr. O’Brien has worked in multiple museums, including flying on tour with a B-17.  These experiences have not only prepared him to start his own museum but have also been the driving force behind the new opening.  “I got to a point where I realized that  in order to fulfill my passion and vision for vintage aircraft, warbirds, and all of the history that surrounds them I needed to start my own museum” says Mr. O’Brien. He began planning the Vintage Aviation Museum in 2014, and launched it in January 2016.  Since opening the doors, Mr. O’Brien says, “…the response has been overwhelming”.  

The Vintage Aviation Museum is busy at work.  The museum will plans to move its headquarters to Salt Lake City, Utah hopefully in 2017 when its museum facilities are completed.  The new facility will include state-of -art restoration facilities and museum spaces to be used for educational purposes.


B-17E 41-2595 “Desert Rat”

The Vintage Aviation Museum joined forces with the Desert Rat B-17E Restoration Team, that has been working to restore B-17E 41-2595 since it was discovered in Maine decaying in a scrapyard in the 1980’s.  Mr. O’Brien has been following the B-17Es progress for a number of years and when he was in a position to help, decided to join forces with the Desert Rat team to complete the restoration sooner.  The time table for the B-17E Desert Rat’s completion is 3 to 5 years, however it is dependent on funding.  When the VAM facilities are completed in 2017, part of Desert Rat will be moved to Salt Lake City, Utah for restoration, while the remainder of the plane will stay in Marengo, Illinois to be completed.  Once Desert Rat’s restoration is completed, the entire airframe will be transported to Salt Lake City for final assembly.  After completion “Desert Rat” will be on tour across the United States as a flying museum and will be based out of Salt Lake City, Utah.


Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress

In addition, the Vintage Aviation Museum and Desert Rat teams are joining forces to build an airworthy B-17C.   The B-17C build is in its early stages, parts are beginning to be collected.  The pace will not increase on the B-17C build until either the museum’s volunteer force increases or Desert Rat is returned back to flying condition.  Although building a B-17 can be done more quickly than restoring one, the thousands of rivets incorporated into the airframe make construction time consuming.  Once the B-17C is completed it will join B-17E “Desert Rat” on tour.

Mr. O’Brien thinks that flying these aircraft is necessary, “…so that people can see them operate in their natural element”.  VAM restoration and museum facilities will be open to the public to be used as an educational tool and share the stories behind their planes.  Mr. O’Brien believes, “It’s not just about the planes, it is also about the factory workers, the people that gave up their time to help out…” with the war effort.  The Vintage Aviation Museum wants to give people the opportunity to learn history first hand from the veterans that experienced it.


Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress

“We try to do things where we are a little outside of the box, we don’t want to be like everyone else…we want to create our own path… and be able to reach people not just local to the museum but across the country”, says museum president Mr. O’Brien.  An example of this being the “Night With Dick Cole” event that the museum hosted.  Unlike other events, VAM kept the event to a group of 100 people in order to allow people to personally interact with Mr. Cole, the last surviving Dolittle Raider and have their questions answered from a man who is walking and talking history.

Keep your eyes open for the Vintage Aviation Museum’s future projects, which include:

PV2 Harpoon D-Day C-47 F9F Panther
BT-13 Valiant A-26 Invader B-25D Mitchell
TBF Avenger

Interested in donating to or volunteering to  restore the B-17C and B-17E “Desert Rat” to flying condition? Contact the Vintage Aviation Museum and check out their Facebook Page

Photo Credit:

-Vintage Aviation Museum

-Desert Rat Restoration Team



For Our Warbird Scale Modelers Out There…




Check out our friends over at Amateur Airplanes, they build some really detailed scale models.


B-24J Liberator “Witchcraft” model Photo Credit: Amateur Airplanes


F-86D Sabre Dog model Photo Credit: Amateur Airplanes

Doc’s Kickstarter Campaign A Success

100docDoc’s Friends have announced that they have secured the necessary funding to complete their newly restored B-29’s flight testing.  As of October 22, 2015 over $140,000 out of the necessary $137,500 for flight testing has been pledged by almost 800 backers on Kickstarter.  With over $60,000 pledged in two days.  Doc’s Friends expressed their thanks to their supporters by saying “We DID IT: Words cannot express the excitement and gratitude felt by our team right now.”  With a week still remaining, all pledges over the goal will go towards maintaining Doc as a flying museum. Visit: Doc’s website and Facebook page for more information

Photo Credit: Doc’s Friends

Help B-29 “DOC” Take to the Skies

imageB-29 44-69972, better know as Doc has undergone a 15 year restoration that has included over 300,000 man hours to complete, after sitting abandoned in the California desert for 42 years.  Doc’s first engine run took place in early September 2015.  Now Doc’s Friends need to raise the necessary funds in order for Doc to complete her flight testing.  The cost of the flight testing is $137,500.  In order to facilitate in the fundraising process Doc’s Friends has started a Kickstarter page, which gave them 30 days to raise the necessary funds.doc3

As of October 3, 2015 there are 26 days remaining in the fundraising period and Doc’s Friends has raised a total of over $30,000 with 300 backers.  In order for Doc’s Friends to receive the money for flight testing they must completely fund their project.  Please help Doc’s Friends to complete their flight testing and get another B-29 back in the sky.

Visit Doc’s Friends Kickstarter Page to Donate and Website For More Information


Photo Credit: Doc’s Friends

Airshow in Nîmes France

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The Warbird Watcher would like to thank our friend Fesquet Luc for the amazing pictures!