SB2C Helldiver, U.S. Carrier Dive Bomber

Photograph of SB2C Helldiver

Naval Historical Center

Curtiss SB2C-1C Helldiver


Crew 2
Dimensions 49'9" by 36'8" by 16'11"
15.16m by 11.18m by 5.16m
Wing area 422 square feet
39.2 square meters
Weight 11,000-16,607 lbs
5000-7500 kg
Maximum speed       295 mph (475 km/h) at 16,700 feet (5100 meters)
270 mph (435 km/h) at sea level
Cruise speed 158 mph
254 km/h
Landing speed 79 mph
127 km/h
Climb rate 30 feet per second
9.1 meters per second
Service ceiling 29,100 feet
8870 meters
Power plant 1 1700 hp (1268 kW) Wright R-2600-8 Cyclone 14-cylinder two-row radial engine driving a three-bladed propeller
Armament 2 fixed wing 20mm Hispano cannon
2 flexible rear cockpit 0.30 machine guns
Bomb load Internal bomb bay plus wing racks

Internal loadout options included:
1 1600lb (726kg) AP Mark 1 armor-piercing bomb
1 1000lb (454kg) demolition bomb
3 clusters of 6 20lb (9kg) bombs each
2 325lb (147kg) depth charges
1 130 gallon (492 liter) jettisonable auxiliary fuel tank

Under wing loadout options included:
2 250lb (113 kg) bombs
2 clusters of 6 20lb (9kg) bombs each
2 325lb (147kg) depth charges
2 twin 0.30 machine gun pods
2 58 gallon (220 liter) drop tanks
Range 1895 miles (3049 km) as scout
1165 miles (1875 km) with bomb load
Fuel 320 gallons internal (two 100 gallon wing tanks and a 120 gallon fuselage tank)
1210 liters internal ( two 379 liter wing tanks and a 454 liter fuselage tank)
Production 6649 from 1942-12-15 at Curtiss-Wright Corporation and elsewhere:
  200 SB2C-1
  778 SB2C-1C from 1943-11
  1112 SB2C-3/E from early 1944
  2045 SB2C-4/E
  970 SB2C-5 from 1945-2
  900 A-25/SB2C-1A from late 1943. Built for the Air Force, but most were transferred to the Marines (SB2C-1A)
  1194 SBF or SBW by Fairchild and CCF (Canada)

The SB2C-1 was armed with 4 fixed wing 0.50 machine guns and 2 flexible rear cockpit 0.30 machine guns

The SB2C-2 was a float plane that never went into production.

The A-25/SB2C-1A was armed with 4 fixed wing 0.50 machine guns and one flexible rear cockpit 0.50 machine gun

The SB2C-3 upgraded the engine to a 1900 hp (1417 kW) R-2600-20 driving a four-bladed propeller. The dive brakes were perforated late in the model series, which reduced buffeting.

The SB2C-4 could carry an additional 1000 lbs (454 kg) of bombs or 8 5" rockets under the wings.

The SB2C-5 increased the fuel capacity to 355 gallons (1344 liters).

The SB2C-3E and -4E carried APS-4 airborne radar.

The Helldiver was developed to replace the SBD Dauntless dive bomber, which was considered obsolescent at the start of the Pacific War. Unlike the Dauntless, the Helldiver had large folding wings and an internal bomb bay, and it used a much more powerful R-2600 Cyclone engine. Designed to a 1938 Navy specification, the SB2C attempted to fit a modern airframe into a footprint small enough for two aircraft to fit onto the 40' by 48' (12.2m by 14.6m) carrier elevators planned for the Essex class. This required a short-coupled design (one in which the distance from wings to tail was unusually short.) The design team under Raymond C. Blaylock attempted to overcome the instability inherent in a short-coupled airframe by giving the aircraft its distinctive large tail control surfaces.  Another demanding requirement was that the aircraft have a power gun turret. This requirement was eventually abandoned, but not before it had caused further long delays in the design process. The requirements for an internal bomb bay and large fuel capacity were more easily met.

