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The Big Tailed Beast

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver's difficult birth and entry into combat

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 2, Summer, 1998 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was the last and most advanced of the U.S. Navy’s line of carrier-based dive bombers to see combat in World War II. Unfortunately, it is often remembered as a less than successful design, as indicated by its nicknames "Big Tailed Beast" or simply "Beast", and the even less flattering "Son-of-a-Bitch Second Class."

Many shortcomings of the SB2C can be traced to the Navy’s original specifications, issued in 1938, which required two of the planes to fit on an aircraft carrier’s 40 foot by 48 foot elevators, with at least a foot to spare all around. Thus, the Helldiver’s length was less than desired for a dive bomber of its size and wingspan, resulting in early stability and handling problems. Fortunately, these problems were eventually resolved, unlike Britain’s Short Sterling failure as a heavy bomber due to its requirements to fit into existing RAF hangars and be shipped in standard size packing crates!

Development of the Naval Dive Bomber

With the introduction of effective aircraft carriers in the 1920s, the U.S. Navy faced the problem of hitting and sinking a fast moving warship with an aircraft launched weapon system. One solution was the air-launched torpedo, but due to the torpedo’s weight and size, torpedo bombers tended to be large, slow aircraft and had to fly low and straight at a target to release their weapon with any chance of success.

Normal horizontal bombing techniques were also useless against fast moving and rapidly turning warships, however, tests with fighters carrying small bombs showed that dive bombing was effective in hitting such a target. The first production U.S. Navy aircraft specifically designed for dive bombing, the Curtiss F8C-4 Helldiver, entered service in early 1930.

On June 26, 1929, two former rivals, The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. and The Wright Aeronautical Corp. merged to form Curtiss-Wright, with each becoming a division of the new company. The Wright division concentrated on engine development and production, while the Curtiss name continued to be applied to aircraft designs. Thus, the second Navy dive bomber to carry the name Helldiver was the Curtiss SBC, 83 of which were ordered in late 1936.

The SBC was a biplane, as were all previous carrier-based combat planes produced for the U.S. Navy, however, it was the last. In June 1934, the Navy issued specifications for new carrier dive and torpedo bombers, and the majority of designs submitted were monoplanes with retractable landing gear. A similar change from biplane to monoplane dive bombers was also taking place in both Germany, resulting in the famous Ju 87 Stuka and Japan, which produced the Aichi D3A, later code-named VAL.

The results of the 1934 specifications for a dive bomber resulted in production of two different designs, the Vought SB2U Vindicator and the Northrup BT-1. Both were monoplanes which carried a single bomb externally, under the fuselage, and both were fitted with dive flaps or brakes. However, Vindicator’s dive flaps and general handling in a steep dive were unsatisfactory, and the Vought design had to be limited to a shallower dive angle, using its extended landing gear as a speed brake.

The Northrup BT-1 was developed as both a dive and torpedo bomber by the Douglas division of the company, and this design, too, experienced severe buffeting and other problems in steep dives. Tests in the wind tunnels at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) resulted in a recommendation to drill a number of large holes in the dive flaps. When these "swiss-cheese" flaps was tried, it was found to eliminate the buffeting of the tail surfaces and allow even higher diving speeds.

Although the Navy ordered 54 BT-1s from Nothrup in September 1936, the production planes displayed a number of faults and did enter fleet service until early 1941, equipping two squadrons, VB-5 and VB-6. An improved XBT-2 was developed but when Douglas bought out Northrup in April 1937, the design was redesignated the Douglas SBD.

The Douglas SBD-2 Dauntless began to equip carrier bombing and scouting squadrons in late 1941, replacing the older Curtiss SBC Helldivers and even some of the relatively new Vought SB2U Vindicators. While the Dauntless went on to become the most famous and effective American dive bomber of World War II, earning it the nickname "Slow But Deadly", its shortcomings in speed, range and bomb load were recognized by the Navy.

Birth of the Beast

In 1938, even before the Douglas SBD had entered service, the Navy issued specifications for a replacement dive bomber. The demand for more speed and greater range and payload required a larger design than the SBD, but the Navy’s requirement, mentioned before, for two of the new dive bombers to fit on a carrier’s elevator restricted size, especially length. With the significant increase in wingspan from biplane to monoplane designs, the Vought SB2U introduced folding wings as a solution to handling and storage. However, the Vindicator’s wings required attachment of an external jack screw and brace, which were manually operated by deck crews to fold the wings – a slow and cumbersome procedure on the pitching deck of a carrier.

