National Air and Space Museum

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast”

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver
The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver would have been the U.S. Navy’s frontline carrier-based dive bomber for much of World War II, but problems with its development delayed its introduction and saddled it with a bad reputation. By the end of the war, changes in technology meant other aircraft could deliver an equal or greater ordnance load with comparable accuracy, eliminating the need for a specialized dive bomber. Thus, the SB2C was the last dive bomber in the Navy’s inventory.

Origins

The SB2C Helldiver has connections to Curtiss’ previous Navy dive bomber, the SBC, also called the Helldiver (the Curtiss company seemed fond of the name). The SBC was a biplane design that began in 1933 as a two-seat fighter with dive bombing capabilities (XF11C) and was subsequently revised to scout-bomber specifications. The SBC-3 entered Navy service in 1937 and was the last biplane combat aircraft to see Navy service.

Curtiss SBC-3 Helldiver ( U.S. Navy, National Museum of Naval Aviation, photo No. 1996.253.094)

Even as the Navy placed its first orders for the biplane SBC in 1936, the Navy was already looking for a monoplane to replace it. It saw an opportunity to improve a plane that had competed with the SBC for the Navy contract: the monoplane Northrop BT-1. Suitably modified, the aircraft was reclassed as a scout-bomber (SB) around the time Northrop had become Douglas’ El Segundo division. Accordingly, the new airplane was designated SBD, the Dauntless. The Navy, however, only expected it to be a stopgap for what would come next.

Northrop BT-1 ( U.S. Navy, National Museum of Naval Aviation, photo No. 1996.253.1979)

In 1938, just a year after the first deliveries of SBC-3s, the Navy issued a specification for a new monoplane dive bomber that would result in the SB2C, the third Curtiss plane to carry the name “Helldiver” but the first to carry it as an official service nickname. The Navy’s requirements for this new monoplane dive bomber were challenging: it had to be able to carry a significant weight of weaponry internally while incorporating specific equipment and structural features within an airframe small enough to fit two on the elevators of the new Essex class carriers. None of the SB2C’s features were entirely new, only the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine had yet to be proven on other aircraft, but some features had not previously appeared on a Curtiss design, and some of the internal systems pushed the state-of-the-art.

Navy practice at this time was to wait until a prototype had been tested before placing any orders. In the case of the new Helldiver, the Navy was watching the gathering war clouds and was eager to replace the “stopgap” SBD with a better aircraft. The Navy also may have been lulled into taking a chance based on design studies and wind tunnel tests. Whatever the reasons, the Navy broke with protocol and ordered 370 SB2Cs from Curtiss on November 29, 1940, before the first prototype had flown.

Development and Production Problems

Unfortunately, the Navy’s gamble did not pay off; Curtiss’ Helldiver faced a long developmental road. The lone XSB2C-1 prototype’s maiden flight was December 18, 1940, but it crashed in February 1941 and had to be rebuilt. In December that year, it suffered an in-flight wing failure that destroyed it without ever being turned over to the Navy for testing.

XSB2C-1 prototype with its original small tail. ( Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

Among its problems was that it was “stubby.” Its wingspan was eight feet wider than the Dauntless, with a wing area almost 25% greater to support an empty weight of 7,122 lbs – roughly a thousand pounds heavier than the Dauntless. But while the Helldiver could fold its wings to save space, little could be done about the length: it was only two feet, four inches longer than the Dauntless. This meant the Helldiver’s tail had less directional authority than the Dauntless despite needing more to control a bigger, heavier airplane.

As a result, the XSB2C-1 suffered from poor handling, directional instability, and bad stall characteristics. The prototype also revealed structural weaknesses, while the R-2800 engine and its 3-bladed hydraulic propeller suffered their own teething problems. The Navy ordered nearly 900 internal and external changes to the design before clearing it for production. These changes, along with necessary adaptations to the production line, significantly delayed deliveries to the Navy. To make matters worse, Curtiss was producing the Helldiver at a brand-new plant, which caused its own delays.

The XSB2C-1 Helldiver prototype (with enlarged tail surfaces) is rolled out of its hangar in Buffalo, New York, circa 1941. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

The first production SB2C-1 Helldiver did not fly until June 1942, with the first deliveries to fleet squadrons at the end of that year. Though Curtiss had made numerous changes, the -1 production model still suffered from a number of difficulties. It had aerodynamic problems, while the changes added another three thousand pounds to the airplane’s weight . Once assigned to carriers, it had tailwheel and hook failures that limited it to service ashore until the problems were addressed. In addition, the electrical and hydraulic systems required a lot of maintenance on parts that were difficult to access. Overall, the Helldiver made a poor first impression among both aircrew and maintainers, earning it the pejorative nicknames “The Big-Tailed Beast” (often shortened to just “The Beast”) and “Son of a Bitch, 2nd Class” (a play on the SB2C designation and the Navy’s enlisted rank abbreviations).

