Curtiss SB2C Helldiver
The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver is a carrier-based dive bomber aircraft produced for the United States Navy during World War II. It replaced the Douglas SBD Dauntless in US Navy service. The SB2C was much faster than the SBD it replaced.
|SB2C Helldiver |
|Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in tricolor scheme and tail markings for Bombing Squadron 80 (VB-80) operating off USS Hancock, Feb 1945|
|National origin||United States|
Fairchild (Canada) (SBF)
Canadian Car & Foundry (SBW)
|Designer||Don R. Berlin|
|First flight||18 December 1940|
|Retired||1959 (Italian Air Force)|
|Primary users||United States Navy|
United States Army Air Forces
French Naval Aviation
Royal Thai Air Force
|Developed into||Curtiss XSB3C|
Crew nicknames for the aircraft included the Big-Tailed Beast or just the derogatory Beast, Two-Cee, and Son-of-a-Bitch 2nd Class (after its designation and partly because of its reputation for having difficult handling characteristics). Neither pilots nor aircraft carrier captains seemed to like it.
Delays marred its production—by the time the A-25 Shrike variant for the USAAF was deployed in late 1943, the Army Air Forces no longer had a need for a thoroughbred dive bomber. Poor handling of the aircraft was another factor that hampered its service introductions; both the British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force cancelled substantial orders.
The Truman Committee investigated Helldiver production and turned in a scathing report, which eventually led to the beginning of the end for Curtiss. Problems with the Helldiver were eventually ironed out, and in spite of its early problems, the aircraft was flown through the last two years of the Pacific War with a fine combat record.
Design and development
The Helldiver was developed to replace the Douglas SBD Dauntless. It was a much larger aircraft, able to operate from the latest aircraft carriers and carry a considerable array of armament. It featured an internal bomb bay that reduced drag when carrying heavy ordnance. Saddled with demanding requirements set forth by both the U.S. Marines and United States Army Air Forces, the manufacturer incorporated features of a "multi-role" aircraft into the design.
The Model XSB2C-1 prototype initially suffered teething problems connected to its Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone engine and three-bladed propeller; further concerns included structural weaknesses, poor handling, directional instability, and bad stall characteristics. In 1939, a student brought a model of the new Curtiss XSB2C-1 to the MIT wind tunnel. Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Otto C. Koppen was quoted as saying, "if they build more than one of these, they are crazy". He was referring to controllability issues with the small vertical tail.
The first prototype made its maiden flight on 18 December 1940. It crashed on 8 February 1941 when its engine failed on approach, but Curtiss was asked to rebuild it. The fuselage was lengthened and a larger tail was fitted, while an autopilot was fitted to help the poor stability. The revised prototype flew again on 20 October 1941, but was destroyed when its wing failed during diving tests on 21 December 1941.
Large-scale production had already been ordered on 29 November 1940, but a large number of modifications were specified for the production model. Fin and rudder area were increased, fuel capacity was increased, self-sealing fuel tanks were added, and the fixed armament was doubled to four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns in the wings, compared with the prototype's two cowling guns. The SB2C-1 was built with larger fuel tanks, improving its range considerably.
The program suffered so many delays that the Grumman TBF Avenger entered service before the Helldiver, even though the Avenger had begun its development two years later. Nevertheless, production tempo accelerated with production at Columbus, Ohio and two Canadian factories: Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. (Canada), which produced 300 (under the designations XSBF-l, SBF-l, SBF-3, and SBF-4E), and Canadian Car and Foundry, which built 894 (designated SBW-l, SBW-3, SBW-4, SBW-4E, and SBW-5), these models being respectively equivalent to their Curtiss-built counterparts. A total of 7,140 SB2Cs were produced in World War II.
The U.S. Navy would not accept the SB2C until 880 modifications to the design and the changes on the production line had been made, delaying the Curtiss Helldiver's combat debut until 11 November 1943 with squadron VB-17 on Bunker Hill, when they attacked the Japanese-held port of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, north of Papua New Guinea. The first version of the SB2C-1 was kept stateside for training, its various development problems leading to only 200 being built. The first deployment model was the SB2C-1C. The SB2C-1 could deploy slats mechanically linked with landing gear actuators, that extended from the outer third of the wing leading edge to aid lateral control at low speeds. The early prognosis of the "Beast" was unfavourable; it was strongly disliked by aircrews due to its size, weight, and reduced range compared to the SBD it replaced.
In the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 45 Helldivers, most of which had been deliberately launched from extreme range, were lost when they ran out of fuel while returning to their carriers.
