Curtiss SB2C Helldiver (1942)
US Navy Dive Bomber (1943-45), 7,140 built
The Curtiss SB2C and its "bad rep"
A bit like Brewster products, the Buffalo and disastrous Buccaneer, the 1942 Helldiver suffered from a poor reputation. The Curtiss SB2C (A-25 Shrike) dive bomber was developed as a carrier-based bomber intended for supplementing and replacing the Douglas SBD Dauntless on the Pacific theater. However it was initially plagued by poor handling characteristics during a lenghtly development, pushing its entry in service from mid-1942 to late 1943. This was even considered such a debacle, that it was investigated by the Truman Committee postwar, leading to a scathing report and contributing to the disaffection of Curtiss as a company for the USN and in general, depite its long links and past success with the Navy. It was its second bad press slap after the failure of the SO3C Seamew, considered mediocre at best.
In fact neither pilots, nor aircraft carrier skippers liked it contrary to Grumman's stellar Hellcats and Avengers. Was the SB2C much maligned, despite its nicknames of "Big-Tailed Beast" and "Son-of-a-Bitch 2nd Class" ? The type was faster than the Dauntless, powerful, rugged, could carry more payload in its secured bomb bay, and by the end of the Pacific War was the main carrier-based dive bomber/attack aircraft, produed to an extent of 7,140 models, lend-leased and exported after the war to dive countries, used well past the 1950s.
Like for the previous Dauntless (A 10 Banshee), a land-based variant was generated first, known as the A-25 Shrike
in late 1943. This proved a uge disappointment which fuel the bad rep of the SB2C, at a time the Allied air forces dropped dedicated dive-bombers for good. USAF A-25s went to the US Marine Corps, but this bad rep made the British Royal Navy and the RAAF cancelling substantial orders, keeping only a few. On a scale to the "worst aircraft of WW2", the Helldiver, second of the name, was still way above the Brewster Buccaneer
Genesis of Curtiss Dive Bomber: The Helldiver Biplane.
Indeed, the name "Helldiver" was already carried by a rather successful Curtiss biplane, the SBC. First flying in 1935 just as diver bombers were studied and tested as the perfect carrier-borne ship killer, the study biplane was introduced in 1938 and found so reliable and robust, production went on until April 1941, when the very last SBC-4 were delivered. The Navy was pleased with the model, which also went into lend-lease and was passed onto the USMC when gradually replaced by the SBD Dauntless.
In 1938, it was onboard USS Enteprise and Yorktown, as well as USS Saratoga. In 1940 it was passe donto the Naval Reserve Air Bases (NRABs) for training, and from December 1941, in NAF/NAS units along the coast. It also saw service in the Royal Navy as the Cleveland Mk.I, notably from HMS Furious and nearly was in service with the French carrier Bearn. The SBC was only retired from 1943, but gave confidence to Curtiss when proposing to the Navy in 1941 a new monoplane superior to the Douglas SBD just introduced.
⚠ Note: This post is in writing. Completion expected in late 2022.
A long Initial Development: XSB2C lineage.
The Navy was pleased with the Dauntless in 1939 and therefore did not needed a secondary model from Curtiss, but were interested for a replacement planned in mid-1943 or even 1944 (before the war). In September 1939 with the war breaking out, production of the Dauntless was stepped up and the Navy was now interested for an equivalent to go with the USMC. From December 1941 however these plans were shaken, and a replacement for the SBD was now urgently needed for mid-1942 at the earnest.
The XSB2C first drafts appeared in 1939 in fact. The company's largest production so far has been for the Navy, with 258 Curtiss SOC Seagull from 1934, and the fighter BF2C Goshhawk before that in 1933 (166 delivered). In 1936 the company was busy delivering its largest order yet, destine to be the modern frontline fighter of the USAAC, the Curtiss P-36 Hawk. The basic idea of a navy dive bomber replacing the SBC, monoplane, more powerful and carrying its payload in a bomb bay to reduce drag first appeared in 1938.
Experimentations with monoplane dive bombers already started with the transitional Curtiss A-12 Shrike (first flight 1933), which was adopted by the USAAC as a main attack aircraft through most of the 1930s, almost half of them going into combat in China. In fact the very last saw action (3rd Attack Group, 8th and 18th Pursuit Groups) at hickham airfield when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Plenty of data was available to improve on this basic design, getting rid of the gull wings and fixed undercarriage, open cockpit, and to turn it into a true carrier-based model, creating eventually a monoplane, low wing version of the SBC. The name "SB2C" was logically adopted to followed the "SBC", the latter letter standing for Curtiss, as the second Navy dive bomber model.
Another lead, was a conversion of the SO3C Seamew as a carrier-borne dedicated bomber. This was the path chosen for the initial development in 1939, but incorporating many "multi-role" features as befitting to a model allocated to the USAAC, USN and USMC, a "joint strike aircraft" of sorts. Loosely based on a Seamew fuselage and entirely new folding wings, redrafted tail, and powered by the latest Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone engine. The XSB2C-1 mockup was followed by a fully grown prototype built, yet not flight tested yet. Initially ground tests were performed, revealing many issues with the Twin Cyclone and its connected three-bladed propeller. The company in the meantime was completely absorbed by the construction of thousands of P40 Warhawks for the USAAF and spent little resources on this project, which dragged on until the end of 1940. Nevertheless, large-scale production was already ordered on 29 November 1940.
Under pressure, Curtiss precipitated the XSB2C-1's first flight on 18 December 1940. The flight revealed serious issues, namely structural weaknesses, poor handling, directional instability and bad stall characteristics, all indesirable for any pilot. The test pilot was not impressed, finding this machine "unresponsive to commands" and Curtiss was pressed to rework its design. In Late 1939, so about one year before, a student took a model of the new Curtiss XSB2C-1 model to the MIT wind tunnel. This test was not asked by Curtiss, and was of its own initiative. Seeing the test, Professor of Aeronautical Engineering Otto C. Koppen allegedly said "if they build more than one of these, they are crazy", referring to its small vertical tail.
Back at Curtiss however, development went on according to plan, laboriously fixing all issues reported in 1941. The XSB2C-1 flew again at first without problem, but crashed on 8 February 1941 as its engine failed on approach. Judging there were still many issues with the design, Curtiss was asked to rebuild the prototype and lengthen the fuselage, while a larger tail was fitted. Also asked by the USN and USAAF, for the first time an autopilot was fitted. Its role was to correct the model's poor stability and assist the pilot. The revised prototype flew on 20 October 1941, so almost at the end of the year after. Again, it crashed, after its wing failed during a first diving test on 21 December 1941. The US were at war now since a few days, and the SBD2C start was rocky to say the least.
Production and variants
Production was scheduled to start on this basis in early 1942, but a large number of modifications were specified for this production model. Some were to fix its numerous issues, and others were awaited in order to make the new model "battle ready" for USN service. As a result, the company had its Fin enlarged and redrawn, the rudder area much increased, fuel capacity increased combined with heavier, larger self-sealing fuel tanks, a rubber boat and survival kit, some neck armor for the pilot, while the fixed armament was doubled, to four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns in the wings. The prototype indeed had only two light machine guns placed on the engine cowling.
The prototype XSB2C-1 was powered by a 1,700 hp (1,268 kW) R-2600-8 engine, but due to the lenght development, Wright went several versions ahead in between, and the revise production model SB2C-1 was to keep the same engine, but to carry also a single 0.30 in (7.62 mm) dorsal gun. In all 200 were built of this initial batch, all not well received and quickly sidelined.
Floatplane version XSB2C floatplane (September 1942)
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