The preliminary design was accepted by the Navy and a prototype ordered on 15 May 1939. At the same time, a prototype was ordered for a competing Brewster design as insurance, but Brewster encountered even more development difficulties than Curtiss and the SB2A Buccaneer never went into production. So urgent was the perceived need that the Navy ordered 370 SB2C-1s on 15 May 1939, before the prototype was even completed, and Curtiss opened a new plant at Columbus, Ohio, to take advantage of a large local labor pool. Unfortunately, the aircraft turned out to have more than its share of bugs. Curtiss intended the aircraft for the Army as well as Navy, which proved too much role for one design. Between them, the two services asked for 880 changes to the prototype. Wind tunnel tests in late 1940 showed that the stall speed was much too high for a carrier aircraft, and the wing area had to be increased by 10 percent and aerodynamically-activated leading edge slats added. The first prototype flew on 16 December 1940, but its stability proved to be poor in spite of the designers' efforts, and the prototype crashed two months later when its engine failed. The weight crept up as the design was refined, leaving the aircraft underpowered. As a consequence of these development difficulties, the design did not go into production until June 1942. The first production aircraft were so problematic that Curtiss was forced to retain them for further development, with the first production SB2C-1 suffering wing failure during a dive in January 1943. Curtiss was forced to replace the Columbus plant manager after drawing the wrath of the Truman Committee, and the company eventually had to open a post-production line to repair the faults in the SB2C-1s. Carrier trials began in early 1943 and the aircraft entered combat over Rabaul on 11 November of that year.

By the time the Helldiver became available to carrier air groups, the Dauntless had already chalked up a record as the greatest ship killer of the war, while the Avenger torpedo bomber and the second generation of U.S. fighters were proving capable of successfully assuming the dive bomber role. Furthermore, while the performance statistics of the Helldiver showed it to be a distinct improvement over the Dauntless, capable of holding an impressive 78 degree dive, it was a difficult plane to fly and to maintain, and it quickly became known as the "Beast" both for its distinctive growling engine noise (or brake noise, depending on who you believe) and for its touchy and demanding nature. It was claimed that its formal designation stood for "Son of a Bitch 2nd Class." Early SB2C aircrew allegedly sang (Tillman 1997):

My body lies under the ocean;
My body lies under the sea.
My body lies under the ocean
Wrapped up in an SB2C!

"Jocko" Clark was so unhappy with the SB2C, allegedly because his crews had lost some aircraft whose tails fell off in flight, that he insisted on reverting to the SBD prior to his July 1943 deployment with the second Yorktown. Mitscher initially shared Clark's low opinion of the design, but changed his mind and became a champion of the Helldiver after the SB2C-3s began to reach the carrier fleet.

The -3 introduced numerous improvements, including a more powerful engine, a more efficient four-bladed propeller, and improved dive brakes. The dive brakes had numerous additional small perforations that improved air flow and reduced buffeting. The -3 also corrected many of the structural problems that had continued to plague the -1. Most SB2C crews considered the -3 a vast improvement over the -1 and it was the SB2C-3 that participated in most of the carrier operations in the western Pacific.

The performance of the SB2C, together with its powerful cannon armament, meant that the dive bomber sometimes found itself assuming the fighter role against Japanese aircraft. SB2Cs scored 44 confirmed aircraft kills, and another 14 aircraft probably destroyed, by the end of the war. In turn, 17 SB2Cs were lost in aerial combat. These modest numbers reflect the ample fighter escort that could be assigned to SB2Cs on most missions.

The SB2C could also operate as a torpedo bomber, by removing the bomb bay doors and installing shackles for a Mark 13 torpedo. However, this capability was apparently never used operationally, unsurprising given that the U.S. Navy had a very capable dedicated torpedo bomber in the TBF Avenger.

A number of SB2Cs were field modified at Okinawa with gun cameras, which were activated when the pilot armed his bombs just before pushing over into his dive. These cameras captured a photographic record of bomb hits by aircraft diving in advance of the camera-equipped SB2C of considerable intelligence value.

The Army version, designated the A-25 Shrike, had only a limited rough field capability and saw even less service that the Army version of the Dauntless. They were turned over to the Marine Corps (after being refused by the Australians), redesignated the SB2C-1A, and used for training.

The Helldiver never completely replaced the Dauntless, the latter being manufactured almost to the end of the war. By then, dive bombers were rapidly disappearing as a distinct type from U.S. carrier air groups. The Helldiver nonetheless chalked up an impressive combat record at Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, and elsewhere. During the Battle of Cape Engano, one SB2C squadron scored 50 percent hits and another scored about 12 out of 18 hits.

Photo Gallery

SB2C in flight over China


Helldiver in color

U.S. Navy

Flight of Helldivers

U.S. Navy

Helldiver getting the signal to launch


Helldivers preparing to land


Helldivers at Iwo Jima



Gunston (1986)

Rickard (2007; accessed 2012-10-24)
Sharpe et al. (1999)

Smith (1998)

Tillman (1997)

Wilson (1998)

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