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The SB2C Helldiver Was a Tough Bird: Remembered First Hand

“I was in the dive at 70 degrees following my leader, thinking he would miss the very narrow Japanese destroyer in the mouth of the Saigon River. I wanted to get close to ensure a hit. Nearly vertical at 800 feet, I released my bomb only to feel a heavy blast from my leader’s direct hit as the ship’s magazine exploded. Small debris entered my engine cylinder area, causing oil to leak on the hot exhaust system, misting up the windshield and causing white vapor along the fuselage sides.

SB2C Helldiver

An SB2C Helldiver of Bombing Squadron Seven (VB-7) in flight over ships of Task Force 38 after completing an attack against Japanese shipping 25 miles north of Quinchon, French Indochina. Note the horseshoe symbol on the tail indicating the aircraft’s assignment to the Hancock and the pillow on rear cockpit gun in order to provide some level of comfort for the gunner on the long flight home. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

“I’m thankful I was flying an SB2C Helldiver that day. It wasn’t the best plane I’ve flown, but the Helldiver was beefy and it had just withstood a tremendous impact. Leveling out now, I had to figure out how to get back to my carrier in my crippled dive-bomber alone in enemy waters. Later, I was going to have an additional reason, beyond the plane’s robustness, to be thankful for the SB2C, the plane we called ‘Son of a Bitch 2nd Class.'”

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Charles S. “Chuck” Downey had his encounter with an exploding Japanese destroyer – the ship’s name not known – on Jan. 12, 1945, the day U.S. Task Force 38 destroyed 41 Japanese ships in the South China Sea. Downey, a diminutive pilot who weighed just 123 pounds, was a member of “Bombing Eighty,” Navy squadron VB-80 operating from USS Ticonderoga (CV 14). His plane was the sometimes reviled but often well-liked Helldiver, called “the Beast” by both supporters and detractors. It was a tandem, two-seat, low-wing, tailwheel-equipped dive bomber of a later generation than the SBD Dauntless (which Downey also piloted). In the back seat, which could be rotated 360 degrees so that the occupant could face forward or backward, Aviation Radioman 3rd Class Larry George was manning the Helldiver’s twin, flexible .30-caliber (7.62 mm) machine guns.

The Helldiver was faster than the Dauntless, with a bigger powerplant and a four-bladed propeller.

A different radioman gunner, Joe Evon, said he’d been told in gunnery school that the tail of the Helldiver was prone to breaking off and causing the aircraft to fall from the sky. Evon later learned that this was a myth, one of many surrounding the SB2C.


Helldiver Happenings

The Helldiver was faster than the Dauntless, with a bigger powerplant and a four-bladed propeller. Early versions had handling and control problems, and pilots said the SB2C didn’t always forgive a mistake, but the dive-bomber carried a heavy load and took a lot of punishment.

XSB2C-1 Helldiver

The XSB2C-1 prototype made its maiden flight on Dec. 18, 1940. Note the smaller tail surfaces and shorter nose of the aircraft. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

The head of the Helldiver engineering team was not Curtiss’s well-known Don R. Berlin (who designed the P-40 Warhawk) but the company’s Raymond C. Blaylock. The aircraft was built around the 1,900-horsepower Wright R-2600 Double Cyclone 14-cylinder two-row radial piston engine.

The story didn’t get off to an easy start. The prototype XSB2C-1 made its maiden flight on Dec. 18, 1940, but was destroyed a few days later. Curtiss rebuilt the aircraft and it flew again in Oct. 1941, but was destroyed a second time in a crash a month later. With production moved to Columbus, Ohio from Buffalo, N.Y., the first production aircraft flew in June 1942.

Initially, the aircraft garnered a reputation for poor stability, structural flaws, and poor handling. Britain rejected the Helldiver after receiving 26 Canadian-built examples. The Navy demanded 880 changes to the aircraft before accepting it. Lengthening the fuselage by one foot, enlarging the vertical tail, and redesigning the fin fixed some of the aerodynamic problems and, in retrospect, it appears stability and structural issues were exaggerated,  although more than one Helldiver broke in half when making a hard tailhook landing on a wooden carrier deck.

SB2C-1 VB-17 USS Bunker Hill (CV 17) 1943

A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver of Bombing Squadron Seventeen (VB-17) pictured after losing its tail during recovery aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) during operations in the Caribbean in 1943. The first squadron to recive the Helldiver, VB-17 experienced some growing pains with the type, losing numerous aircraft while operating from shore and aboard USS Bunker Hill (CV 17) during the carrier’s shakedown cruise. While flying from Bunker Hill on Nov. 11,1943, the squadron introduced the aircraft to combat during a raid on Rabaul, and continued flying missions from the carrier until March 1944. U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

After several variations on armament appeared in early Helldivers, the Navy settled on two, forward-firing, 20mm cannon in the wing (introduced on the SB2C-1C model) plus the enlisted crewman’s twin .30s.

Perhaps the most important change came with an improved propeller. After a 12-foot Curtiss Electric three-blade prop proved inadequate, a four-blade propeller from the same manufacturer, with the same diameter and with root cuffs, was introduced with the SB2C-3 model – the point at which nearly all imperfections in the design had been addressed. The SB2C-4 followed, and introduced “cheese grate” upper and lower wing flaps that were perforated like a sieve; they did nothing to increase drag but did enhance stability.