Despite the problems, some of which only emerged well after it entered service, initial demand for the Helldiver was high, leading the Navy to assign additional construction to Fairchild Aircraft’s Canadian branch (with these aircraft designated the SBF) and the Canadian Car & Foundry Company (designated the SBW). Though the U.S. Navy was the primary customer, both the British navy and the Australian air force placed orders for Helldivers. The U.S. Army Air Forces ordered some three thousand as the A-25 Shrike (which omitted the wing fold and tailhook, along with other minor differences from the SB2C). Nevertheless, the Helldiver’s problems proved too much trouble for these additional customers. The Army took delivery of only about 900 A-25s before deciding it did not need a dedicated dive bomber, while both the Australians and the British quickly decided the Helldiver was unsuited to service and canceled their orders.

Combat at Last

Modified again, Helldivers returned to carriers in May 1943, but performance was still poor. Embarked aboard the new USS Yorktown (CV-10), the ship’s commanding officer, Captain J.J. “Jocko” Clark, recommended scrapping the entire Helldiver program. The Helldiver did not make its combat debut until November 1943, in a raid on the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul.

SB2C-1Cs from USS Yorktown circa 1944. The object sticking out below the wing is an antenna for the ASB radar. ( Naval History and Heritage Command)

Helldivers were still only slowly replacing Dauntlesses in June 1944 when a defining moment highlighted the aircraft’s weaknesses. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Adm. Marc Mitscher launched a strike force against the Japanese carriers that included 51 SB2C-1C Helldivers and 26 Dauntlesses. The entire strike was launched at extreme range, and this distance significantly affected the Helldivers due to their smaller fuel load: only five returned to land safely on the carriers. Of the 46 lost, 32 ran out of gas and crashed or ditched. Tellingly, only two Dauntlesses were lost: one was shot down and one crashed on landing.

Curtiss SB2Cs and Grumman TBFs (in background) during the Battle of the Philippine Sea. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, 80-G-238021)

In early 1944, deliveries of the SB2C-3 brought great improvements (with some pilots using “The Beast” nickname affectionately), but the airplane was unable to completely shed its bad reputation. Vice-Adm. John McCain, who commanded the fast carrier task force (TF 38) for the last year of the war, declared that there was “no place for a plane with the performance of the SB2C” on the carriers. In his opinion, the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair fighter-bombers were better suited to the job. The fighter-bombers could carry almost as large a bomb load as the Helldiver and, with the introduction of air-to-ground rockets, could deliver that payload as accurately as the Helldiver. At the same time, the Grumman TBF / Eastern Division TBM Avenger torpedo bomber proved itself equally capable as a level bomber. The Avenger had a somewhat shorter range than the Helldiver but offered a similar payload and slightly more speed. It was also easier to fly and did not have the Helldiver’s maintenance problems. Subsequently, while further improved SB2C-4 and -5 models (deliveries beginning late 1944 and early 1945, respectively) began living up to the promise of the Helldiver’s design, the era of the dedicated dive-bomber was coming to an end.

This photo of an SB2C-5 in a training unit circa 1945 shows off the bomb bay doors and the retracted “turtleback” between the gunner and the tail that gave the gunner a wider field of fire. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

The Helldiver would remain in Navy and Marine Corps service until 1950, but after the war, the U.S. sold surplus Helldivers to the navies of Italy, Portugal, Thailand, Greece, and France. The French navy kept them in service until 1958, and Helldivers saw their last combat in the third phase (1946-1949) of the Greek civil war and with the French in the First Indochina War (1951-1954).

Helldivers of the Aeronavale aboard the French carrier Arromanches in the Gulf of Tonkin, late 1953. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

A Helldiver at the Udvar-Hazy Center

One can see history in the Museum’s Helldiver (BuNo 83479), which is on display at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It is an SB2C-5, which featured additional fuel tanks and replaced the older ASB surface-search radar with the new APS-4 radar as standard equipment. The -5 also carried over changes from earlier models such as a more powerful engine (1900 hp / 1417 kw vs. 1500 hp / 1119 kw in the -1), a four-bladed electric propeller, perforated dive brakes to improve handling, and wing racks for additional bombs or rockets. The Navy accepted BuNo 83479 in May 1945.

The Museum’s SB2C-5. The white APS radar pod and permanent wing mounts for rockets are visible in this view. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

From September through December 1945, this aircraft was assigned to Bombing Squadron (VB) 92, the “Battling Beasts,” aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16). It just missed the end of the war but saw service in the western Pacific and occupied Japan, its only carrier deployment. In 1946, 83479 was assigned to shore-based bomber and attack squadrons for brief periods. Following an overhaul at the beginning of 1947, the airplane served in Aviation Training Unit #4 (VA-ATU #4) at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida until 1948, when the Navy removed it from active service and set it aside for the Smithsonian. It was finally delivered to the Smithsonian in 1960. In 1975, we loaned the airplane to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, where it was restored and put on display until 2003. The Museum began another restoration in 2010 and put 83479 on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in 2014, wearing its VB-92 markings.


Laurence M. Burke II is the curator of U.S. Naval Aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.