|KIT:||Classic Airframes 1/48 SB2U-1 Vindicator|
With the rapid development in aeronautical technology in the 1930s, it was the quite often the case that an airplane that did represent the state of the art when it appeared in the middle years of that decade was obsolescent if not obsolete by the time the war came and the airplane faced the uncompromising crucible of combat.
So it was with the U.S. Navy’s first monoplane dive bomber, the Vought SB2U “Vindicator.” Flown in combat twice - by French aircrews in the Battle of France in May and June 1940, and by U.S. Marines at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the Vindicator proved itself anything but a suitable machine with which to fight a modern war. While it offered structural integrity and a thoroughly reliable powerplant, it had been hopelessly outmoded by advances in technology since its birth eight years earlier. Its shortcomings were many: the fuel tanks were highly vulnerable to enemy fire and its defensive armament was minimal, while its performance with a useful warload fell sadly short of what was needed. It possessed barely-adequate lateral control and at normal loaded weight its maneuverability was sluggish.
The SB2U-1 was Chance-Vought’s answer to a requirement put forward by the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1934 for a two-seat scout and dive-bomber. The specification called for a substantial performance advance over existing aircraft in this category, though it did not call for a monoplane per se. Rex Beisel’s design resulted in a contract for a prototype, the XSB2U-1, on October 11, 1934, produced in competition with the Brewster XSBA-1. While a monoplane with retractable landing gear and enclosed cockpits, structurally, the design was conservative, using the construction methodology of contemporary biplanes. The forward fuselage and wing center section was metal-skinned, as were the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, but the rear fuselage, outer wings aft of the main spar and all control surfaces were fabric-covered.
The XSB2U-1 first flew on January 4, 1936. After preliminary contractor’s tests were completed, it was delivered to the Navy at NAS Anacostia on July 2, 1936. The Navy’s evaluation suffered a setback when the prototype crashed near Norfolk on August 20, 1936. Fortunately, testing was sufficiently advanced for the Navy to proceed with ordering 54 SB2U-1s on October 26.
The SB2U-1 differed from the XSB2U-1 with strengthened cockpit framing, repositioning of the radio mast, addition of a substantial carburetor intake, and use of the R-1535-96 Twin Wasp, which provided a useful increase in power to 825 h.p. on takeoff and 750 h.p. at 9,000 feet, raising maximum speed by 20 mph at all altitudes. Range with a 500-lb bomb in scouting configuration was 699 miles, while use of a 1,000-lb bomb in the dive-bombing role reduced range to 635 miles.
Vought had originally proposed to use a braking propeller to slow the dive speed and maintain bombing accuracy, but this failed to work in practice and was abandoned. Seven-finger “fences” above and below the outer wing on the main spar were the next solution, but these produced excessive buffeting. Eventually, the Navy was persuaded to accept shallower dive angles and the expedient of extending the landing gear to provide sufficient braking in a combat dive. The airplane was never really effective as a dive-bomber.
This was ultimately fortunate for the Navy, inasmuch as it led them to contract with Northrop for another dive bomber that eventually emerged as the excellent SBD series, which was vastly superior to the SB2U. Had the Navy been forced to use SB2Us in the dive-bombing role during the crucial year of 1942, the history of the Pacific War might have been vastly different.
Four SB2U-1s were delivered to VB-3 “High Hats” on December 20, 1937. Five more arrived in January 1938, with an additional eight in February, and a final airplane on March 1, which gave the unit its full compliment of 18. The pilots had been flying the Curtiss BFC-2 single-seat biplane previously, and at first they did not like the comparatively-big SB2U-1 with all its modern “gadgets” like retractable gear, controllable prop, and enclosed canopy, not to mention its lack of maneuverability - they complained particularly about the heavy ailerons, poor roll rate and the sharp wing drop in a stall that could lead to a spin - in addition to uncompromising landing performance in comparison with the forgiving little Curtiss “Helldiver.”
The SB2U-1s were produced for VB-3 and VB-2. VB-2 - which had been flying the F4B-4 to this time - began taking delivery of their SB2U-1s in February 1938 and was fully equipped by April. Over the course of the year, the pilots came to understand their new mounts and accept them, developing new ways of using them as compared with the earlier biplanes.
On January 20, 1938, the Navy ordered an additional 58 SB2U-2s - which were supposedly different from the SB2U-1 only in some internal equipment - to equip VB-4 and later units being organized. The SB2U-2-equipped VB-4 swapped places with the SB2U-1-equipped VB-3, with the units taking each other’s designations and ship assignments. Eventually, as SB2U-2s were issued to units flying the SB2U-1 as attrition replacements, it was discovered that SB2U-1 outer wings could not be used on SB2U-2s, since the lower attachment points were just different enough to not allow a solid lock. The remaining SB2U-2s were sent to VS-72 when it went aboard the USS “Wasp” in 1940.
During 1940-41, SB2U-1s and SB2U-2s were used on the Neutrality Patrols, flying from the USS “Ranger” and the “Wasp.” VB-4 was redesignated VS-41 in March 1940, when VB-4 was re-equipped with the SBD “Dauntless.” VB-2 had given up their SB2Us for SBDs the previous month, and VB-3 would give up theirs in September - after the squadron’s airplanes starred in the movie “Dive Bomber,” shot at NAS North Island that summer. The SB2Us were passed on to VS-41 and VS-42 on the “Ranger,” and to VS-71 and VS-72 on the “Wasp.”
