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Piloting the Beast

Flying the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

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.

I think I first saw the Ghost Squadron’s Curtiss SB2C Helldiver while attending the Breckenridge, Texas air show in 1985. It was still in pieces and in the process of being rebuilt by Nelson Ezell’s crew, with money being raised by the West Texas Wing of the CAF. When the Helldiver returned to service in 1988, I had a chance to fly both the FM-2 Wildcat and A6M2 Zero in shows with the SB2C, and I must admit that as a one-of-a-kind, the SB2C was always a bit special to me.

The "Beast" was usually flown by Cols Mike Wells, Howard Pardue or Nelson Ezell after its restoration, but by 1995, the West Texas Wing was often faced with too many commitments and not enough pilots, and I was asked to help campaign the Helldiver. Naturally, the first show that I was to fly was only a couple of weeks away, so the paper began to flow between the Wing, CAF Headquarters and the FAA’s Lubbock offices.

The Helldiver falls into the category of an aircraft with more than 800 horsepower registered as an experimental aircraft, the type never having qualified for a commercial registration in civil service. Thus, the pilot must possess a document called a Letter Of Authorization (LOA) stating that he is qualified to fly that specific make and model of aircraft. Having already obtained LOAs in the Wildcat and Zero, I obtained the appropriate letters of recommendation for the SB2C, and Col Mike Wells conducted a ground school and full systems and cockpit checkout. On September 7, 1995, with a temporary LOA for training in my pocket, I strapped into the Helldiver’s cockpit and took off for my first flight in the Beast.

Lifting off from Graham, Texas, where the SB2C is based with the Cactus Squadron, I verified my earlier impression – the Beast is a big, heavy plane. While the Wildcat, Zero and even the AT-6/SNJ Texan trainer seem eager to fly by about 60-65 knots, the Helldiver needed almost 80 knots before it lifted off. During the takeoff roll, acceleration seemed slow, until the throttle was advanced the last five inches of manifold pressure, to 45 inches, when the Beast seemed to gather itself up and really get serious about getting into the air. Once in the air and climbing, the gear was raised, power reduced to 35 inches and 2300 rpm, cowl flaps and oil cooler doors adjusted, and course was set for nearby Breckenridge, where I planned to practice landings and takeoffs, after a bit of air work.

After finding that the Beast didn’t really like to be slowed much below 80 knots without sinking rapidly, I made my first approach for landing at 95-100 knots, having slowed to about 130 knots and lowered the gear on downwind. The landing checklist included the usual: fuel on fullest tank, boost pump on, tail wheel locked, prop set to 2300 rpm and flaps as needed. Holding about 90 knots over the approach end of the runway with full flaps, the Beast touched down on the mains with little tendency to bounce. Several more landings, including some three-point, proved that the Helldiver could operate out of as little as about 3000 feet, although a longer runway prevents undue wear and tear on the brakes and the pilot’s nerves.

The Beast has probably one of the most complicated hydraulic systems of any single-engine World War II plane. The system operates the landing gear, flaps, dive brakes, cowl flaps, oil cooler doors, bomb bay doors and wing fold mechanism, and has a primary and secondary circuit, and valves designed to help isolate combat damage. The landing flaps and dive brakes take some getting used to, as they are operated by the same lever – moved back for flaps and forward for dive brakes.

To extend the dive brakes, the lever is moved forward until it stops, and one waits for the dive brake warning light to illuminate on the instrument panel. Once the light is on, the lever can be move further forward, causing the dive brakes to extend above and below the trailing edge of the wing. If pushed forward quickly, the result is about like running into a brick wall, and it is no problem to loose 30-40 knots in a few seconds. The dive brakes are great when rapidly closing to join up with a flight and also make rapid descents from cooler cruising altitude down to hotter pattern heights easy on the engine and the crew.

With the basic familiarization training flights completed, the next day I flew to Lubbock, Texas, where John Boatright of the FAA tested my knowledge of the SB2C’s systems and operation and then climbed into the gunner’s seat for a check ride. I should note that the rear cockpit does not have any flight controls, but John just asked if the intercom worked and rode calmly through the stalls, balked landings and takeoffs as if he road in the back of a Helldiver everyday.

With training completed and paperwork in hand, the Beast and I departed the same day for our first air show in Wichita, Kansas, stopping in Fort Worth to pick up Col Ted Short, West Texas Wing Operations Officer and back seater for this mission. The plane was a hit in Wichita, especially when we folded the wings to taxi into a tight parking space. Letting no grass grow under the new pilot, we were off to Smyrna, Tenn. for another show the next weekend. With normal cruise power of 28 inches and 1900 rpm, the Beast indicated about 155-160 knots air speed while burning 70 gallons of fuel an hour. With 355 gallons in three tanks, flights of over 4 hours are possible with VFR reserves.

In the past three years, the Beast has carried me to air shows as far away as Frederick, Maryland, in addition to numerous appearances closer to its base in Graham, Texas. Checking in with Air Traffic Control while flying back East was interesting as they often came back with "Say again your aircraft type!" After about the third reply of Curtiss SB2C, one controller replied "You are not in my computer!" When I told him it was the only one still flying, he noted that could explain the lack of an entry, and proceeded to visit for a couple of minutes about the plane’s history. Not all controllers are as friendly, as I was once accused of being in a washing machine by a Baltimore controller, who had no idea how noisy a Wright R-2600’s 1,900 horsepower could be, just a few feet in front of the cockpit.

Back in Texas, on a mission to a Helldiver squadron reunion in Fredrickberg, Texas at the Nimitz Museum, I had a passenger, Mr. Jerry Crisman, who had been a gunner in SB2Cs during WWII. Imagine my surprise when Jerry calmly asked me over the intercom if he had told me about landing an SB2C on a carrier from the back cockpit! It is a fascinating tale and is included as a sidebar to this article.

So, what is the Beast really like to fly? Actually, it is a pleasant and enjoyable plane, once it gets up to speed, with much lighter controls than one would think looking at its size and weight. The numerous systems keep you busy during takeoff and landing, and the Beast requires constant adjustment of the rudder trim with changes in speeds. Duster turns and photo passes at shows require keeping the power and speed up and pulling a few Gs, and the Beast tends to run away from the other U.S. carrier bomber, the Grumman Avenger, if you aren’t careful. Where the real work starts is once we land at an air show.

"Say mister – is this the plane that President Bush flew? Helldiver? Never heard of that one!" These are just a few of the comments from air show visitors when they see the Beast. When told that it is the only one still flying in the world, they often want to tour the plane. So, in addition to handling the West Texas Wing PX carried in the bomb bay, the two man crew, with any assistance we can get, also handles tours up and over the wing of the Beast, letting folks look into the cockpit and gunner’s compartment of the last one flying. Sometimes I think the real rating is Beast pilot, historian and tour guide.

Flying the Helldiver is a rare privilege and one that really drives home to me the motto of the Confederate Air Force – Keep ‘em flying!

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