The Iconic & Effective SB2C Helldiver in 20 Images

SB2C Helldiver over USS Hornet during World War II. US Naval History & Heritage Command

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was the successor of the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber. It was a considerably larger and faster aircraft than its predecessor and could operate from modern aircraft carriers.

Its production was a slow, turbulent process, but after its various issues had been resolved the Helldiver featured in the last two years of combat in the Pacific Theater.

A U.S. Navy SBD releasing a bomb. Note the extended dive brakes on the trailing edges.
A U.S. Navy SBD releasing a bomb. Note the extended dive brakes on the trailing edges.

The Helldiver was designed by Don Berlin and developed by Curtiss-Wright Corporation, Fairchild Aircraft Ltd, and Canadian Car and Foundry for the U.S. Navy in 1942.

Between 1940 and 1945, about 7,140 units were produced in up to 26 variants. The two-seater aircraft had a wingspan of 50 feet and was suitable for carrying a heavy bomb load.

With a 1,000 lb bombload, its range was 1,165 miles, which was shorter than that of the SBD Dauntless.

It had a cruising speed of 158 mph.

In its armament were two 20mm AN/M2 cannons housed in its wings, a pair of 7.62mm M1919 Browning machine guns in the rear cockpit, and eight 12.7cm High Velocity Aircraft Rockets also known as “Holy Moses.”

“Holy Moses” HVARs mounted on a Grumman TBF Avenger
“Holy Moses” HVARs mounted on a Grumman TBF Avenger

The Helldiver was not well loved by Navy aircrews due to issues they experienced with the aircraft’s weight, size, and range. Some called it the “Big-Tailed Beast” or “Son-of-a-Bitch 2nd Class.”

The first prototype of the Helldiver flew on 18 December 1940 but crashed on 8 February 1941 due to an engine failure. The prototype was then improved by increasing the length of the fuselage. A larger tail that included autopilot features was also installed to help the plane’s stability.

Curtiss XSB2C Helldiver prototype on its maiden flight
Curtiss XSB2C Helldiver prototype on its maiden flight

By October 1941 the modified prototype flew—but this one also crashed, on 21 December 1941 due to a severe wing failure.

Due to constant modifications in a bid to create a fully functional model, the SB2C suffered delays in production.

After over 800 modifications, the Helldiver was eventually accepted.

U.S. Army Air Force A-25 Shrike (AAF Ser. No. 41-18787) in flight.
U.S. Army Air Force A-25 Shrike (AAF Ser. No. 41-18787) in flight.

A World War II latecomer, the SB2C Helldiver was used for the first time in combat on 11 November 1943. Squadron VB-17 on the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) used Helldivers on a raid on Rabaul Port, on the island of New Britain north of Papua in New Guinea.

USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) at sea in 1945
USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) at sea in 1945

 

A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver of Bombing Squadron 17 (VB-17) takes a wave-off during flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) in the Caribbean, in 1943.
A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver of Bombing Squadron 17 (VB-17) takes a wave-off during flight operations aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) in the Caribbean, in 1943.

In 1944, a model of the Helldiver designated SB2C-3 was introduced. Its engine was replaced with the R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone Engine with a power rating of 1900 hp. Along with a Curtiss’ four-bladed propeller, it was intended to supply more power for the aircraft, which hitherto had been disappointingly underpowered.

Helldivers featured in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, over the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and in Taiwan. They took part in sinking the Japanese battleships Musashi and Yamato in the Philippines and Okinawa.

SB2C-4 from Yorktown off Iwo Jima
SB2C-4 from Yorktown off Iwo Jima

After the war, SB2Cs were used by the U.S. Navy squadrons until 1947.

The U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) ordered 900 aircraft, designated the A-25A Shrike. The main wheels of these aircraft were bigger than those of the SB2C-1, and they were slightly modified to meet Army operational requirements.

These planes were introduced too late to be useful, however, and ultimately were not used by the Army. The USAAF transferred 410 of them to the U.S. Marines, who converted them to SB2C-1s and used them for training exercises.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver during takeoff
Curtiss SB2C Helldiver during takeoff

Only 10 out of 150 A-25A Shrikes ordered by the Royal Australian Air Force were delivered in 1943 due to the delays in production and modification. They never saw combat because by then, dive bombing had become an obsolete battle tactic.

The Helldiver was also ordered by the British, who decided the aircraft was unfit for use due to “appalling handling.”

Other countries such as Greece and France were known to have also purchased Helldivers.

Helldivers on the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier Arromanches in 1951. At this time the ship was operating off Indochina.
Helldivers on the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier Arromanches in 1951. At this time the ship was operating off Indochina.

 

U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers of Attack Squadron 1A (VA-1A) “Tophatters” roll into dives to support amphibious forces during postwar landing exercise (1947)
U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers of Attack Squadron 1A (VA-1A) “Tophatters” roll into dives to support amphibious forces during postwar landing exercise (1947)

 

SB2C-1s in tricolor scheme (front) on the flight deck of Yorktown in 1943
SB2C-1s in tricolor scheme (front) on the flight deck of Yorktown in 1943

 

This Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver was operated by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Langley Research Center at Hampton, Virginia (USA), for five months during the winter of 1942-3.
This Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver was operated by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), Langley Research Center at Hampton, Virginia (USA), for five months during the winter of 1942-3.
U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver scout-bombers from Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) fly near a convoy, in the Hampton Roads-Chesapeake Bay area, December 1943.
U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-1 Helldiver scout-bombers from Bombing Squadron 8 (VB-8) fly near a convoy, in the Hampton Roads-Chesapeake Bay area, December 1943.
A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-4E Helldiver crumples in flames during a horrific crash landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38)
A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-4E Helldiver crumples in flames during a horrific crash landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38)

 

U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldivers from Bombing Squadron 7 (VB-7) return to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CV-19), flying over Task Force 38 on their return from strikes on Manila Bay, 25 October 1944.
U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldivers from Bombing Squadron 7 (VB-7) return to the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CV-19), flying over Task Force 38 on their return from strikes on Manila Bay, 25 October 1944.

 

A shot down U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C Helldiver set up as a Japanese decoy plane at Yokosuka naval air base.1945
A shot down U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C Helldiver set up as a Japanese decoy plane at Yokosuka naval air base.1945

 

Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver (Commemorative Air Force).Photo: Kogo GFDL
Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver (Commemorative Air Force).Photo: Kogo GFDL

 

A Royal Australian Air Force Curtiss A-25A Shrike in flight over the United States, circa in 1943.
A Royal Australian Air Force Curtiss A-25A Shrike in flight over the United States, circa in 1943.

Read another story from us: “Slow But Deadly” – Douglas SBD Dauntless Dive-bomber with 26 Photos

 

A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver of Bombing Squadron VB-7 in flight over ships of Task Force 38 after completing an attack against Japanese shipping 40 km north of Quinchon, French Indochina, in January 1945.
A U.S. Navy Curtiss SB2C-3 Helldiver of Bombing Squadron VB-7 in flight over ships of Task Force 38 after completing an attack against Japanese shipping 40 km north of Quinchon, French Indochina, in January 1945.

 

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in tricolor scheme and tail markings for Bombing Squadron 80 (VB-80) operating off USS Hancock, Feb 1945
Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in tricolor scheme and tail markings for Bombing Squadron 80 (VB-80) operating off USS Hancock, Feb 1945