Among its major faults, the Helldiver was underpowered, had a shorter range than the SBD, was equipped with an unreliable electrical system, and was often poorly manufactured. The Curtiss-Electric propeller and the complex hydraulic system had frequent maintenance problems. One of the faults remaining with the aircraft through its operational life was poor longitudinal stability, resulting from a fuselage that was too short due to the necessity of fitting on to aircraft carrier elevators. The Helldiver's aileron response was also poor and handling suffered greatly under 90 kn (100 mph; 170 km/h) airspeed; since the speed of approach to land on a carrier was supposed to be 85 kn (98 mph; 157 km/h), this proved problematic. The 880 changes demanded by the Navy and modification of the aircraft to its combat role resulted in a 42% weight increase, explaining much of the problem.
The solution to these problems began with the introduction of the SB2C-3 beginning in 1944, which used the R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone engine with 1,900 hp (1,400 kW) and Curtiss' four-bladed propeller. This substantially solved the chronic lack of power that had plagued the aircraft. The Helldivers would participate in battles over the Marianas, Philippines (partly responsible for sinking the battleship Musashi), Taiwan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa (in the sinking of the battleship Yamato). They were also used in the 1945 attacks on the Ryukyu Islands and the Japanese home island of Honshū in tactical attacks on airfields, communications and shipping. They were also used extensively in patrols during the period between the dropping of the atomic bombs and the official Japanese surrender, and in the immediate pre-occupation period.
An oddity of the SB2Cs with 1942 to 1943-style tricolor camouflage was that the undersides of the outer wing panels carried dark topside camouflage because the undersurfaces were visible from above when the wings were folded.
In operational experience, it was found that the U.S. Navy's Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair fighters were able to carry an equally heavy bomb load against ground targets and were vastly more capable of defending themselves against enemy fighters. The Helldiver, however, could still deliver ordnance with more precision against specific targets and its two-seat configuration permitted a second set of eyes. A Helldiver also has a significant advantage in range over a fighter while carrying a bombload, which is extremely important in naval operations.
The advent of air-to-ground rockets ensured that the SB2C was the last purpose-built dive bomber produced. Rockets allowed precision attack against surface naval and land targets, while avoiding the stresses of near-vertical dives and the demanding performance requirements that they placed on dive bombers.
The SB2C remained in active postwar service in active duty US Navy squadrons until 1947 and in Naval Reserve aviation units until 1950. Surplus aircraft were sold to the naval air forces of France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Thailand. Greek SB2Cs served in combat in the Greek Civil War with additional machine guns mounted in wing pods. French SB2Cs flew in the First Indochina War from 1951 to 1954.
U.S. Army and Marine Corps service
Built at Curtiss' St. Louis plant, 900 aircraft were ordered by the USAAF under the designation A-25A Shrike. The first ten aircraft had folding wings, while the remainder of the production order omitted this unnecessary feature. Many other changes distinguished the A-25A, including larger main wheels, a pneumatic tailwheel, ring and bead gunsight, longer exhaust stubs, and other Army-specified radio equipment. By late 1943, when the A-25A was being introduced, the USAAF no longer had a role for the dive bomber, as fighter aircraft such as the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt had shown their ability to carry out tactical air support missions with great success.
The USAAF transferred 410 Helldivers to the U.S. Marines. The A-25As were converted to the SB2C-1 standard, but the Marine SB2C-1 variant never saw combat, being used primarily as trainers. The remaining A-25As were similarly employed as trainers and target tugs.
The Australian Government placed an order for 150 Curtiss Shrikes to meet the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF's) requirement for dive bombers. These aircraft were paid for by the US Government as Lend Lease aid. The first ten Shrikes were delivered to Australia in November 1943. By this time, the RAAF considered dive bombing an outmoded tactic, and no longer had a requirement for the type; it was in the process of replacing its Vultee Vengeances with light bombers. As a result, the order for the outstanding 140 aircraft was cancelled.
The Shrikes were taken on strength by the RAAF and allocated serial numbers A69-1 to A69-10, but only A69-4 was ever flown by the service. By mid January 1944 all of the Shrikes other than A69-4 had been handed back to the USAAF. This aircraft was assigned to No. 1 Air Performance Unit between December 1943 and April 1944 and used for performance testing. It was also returned to the USAAF in December 1944.
The Helldiver's service with the British resembled Australian experience with the type. A total of 26 aircraft, out of 450 ordered, were delivered to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, where they were known as the Helldiver I. After unsatisfactory tests by the A&AEE that pinpointed "appalling handling", none of the British Helldivers were used in action.