Industry turned out 7,141 Helldivers, including SBF versions assembled by Fairchild and SBWs from Canadian Car & Foundry. The versions built in the largest numbers were the SB2C-1 (978), SB2C-2 (1,112), SB2C-4 (2,045) and SB2C-5 (970).

Face-to-face with an exploding Japanese destroyer “bigger than the size of the post office,” Chuck Downey made a “somewhat difficult 4 or 5 G pull-out” in his damaged Helldiver.

Unlike the Dauntless, the Helldiver offered an internal bomb bay, which could accommodate a 1,000-pound bomb and be closed by hydraulically operated doors.


Limping Home

Face-to-face with an exploding Japanese destroyer “bigger than the size of the post office,” Chuck Downey made a “somewhat difficult 4 or 5 G pull-out” in his damaged Helldiver. Downey struggled to stay in the air and to attempt the long journey back to the Ticonderoga. It appeared he would have to deviate from the route of submarines positioned between the task force and their targets for the specific purpose of rescuing those who couldn’t make it back. Downey told his back-seater that if they went into the water they would be on their own.

SB2C Helldiver

A SB2C-4, possibly assigned to Utility Squadron 17 (VJ-17) in flight near Guam. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

The problem was oil – it was leaking fast. If they ran out, the aircraft would not function for more than a few minutes. Alone, making a marathon journey, Downey and George were annoyed to discover that both of them had run out of cigarettes.

Downey would later be found to be the youngest naval aviator of World War II, having earned his wings of gold 17 days shy of his 19th birthday, or 11 days earlier than former President George H. W. Bush. (Bush, who had long been thought to be the youngest, has conceded that Downey was). But Downey didn’t feel youthful as he throttled back to 1,600 revolutions per minute to save oil, nursed the plane, and shrugged off his nicotine fit.

He would later learn an interesting fact about the Helldiver. Its oil tank, located just ahead of the firewall between Downey and the engine, was rated for 16 gallons, but Downey’s maintainer, Aviation Mechanics Mate 1st Class Charles “Chuck” Large – “a great big, solid Massachusetts individual” – had found a way to get 20 gallons into it. Large and other maintainers had considered the possibility that a battle-damaged Helldiver might leak oil in combat, ignored an instruction from the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, and added the extra oil. “I’m sure his decision saved my ass,” Downey said. Today, the retired Navy captain and the former sailor are “the two Chucks” in the USS Ticonderoga Association.

SB2C Helldiver

Silhouettes of SB2Cs returning to a carrier of Task Force 58.1 from a bombing mission over Chichi-Jima. Photo courtesy of the Robert F. Dorr Collection

Downey eventually completed the 2 1/2 hour flight and brought his damaged SB2C within eyesight of the “Tico.” But his carrier had already spotted planes aft for the next strike. Downey had to struggle a little longer to bring his Helldiver aboard USS Essex (CV 9), which had a ready landing deck. Downey later survived a horrific kamikaze attack on Ticonderoga and finished the war flying Helldivers aboard USS Hancock (CV 19).

Robert F Dorr SB2C

The author in the gunner’s seat of the world’s only flying SB2C Helldiver. Photo courtesy of Robert F. Dorr collection

As for the aircraft Downey was flying, it pulled duty briefly in the Naval Reserve after the war, but was not recalled for Korea. The U.S. Army acquired 900 Helldivers and called them A-25 Shrikes; by the time they were ready, the Army Air Forces no longer had a dive-bombing mission. Most of the A-25s were transferred to the Marine Corps under the designation SB2C-1A.

Neither as flawless as the brochure may have claimed nor as faulty as its early reputation, the Helldiver perhaps falls a little short of being one of the “greats” of World War II, but in the hands of men like Chuck Downey it came close.

Helldivers fought in the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s after being modified to delete the radioman-gunner’s position, allowing more bombs to be carried. SB2Cs served with French forces until 1958.

Neither as flawless as the brochure may have claimed nor as faulty as its early reputation, the Helldiver perhaps falls a little short of being one of the “greats” of World War II, but in the hands of men like Chuck Downey it came close.


Curtiss SB2C-4 Helldiver

Type: Two-seat dive bomber

Powerplant: One 1,900-horsepower Wright R-2600-20 Double Cyclone 14-cylinder two row radial piston engine driving a 12-foot (3.7-m) four-bladed Curtiss Electric propeller

Performance: Maximum speed, 295 miles per hour (475 km/h); cruising speed, 158 miles per hour (254 km/h), ceiling 29,100 feet (8870 m), range 1,165 miles (1875 km)

Weights: Empty 10,547 pounds (4784 kg); maximum takeoff 16,616 pounds (7537 kg)

Dimensions: Span 49 feet 9 inches (15.16 m); length 36 feet 8 inches (11.80 m) height 13 feet 2 inches (4.01 m); wing area 422 square feet (39.20 sq m)

Armament: Two fixed, forward-firing 20-mm cannon with 200 rounds of ammunition each (production SB2C); four, forward-firing .50-caliber machine guns (Army A-25); two flexible .30-caliber Browning M1919 machine guns operated by the radioman-gunner (production SB2C)

This story was originally published on August 25, 2013


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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