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The Helldiver: Haste Made a Waste of This World War II Dive Bomber

The SB2C Was the Third or Fourth Best Dive Bomber on American Carriers

SB2C. Image via US Navy

The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber was one of the aircraft that won World War II. But like every aircraft in service during the late 1930s, improved replacements were on the drawing boards at several contractors even before the United States went to war. Of course the SBD would turn out to be one of the greats. But the development of one of its intended replacements, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, was so rocky that the SB2C was nearly cancelled. Several times.

SBD Dauntless. Image via US Navy

Larger, faster, and able to carry more ordnance than the SBD, it seemed the Helldiver was the answer to the Navy’s needs for an improved dive bomber. But the prototype XSB2C-1, powered by a Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone radial piston engine turning a three-bladed propeller, did not impress when flown for the first time on 18 December 1940. The litany of problems with the aircraft started with the engine itself and included poor stall characteristics, structural weaknesses, directional instability, and control issues in general.

XSB2C-1. Image via US Navy

The US Army Air Corps (USAAC) and the US Marine Corps were also looking at the Helldiver. In USAAC (later USAAF) service the aircraft was known as the A-25A Shrike. Shrikes were equipped with modified landing gear and Army-specific radio equipment along with a few other minor differences. When the XSB2C-1 crashed on 8 February 1941, Curtiss rebuilt it but fitted an enlarged vertical stabilizer and an autopilot. Then the rebuilt XSB2C-1 crashed on 21 December 1941. A nation now at total war and needing the SB2C justified the decision to order the SB2C-1 into production in November of 1941. The first production SB2C-1 was rolled out in June of 1942.

SB2C-1. Image via NACA/NASA

Production was one thing. Taming the beast was another. While the SBD was helping to win battles all over the Pacific and the Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger torpedo bomber was already entering service aboard the few Navy carriers during the second half of 1942, Curtiss was working through a voluminous “punch list”  for the SB2C. The initial production aircraft had the enlarged vertical stabilizer, self-sealing fuel tanks, and additional wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns and later a pair of 20 millimeter cannons, but 880 modifications to the early models had to be completed before the Navy would accept the SB2C-1 for service.

SB2Cs. Image via US Navy

When VB-17 finally took the SB2C-1C Helldiver to war aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) in November of 1943 the aircraft still had plenty of challenges. Crews, used to the slower but reliable and proven SBD, took to calling the Helldiver the Big-Tailed Beast (or just Beast) and Son of a Bitch Second Class. Handling problems remained and the SB2C was much more complicated than the Dauntless, meaning that neither the crews nor the maintainers liked them much. But with aircraft carriers under construction and needing airplanes for the air wings to fly from them, the Helldiver had to adapt and overcome. So it (eventually) did. To a degree.

SB2C-1C. Image via US Navy

Problem one was that the SB2C was underpowered from the beginning. Resolution arrived in the form of the SB2C-3, powered by the R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone engine producing another 200 horsepower and turning a Curtiss-Electric four-bladed propeller. Coupled with a 40% weight reduction in later models, performance was improved. But the Beast was still a design compromise. The fuselage was truncated to allow the airplane to fit on carrier elevators. Approach speeds were too high and control at those speeds was imprecise. But consider that the SB2C’s range was actually less than the SBD’s and the problem comes into sharp relief. Rather than replace the SBD, the SB2C augmented the Dauntless. Few if any crews believed the SB2C was better than or an improvement over the SBD.

SB2C-3. Image via US Navy

SB2Cs did battle in the Pacific Theater during the last couple of years of the war. Thanks to their existence the Navy was able to put dive bombers on the many large-deck Essex-class carriers built during the war. They participated in every major engagement through the end of hostilities.

Here are some Helldiver oddities:

SB2Cs did not operate from light carriers or escort carriers thanks to the aircraft’s combination of high approach speed, poor approach handling, and sheer size and weight.

The SB2C also didn’t operate from every Essex-class carrier either. Captain Joseph J. “Jocko” Clark got so tired of them making a mess of his carrier, the USS Yorktown (CV-10), that he put them on the beach while on the way to the Pacific and replaced them with SBDs. Clark recommended cancelling the SB2C.

Wave off! Image via US Navy

Though the SB2C was capable of delivering bombs with more precision over greater range, both the Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair were capable of delivering nearly the same payload as the Helldiver. That, coupled with the advent of aerial rockets, spelled the end of the dive bomber in US Navy service.

After the war ended the Navy flew Helldivers for a few years. The Naval Reserves retired their last examples in 1950. F4U Corsairs and Douglas AD Skyraiders did the Beast’s job. Foreign operators of the SB2C were France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Thailand. Both the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy were in line to fly the SB2C but cancelled orders for their carriers- the British after reporting “appalling” handling.

Naval Reserve SB2C-5s. Image via US Navy

Canadian Car and Foundry built a total of 894 SB2Cs, designated as SBW-l, SBW-3, SBW-4, SBW-4E and SBW-5. Fairchild in Canada built another 300 of them, designated as XSBF-l, SBF-l, SBF-3 and SBF-4E. An amazing 7,140 Helldivers were built in total.

Officially Helldivers flew 18,808 combat sorties in the Pacific War and were involved in or directly credited with sinking 301 Japanese ships of all types. SB2C radiomen-gunners shot down a total of 41 Japanese aircraft.

SB2C-3. Image via US Navy

Remember those Army Shrikes? Well they were delayed the same as the rest. By the time the Army did get them into service they were discovering they already had a highly capable bomber in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. Some of the Shrikes were offered to Australia, who said thanks but no thanks. The US Marines ended up with more than 400 of them (designated SB2C-1A) but never flew them in combat. They ended their careers as trainers and target tugs.

The single airworthy SB2C is Bureau Number (BuNo) 83589 and operated by the Commemorative Air Force (West Texas Wing) in Graham, Texas. Built in 1945 the aircraft was extensively damaged in 1982 and rebuilt, returning to flight in 1988. Enjoy this video of 83589 flying with some other warbirds uploaded by AirshowStuffVideos.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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