A troubled design that did ultimately prove effective, the Curtiss Helldiver was the last dedicated Dive Bomber to see service with the US Navy.
Join me for a brief look at an interesting bit of naval history.
Perhaps the most revealing bit about this airplane is its nicknames; often called “The Big Tailed Beast” or just “The Beast”. Its official SB2C designator was said to stand for “Son-of-a-Bitch, Second Class”. It had numerous handling and structural problems; both air and ship crews disliked it; Britain, Australia and the US Army Air Force cancelled substantial orders; its problems triggered a congressional investigation and may have led to the ultimate demise of Curtiss.
The origins of the troublesome Beast go back to just before World War II. The Navy was looking for the next generation of carrier bombers to be powered by the new R-2600 engine. This meant a Torpedo Bomber to replace the TBD Devastator and a Dive Bomber to replace the SBD Dauntless. The new aircraft were not only meant to be more powerful, but should carry heavier loads, farther and faster. They would have modern electronics, pilot armor, self sealing fuel tanks, folding wings and a power turret for a defensive .50 machine gun. Grumman delivered the TBF Avenger on schedule that met all design requirements.
Curtiss struggled. That’s putting it nicely. The prototype had difficult handling characteristics, was structurally weak, and its dive flaps generated turbulence that caused buffeting and made aiming in a dive extremely difficult. Curtiss and the Navy gave up on the power turret requirement. Only Grumman ever provided a turret that was not grossly over weight. The Helldiver was actually shorter ranged than the Dauntless it was replacing. The Avenger entered service in June of 1942. The Helldiver, after a series of over 800 modifications, entered service in November of 1943. But it replaced the Dauntless only gradually. As late as The Battle of the Philippine Sea (June, 1944) two fleet carriers were still operating the Dauntless; supposedly in one case the ship’s captain had refused to leave port until his bombing squadron was re-equipped with the older Dauntless.
But the Navy was committed to the change; production orders for aircraft and parts had been made and the Dauntless line was shut down. The Helldiver did serve with increasing effectiveness to the end of the war. It was faster, it carried a heavier bomb load and had heavier fire power. Its folding wing was a feature its predecessor never had which meant The Beast took up less deck and hanger space. And important changes were made. The four .50s in the wing were replaced by two 20 mm cannon. New dive flaps and an enlarged/strengthened tail section eliminated early problems.
The Helldiver and Avenger both were replaced quickly at the end of the war as the new AD Skyraider with a huge R-3350 engine was entering service.
This is the Pro Modeler kit. It represents an aircraft that served on the USS Yorktown in summer of 1944. I believe this is the oldest build still in my collection; my wife gave me the kit for Christmas of 1997 and I built it shortly after. I can’t imagine her ever giving me another model (er, I have just a few unbuilt…)