Skip to main content

Helldiver the Plane Not the Computer Game

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver made its first flight on December 18, 1940. It was designed to replace the Douglas SBD Dauntless. The Helldiver’s initial deficiencies attracted the attention of The Truman Committee. The Helldiver’s problems among others caused the decline of Curtiss. Curtiss and Fairchild Aircraft Ltd. and Canadian Car and Foundry Co. Ltd. produced 7,140 Helldivers and variants. The SB2C saw service with the U.S. military and five other countries.[i] The Italian Navy retired the last SB2C in 1959.


[i] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes © HarperCollins Publishers 2005, P. 147.

Development

The XSB2C-1 prototype crashed two months after its first flight. It was repaired and returned to testing. A wing failure caused the XSB2C-1 to crash in December, 1941. The aircraft was a total loss. The prototype had poor handling, directional instability, bad stall characteristics, and structural weaknesses. There were also problems with its R-2600 engine and its hydraulic propeller. Curtiss had to correct almost 900 deficiencies before the U.S. Navy cleared it for production.[i]

The first production Helldiver, SB2C-1, made its first flight in June 1942. The Helldiver still had many technical problems and was unpopular with its air and ground crew. The U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF), Royal Navy, and Royal Australian Air Force placed orders for the aircraft. The Royal Navy and Royal Australian Air Force soon canceled their orders. Captain Eric Brown, a famed British test pilot, wrote of the Helldiver, “One could only sympathize with the U.S. Navy pilots flying this unpleasant aircraft from carriers in the Pacific.” The USAAF accepted 900 A-25 Shrikes, the Army version of the Helldiver, before canceling the contract. [ii]

[i] Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast”, August 17, 2020, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast” | National Air and Space Museum (si.edu), last accessed 4/29/22.

[ii] Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast”, August 17, 2020, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast” | National Air and Space Museum (si.edu), last accessed 4/29/22.

Helldiver vs Dauntless

Source: VIntage Aircraft Recognition Gide by Tony Holmes, (c) 2005 HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd.

HelldiverDauntless

Speed Max

281mph (452 km/h

255mph (410 km/h)

Range

1110 miles (1,786 km)

Range 773 miles (1,244 km)

Armament

4x50 cal (12.7mm) MG or 2x20mm & 1 rear firing 50 cal

2x50 cal front & 2x50 Cal rear

Bomb Load

1,000 lb internal + 1,000 lb external

2,250 lb (1,021 kg) external

In Combat

Helldivers were put into carrier service but tailwheel and hook failures caused the Navy to withdraw them from carrier service. Helldivers returned to carrier duty in May 1943 on the USS Yorktown. Captain J.J. Clark, the Yorktown’s commanding officer, recommending scrapping the SB2C program. [i] He had the SB2Cs taken off his ship and replaced them with the older SBDs.

Helldivers first entered combat over Rabaul in November 1943. They flew sorties from the USS Bunker Hill.[ii] On a mission during the Battle of the Philippine Sea a force of 51 Helldiver and 26 Dauntless dive bombers attacked Japanese carriers. The Navy lost two Dauntlesses and 46 Helldivers. Of the Helldiver losses 32 crashed from fuel starvation. [iii]

Vice-Admiral John McCain, commander of Fast Carrier Task Force 38, believed the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsairs were better suited for bombing than the Helldiver. He stated there was “no place for a plane with the performance of the SB2C” on aircraft carriers.[iv]

On October 24, 1944 Helldivers and Avengers struck the battleship Musashi with 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs. The Musashi shot down at least five Helldivers and two Avengers. Helldivers scored at least 11 bomb hits. The Musashi sank with 1,023 of her 2,399 crew members.[v]

On April 7, 1945 Helldivers attacked the battleship Yamato, the most powerful battleship ever made. Helldivers were among the aircraft that scored hits on the Yamato. The Yamato task force also lost the cruiser Yahagi, and the destroyers Asahimo and Hamakaze. Other destroyers received damage. The attacks killed 4,242 Japanese sailors. The U.S. Navy lost 10 aircraft and 12 aviators.[vi]