Orders for two similar designs resulted from the 1938 specifications. The first was the Brewster SB2A Buccaneer, whose prototype was ordered in April 1939. Powered by a Wright R-2600 engine, the Brewster dive bomber featured an internal bomb load of 1,000 pounds, a rear gunner and folding wings for carrier operations. When Buccaneers began to reach U.S. carriers, their length of just over 39 feet caused problems with handling on the elevators, and this, plus other serious shortcomings prevented the SB2A from ever seeing combat, even with hard-pressed Allied forces.

The second prototype ordered was the Curtiss XSB2C-1. The Curtiss design was generally similar to the Brewster, being powered by the same Wright R-2600 and carrying its 1,000 pound bomb load in an internal bomb bay (later increased to 2,000 pounds internal). The SB2C, soon to be officially named the Helldiver, was, however, 30 inches shorter than the Buccaneer, and this, combined with its nearly 50 foot wingspan, made the Helldiver seem very short-coupled.

With the threat of the United States being drawn into the war at any time, the Navy placed orders for the new Helldiver even before the prototype’s first flight on December 18, 1940. The crash of the XSB2C-1 a few days later and other problems resulted in redesign of the tail and changes to the fuel and armament systems before the first production SB2C-1s were delivered from Curtiss’ new factory at Columbus, Ohio.

The first production SB2C-1 did not fly until June 1942, due to problems with both the new factory and the design itself. When the first Helldivers were delivered to the fleet in December of that year, their large vertical tail so dominated the profile of the plane, it was dubbed the "Big Tailed Beast". Soon, however, problems with the its stability and carrier handling shortened this to just the "Beast."

An Advanced and Complex Design

The SB2C was the most advanced and complex single-engine carrier aircraft to see operational service in the Second World War. While the Wright R-2600 engine had been introduced in 1937 and proven in service on the Boeing-built Pan Am Clipper flying boats, the Helldiver’s engine was equipped with a two-speed supercharger, which was manually shifted from low to high as required. The R-2600-8 engine fitted to the SB2C-1 drove a three-bladed Curtiss Electric prop and was rated at 1,700 hp for takeoff and 1,450 hp at 21,000 feet. The pilot controlled the engine throttle, supercharger, automatic mixture control and constant-speed propeller from the power console with his left hand.

A complex hydraulic system operated the wing folding mechanism, landing gear, cowl flaps, oil cooler doors, bomb bay doors, landing flaps and dive brakes. The pilot also had valves to isolate the non-critical parts of the system in case of battle damage or to release pressure to drop the landing gear in the event of a complete hydraulic failure. The tailhook was released by a handle in the cockpit but had to be raised manually by a deck crewman after the plane had landed on the carrier.

The SB2C-1’s gunner/observer sat just behind the trailing edge of the wing, beneath a large forward-sliding canopy and was armed initially with a single 0.50 caliber gun. This was changed in later production Helldivers to twin 0.30 caliber guns mounted in a manual turret ring. The entire top of the fuselage behind the guns, called the turtleback, could be lowered with a manual hydraulic pump to allow the guns to be aimed over a greater arc. Forward firing armament of the first 200 SB2C-1s consisted of four 0.50 caliber guns in the wing roots but the last 170 were fitted with two 20mm cannons instead and designated SB2C-1Cs.

The Beast Finally Enters Service

The first carrier scheduled to replace her SBD Dauntlesses with SB2C Helldivers was the USS Essex in November 1942. However, the demands for the carrier in the Pacific prevented the change and work up with the new design, so the first operational experience with the Helldiver came with VB-4 and VB-6 of the USS Yorktown in May 1943. The poor low-speed handling of the "Beast", especially during night carrier landings, and other problems involved in transitioning from the lighter, more docile Dauntless to the much faster and heavier Helldiver, resulted in the Yorktown sailing back into combat equipped with the older SBDs.

The SB2C-1s that had been intended for the Essex had been transferred in January 1943 to VB-17, which was waiting for the USS Bunker Hill to be completed. Thus, the pilots of VB-17 had more time to adapt to the "Beast", completing the plane’s operational carrier trials on the USS Santee. The Bunker Hill left Pearl Harbor on October 21, 1943 and on November 11, VB-17 took their Helldivers into combat, raiding the Japanese port of Rabaul, sinking one destroyer and damaging two cruisers and three other destroyers.