American aid provided the Royal Hellenic Air Force with 48 Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers from surplus U.S. Navy stocks. The aircraft were delivered by the aircraft carrier USS Sicily (CVE-118) in the spring of 1949. From the 48 aircraft, 6 were used for ground instruction or spare parts and 42 were given to 336th Fighter Squadron (336 Μοίρα Διώξεως) to replace Supermarine Spitfires and the squadron's name was changed to 336th Bomber Squadron (336 Μοίρα Βομβαρδισμού).
Greek SB2C-5 Helldivers had minor changes for their COIN operations: the hard rubber tailwheel (for carrier use) was replaced by a bigger pneumatic tire for use on landing strips; and the rear gunner station and its twin MGs were deleted, as no aerial opposition existed and weight reduction was used for bombs and extra machine guns.
Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers, Supermarine Spitfires, and North American T-6D/Gs were used in ground-attack missions against Communist ground forces, camps, and transports during the last stages of the Greek Civil War.
Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers saw a relatively brief combat service and were gradually phased out by 1953. A few were in use until 1957 as photographic aircraft. One Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver was restored in 1997 and is displayed in the Hellenic Air Force Museum.
Between 1949 and 1954, France bought 110 SB2C-5 Helldiver aircraft to replace their aging SBD-5 Dauntless that had been flying in combat in Vietnam. The French Aeronavale flew the Helldiver from 1951 to 1958.
Some of these aircraft were allotted to flottilles 3F and 9F stationed on board the carriers Arromanches, Bois Belleau, and La Fayette, during the First Indochina War. The Helldivers were used to support French troops on the ground during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
- Prototype powered by a 1,700 hp (1,268 kW) R-2600-8 engine
- Production version for United States Navy with four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) wing guns and one 0.30 in (7.62 mm) dorsal gun, 200 built.
- Original designation for United States Army Air Corps version which became A-25A later used for 410 A-25As transferred to the United States Marine Corps.
- SB2C-1 with two 20 mm (0.79 in) wing-mounted cannons and hydraulically operated flaps, 778 built. First to see combat.
- One SB2C-1 fitted with twin floats in 1942.
- Production float plane version, 287 cancelled and not built.
- One SB2C-1 re-engined with a 1,900 hp (1,417 kW) R-2600-20.
- As SB2C-1c re-engined with a 1,900 hp (1,417 kW) R-2600-20 and four-bladed propeller, 1,112 built.
- SB2C-3s fitted with APS-4 radar.
- SB2C-1c but fitted with wing racks for eight 5 in (127 mm) rockets or 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs, 2,045 built.
- SB2C-4s fitted with APS-4 radar.
- Two SB2C-4s converted as prototypes for -5 variant.
- SB2C-4 with increased fuel capacity, frameless sliding canopy, tailhook fixed in extended position, and deletion of the ASB radar, 970 built (2,500 cancelled).
- Two SB2C-1Cs fitted with 2,100 hp (1,566 kW) R-2600-22 engine and increased fuel capacity.
- Canadian built version of the SB2C-1, 50 built by Fairchild-Canada
- Canadian built version of the SB2C-3, 150 built by Fairchild-Canada.
- Canadian built version of the SB2C-4E, 100 built by Fairchild-Canada.
- Canadian built version of the SB2C-1, 38 built by Canadian Car & Foundry company.
- Canadian built version for lend-lease to the Royal Navy as the Helldiver I, 28 aircraft built by Canadian Car & Foundry company.
- Canadian built version of the SB2C-3, 413 built by Canadian Car & Foundry company.
- Canadian built version of the SB2C-4E, 270 built by Canadian Car & Foundry company.
- Canadian-built version of the SB2C-5, 85 built (165 cancelled) by the Canadian Car & Foundry company.
- A-25A Shrike
- United States Army Air Corps version without arrester gear or folding wings and equipment changed, 900 built
- Helldiver I
- Royal Navy designation for 28 Canadian-built SBW-1Bs
- Italian Air Force operated 42 aircraft from 1950 until 1959
NOTE: All surviving aircraft identified by original US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) Bureau Numbers (BuNo).
- On display
- 83589 - based at the Commemorative Air Force (Cactus Squadron) in Graham, Texas. This late-production Helldiver, built in 1945, makes frequent air show appearances. In 1982, it experienced engine failure and a hard emergency landing that caused extensive damage; volunteers of the CAF put in thousands of hours and spent in excess of $200,000 to restore the aircraft to flying condition once more. As of October 2018, it is still the only flying example in the world.