Following the Battle of Midway, the scouting squadrons on the “Ranger” and “Wasp” gave up their SB2Us, and the airplanes were sent on to training command at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. The last SB2U in Navy service was written off on October 5, 1943 and turned into an instructional airframe with others for training mechanics. What is today the sole surviving SB2U was fished out of Lake Michigan where it had been ditched by a student pilot attempting to land aboard the training carrier “Wolverine,” in the late 1980s. It now resides at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola.
While the combat career of the SB2U was less than sterling, the airplane represented an important advance in naval aviation at the time of its first appearance, and its use aboard the carriers in the immediate prewar years was very important in laying the foundation for carrier operations that would lead to ultimate victory in the war.
For some reason, the SB2U has been an airplane that has interested modelers since the first ones arrived at VB-3 in 1937. I am old enough to remember having made a stick-and-paper SB2U by Guillow as a child. In 1972, one of the first Rareplanes vacuforms was an SB2U-2, and I well remember having built that kit - the kind of primitive vacuform that still gives modelers nightmares. This was updated in the late 70s with excellent surface detail, and I made a second one. In the early 1980s, Wings-48 released the first 1/48 kit of the SB2U, an SB2U-3 vacuform that wasn’t as good as the second-release Rareplanes kit. In the late 1980s, Meikraft created an SB2U-3, one of the first extremely-primitive limited-run injection kits - I recall that when viewed head-on, the wing formed a gentle curve from wingtip to wingtip that no amount of work would change. HiPM released a 1/48 injection-molded kit in 1994 that could - with a LOT of work - be turned into a nice representation of an SB2U-3 (and could be modified to an SB2U-1/2 with modification of the horizontal stabilizer).
All of these kits were challenging to modelers, and there has been a demand by modelers of naval aircraft of the Golden Age for a good kit of this important airplane for a long, long time. The best kit of the SB2U to date was produced in 2000 by MPM in 1/72, released as both a French V-156F and an SB2U-2.
Accurate Miniatures first began planning to do a Vindicator in about 1995, according to what I have been told by Bill Bosworth. The project was killed when the company died in 2001, and many who had heard rumors of it believed the possibility of ever seeing a state-of-the-art injection-molded Vindicator was gone forever. Then Accurate Miniatures was bought in 2002 by new owners who declared they would resurrect the project as the first new release of the “new” Accurate Miniatures. The story of how the kit was finally created is definitely a tale of triumph over adversity, and it is now here in the SB2U-1 and SB2U-3 versions. An SB2U-2 would be easily done with decals, and both the French V-156F and the Fleet Air Arm “Chesapeake” could be created with minimal modification from the SB2U-1 kit.
For those familiar with the Accurate Miniatures Avenger and Dauntless kits, the Vindicator is similar in quality and detail. I can’t personally see any aftermarket folks coming up with a lot of things to use on this kit other than decals. That said, I intend to use my Falcon vacuform canopy which was done for the HiPM kit, so that I can slide open the greenhouse with a more accurate look than will be obtained using the kit parts, which are really too thick for this. This is not a complaint about what comes in the kit - if I didn’t have this canopy that I have had waiting for this kit for the past 2 years, I would have no complaint about the kit canopy. But the Falcon canopy is an exact double for fit with the kit canopy, and will look better opened up. Squadron has these, and I would recommend them for the “purists” among us.
Other reviewers have commented that the fabric detail is too pronounced. However, this is very similar to the fabric detail that is present on the Avengers and Dauntlesses, and so I think it will look just fine under a coat of paint.
There is one problem, and it is a difficult one. The molding of the fuselage parts has resulted in considerable “sink” on the outer surface where the inner rib detail is molded in. Unfortunately, this is right in the very delicate fabric area of the rear fuselage, and it is deep enough to be noticeable. I decided right off to see how much of a problem this is, so the first thing I did was cut the fuselage parts off the sprue and apply Mr. Surfacer 500 to the sink marks. I can report that if you use as small an amount as possible, and very carefully sand it down with a rat tail file, surface angle by surface angle, you can get rid of it without losing too much of the fabric detail. The problem is more pronounced (in my kit) on the right half than the left. This is unfortunate, but it is not nearly so bad as some might think. I have included photographs in this review of the fuselage halves after having the sinks filled for you to see what can be done.
The decals provide markings for the SB2U-1 used by the Commander of the Ranger Air Group in 1940-41, while operating the Neutrality Patrol. Fortunately, Yellow Wings Decals has sheets now available that will allow a modeler to do any SB2U-1 or SB2U-2 in prewar service with all of the units that flew them. The company has also announced a sheet “The Aircraft of ‘Dive Bomber’” that is just now available and will allow you to make a model of any of the airplanes used in the movie, including some overall light-grey SB2U-2s.
This kit is definitely the best SB2U Vindicator released by any company ever. It doesn’t appear to be any more difficult than the SBD Dauntless, and looks like the end result will be equally good. The kit is accurate (it’s already been “rivet-counted” and given a passing score by The World’s Greatest Rivet-Counters) and - outside of the sink marks on the fuselage - very well produced.
For anyone who enjoys carrier aircraft, and especially the carrier aircraft of the “Golden Wings Era,” this kit is a must-have. I am sure I will do more than one for my own collection.
Review Kit Courtesy of Accurate Miniatures.
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