Helldivers sank the battleship Hyuga on July 24.[vii] Helldivers were among the 1,600 U.S. and British aircraft that attacked targets in Kure, Japan. Aerial attacks also sank the battleships Ise and Haruna, and the aircraft carrier Kaiyo and heavy cruisers Aoba and Tone in this air campaign.[viii] The attacks also sank three cruisers and two escort ships and destroyed 306 aircraft. Allied losses were 133 aircraft and 102 aviators killed.[ix]

Helldivers flew 18,808 combat sorties in the Pacific. The U.S. Navy credits it with sinking 301 Japanese ships and shooting down 41 Japanese aircraft.[x]


Scroll to Continue

[i] Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast”, August 17, 2020, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast” | National Air and Space Museum (si.edu), last accessed 4/29/22.

[ii] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes © HarperCollins Publishers 2005, P. 147.

[iii] Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast”, August 17, 2020, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast” | National Air and Space Museum (si.edu), last accessed 4/29/22.

[iv] Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast”, August 17, 2020, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver: The “Big-Tailed Beast” | National Air and Space Museum (si.edu), last accessed 4/29/22.

[v] Destroying the Battleship Musashi - 19 Torpedo and 17 Bomb Hits from 259 Aircraft by Victor Silva, 9/8/18, Destroying the Battleship Musashi - 19 Torpedo and 17 Bomb Hits from 259 Aircraft (warhistoryonline.com), last accessed 5/1/22.

[vi] H-044-3: “Operation Heaven Number One” (Ten-ichi-go)-the Death of the Yamato, 7 April 1945 by Samuel J. Cox, H-044-3: Death of Battleship Yamato (navy.mil), last accessed 5/1/22.

[vii] Navy Helldivers Strike Hyuga by H. Paul Brehm, Navy Helldivers Strike Hyuga - July '99 Aviation History Feature | HistoryNet, last accessed 5/11/22.

[viii] World War II Almanac 1931-1945 by Robert Goralski © 1981.

[ix] Halsey (1947), Admiral Halsey’s Story, p.264.

[x] The Helldiver: Haste Made a Waste of This World War II Dive Bomber by Bill Walton, 9/18/18, The Helldiver: Haste Made a Waste of This World War II Dive Bomber (avgeekery.com), last accessed 5/1/22.

Post-World War II

In 1949 the U.S. gave 42 Helldivers to Greece. They flew ground attack missions during the Greek Civil War. During the Battle of Grammos Helldivers carried out strafing runs. They fired roughly 2,000 air-to-ground rockets and dropped 114 napalm bombs on communists. After the battle Helldivers attacked enemy positioned near Vitsi. The attacks isolated the communists. The remaining communists either surrendered or fled to Albania. No Helldiver fell to enemy fire. Helldivers flew in the victory airshow in Athens on September 6, 1949. [i]The Hellenic Air Force phased most of them out by 1953. A few remained in service until 1957 as photographic aircraft.[ii]

In September 1951 the French aircraft carrier Arromanches arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Helldivers and Hellcats on the Arromanches carried out operations against the Vietminh. The escort carriers Bois Belleau and Lafayette joined the Arromanches and Hellcats flew sorties until the armistice in 1954.[iii] The French navy found them rugged and reliable aircraft.


[i] WWIIafterWWII, SB2C Helldiver post-WWII service – wwiiafterwwii (wordpress.com), last accessed 5/12/22.

[ii] Curtis SB2C Helldiver – Operational History – Greek Service, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver - Operational History - Greek Service (liquisearch.com) © 2022, last accessed 5/1/22.

[iii] French Air Force in Vietnam text (paquelier.com), last accessed 5/12/22.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Robert Sacchi

Related Articles