The Olive Drab Beast

Stories of the accuracy of the German’s Ju 87 Stuka in the war in Europe caused the U.S. Army Air Corps to order versions of both the Dauntless and the Helldiver as attack bombers, designated the A-24 and A-25 respectively. An initial order for 100 A-25A Shrikes, as the Army named the A-25, was followed by orders for 3,000 more, resulting in the conversion of Curtiss’ St. Louis plant to production of Army versions only.

All but the first few Shrikes deleted the wing folding mechanism, and later production A-25s deleted the leading edge slats, mounted larger wheels and a modified tail wheel. However, the need for an Army dive bomber had disappeared by late 1943, as fighter-bombers proved they could not only drop bombs but also defend themselves afterward. Thus, the Army’s Shrikes soldiered on in non-combat roles, including target towing, without ever seeing action, and production stopped after about 900 were built.

The Army couldn’t even give away Shrikes. Australia turned down an offer of 150 despite their 1941 request for dive bombers under Lend-Lease. Finally, some 410 or so Shrikes were delivered to the U.S. Marines under the designation SB2C-1A (for Army) but none saw combat. The Marines did fly later SB2C-4s Helldivers in combat.

The Beast Improves

After flirting with the XSB2C-2, a twin-float seaplane version of the Helldiver, the Navy ordered over a thousand SB2C-3s with uprated R-2600-20 engines of 1,900 hp equipped with four-bladed propellers. With better performance and an increased internal bomb load, dash-3s began to replace earlier Helldivers in early 1944. Late model SB2C-3s were also fitted with perforated landing and dive flaps to solve problems with tail buffeting in dives, similar to those experienced in the early SBDs.

All of the improvements from the late model dash-3s were combined with underwing hard points for bombs or drop tanks, plus racks for up to eight 5 inch air-to-ground rockets in the most produced and last version of the Helldiver to see action in World War II, the SB2C-4.

Some earlier Helldivers had been fitted with surface search radar sets but some of the new models, designated SB2C-3E and -4E, received airborne search radar to detect enemy aircraft at night or in poor visibility. The fitting of a prop spinner made identification of the 1,985 dash-4s easy, at least until it was removed. In addition, an extended tailhook was fitted to later production planes.

The final 970 Helldivers were SB2C-5s which could be recognized by a new, frameless pilot’s canopy and the deletion of the prop spinner of the dash–4s. In addition, the leading edge wing slats were removed and the extended tailhook standardized. Internal fuel capacity increased by 35 gallons to 355 total in three tanks. Few, if any, dash-5s saw combat before the end of the war.

Beasts by a Different Name

When Curtiss appeared unable to fulfill all the Army and Navy demands for the Helldiver, production was licensed to the Fairchild Aircraft Corp. and the Canadian Car & Foundry Co., both in Canada. Fairchild built 300 Helldivers as SBFs while Canadian Car produced 835 as SBWs. Dash numbers were assigned to the SBFs and SBWs, matching the equivalent SB2C model or variant. The SBW-1B was produced for the British Royal Navy but only 26 were delivered, being named Helldiver Is.

The End of the Dive Bomber

The specific role of the naval dive bomber disappeared with the advent of nuclear weapons, where one bomb could decimate an entire enemy fleet when dropped from a high-flying level bomber. In addition, fighters such as the Vought F4U Corsair and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt had demonstrated their capability in the ground attack and close support roles in both the Pacific and Europe, and could resume fighter duties after dropping their bombs.

Curtiss Helldivers continued in front line service with the U.S. Navy until 1950 and with the reserves a few years longer. They also saw combat with French, Greek and Thai forces after the war, in Indochina and elsewhere, and were also operated by Italy and Portugal. By 1960, no Helldivers remained in regular service with any country.

The Ghost Squadron’s SB2C-5 Helldiver is the last example of the "Beast" still flying anywhere in the world.

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Please note that the members of the Confederate Air Force voted in 2001 to change the name of the organization to the Commemorative Air Force and this name change took effect on 1 January, 2002. Articles copyrights should reflect the name change. Articles reproduced on this site are with the permission of the authors and copyright holders.