- On display
- Under restoration
- A-25A Shrike/SB2C-1A
- 75552 - restoration completed by Vultures Row Aviation in Cameron Park, California. The current owner and location is unknown.
- 76805 - for display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.
- 19866 - for display at the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. It crashed on 28 May 1945 in Lower Otay Reservoir, near San Diego, California after engine failure during a training exercise. Both pilot E.D. Frazer and his passenger escaped uninjured, but the Helldiver sank in 90 ft. of water. The aircraft was discovered in February 2010 by a fisherman and recovered on 20 August 2010 for restoration.
- 83393 - for display at the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Granite Falls, Minnesota.
- A SB2C-4E Helldiver belonging to the United States Navy crashed and burned in foul weather on October 9, 1945, while en route from New Cumberland, Pennsylvania to its base at Naval Air Station Grosse Ile, Michigan after participating in Nimitz Day celebrations held in Washington, D.C. Pilot Frank Campbell and gunner George Cohlmia, both World War II veterans, were killed in the crash. The remains of the plane are still located at the crash site on Laurel Hill in Ligonier Township, Pennsylvania, three miles southeast of the village of Waterford.
- In January 2010, a scuba diver discovered a SB2C-1C Helldiver that was ditched in Maalaea Bay off South Maui in August 1944. The Helldiver is covered in coral and is missing its tail section. The aircraft experienced problems with its empennage after dive bombing maneuvers which forced pilot Lieutenant William Dill to ditch. It lies in 50 ft of water facing east. The site, which is protected under state and federal law, is in the process of being marked with a plaque by the U.S. Navy. A mooring may be installed at a later point in time to facilitate dives on the site.
- On 25 March 2010, the Oregon State Police, Tillamook County Sheriff's Office, and the United States Navy announced that during a logging operation near Rockaway Beach, Oregon, the wreck of an SB2C Helldiver was located. Initial responders believe there may be human remains on the scene.
- On 19 December 2011 Scuba divers off the coast of Jupiter, Florida came across an SB2C Helldiver while under water. The aircraft is mostly intact and was found inverted with the landing gear retracted. In May 2012, the US Navy conducted a survey of the aircraft, recovering a data plate from the horizontal stabilizer. The Naval History and Heritage Command's Underwater Archaeology Branch is actively trying to determine if the numbers stamped on the data plate are readable and will identify the aircraft.
Specifications (SB2C-4 Helldiver)
- Crew: 2
- Length: 36 ft 8 in (11.18 m)
- Wingspan: 49 ft 9 in (15.16 m)
- Height: 13 ft 2 in (4.01 m)
- Wing area: 422 sq ft (39.2 m2)
- Airfoil: root: NACA 23017; tip: NACA 23009
- Empty weight: 10,547 lb (4,784 kg)
- Gross weight: 16,616 lb (7,537 kg)
- Powerplant: 1 × Wright R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine, 1,900 hp (1,400 kW)
- Propellers: 4-bladed constant-speed propeller
- Maximum speed: 295 mph (475 km/h, 256 kn) at 16,700 ft (5,100 m)
- Cruise speed: 158 mph (254 km/h, 137 kn)
- Combat range: 1,165 mi (1,875 km, 1,012 nmi) with 1,000 lb (450 kg) bomb-load
- Service ceiling: 29,100 ft (8,900 m)
- Rate of climb: 1,800 ft/min (9.1 m/s)
- Guns: **2 × 20 mm (0.787 in) AN/M2 cannon in the wings
- 2 × 0.30 in (7.6 mm) M1919 Browning machine guns in the rear cockpit
- Rockets: 8 × 5 in (130 mm) high velocity aircraft rockets
- Bombs: in internal bay: 2,000 lb (910 kg) of bombs or 1 × Mark 13-2 torpedo
on underwing hardpoints: 500 lb (230 kg) of bombs each
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
- Aichi D3A
- Blackburn Skua
- Breda Ba.65
- Brewster SB2A Buccaneer
- Douglas SBD Dauntless
- Fairey Barracuda
- Junkers Ju 87D Stuka
- Vultee A-31 Vengeance
- Yokosuka D4Y
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Curtiss SB2C Helldiver.|
- "I Ride 'The Beast'." by J. Runyan, Popular Science, February 1945
- The Commemorative Air Force's flying SB2C Helldiver
- WW2DB: SB2C Helldiver
- ENS Bob Barnes: Helldivers of the Big E
- "The Greek Civil War, 1944-1949"
- Flight 1943 article
- Interior and exterior spherical panoramas of Commemorative AF flying museum