Compared to the Douglas SBD Dauntless it replaced, the Helldiver was a much larger aircraft that can operate from the latest carriers and carry a considerable array of armament
The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was designed as a carrier-based bomber, in theaters in the Pacific, as an addition and replacement for the Douglas SBD Dauntless. But problems with its development delayed its introduction and saddled it with a bad reputation. By the end of the war, changes in technology meant other aircraft could deliver an equal or greater ordnance load with comparable accuracy, eliminating the need for a specialized dive bomber. And the Helldiver became the Navy’s last dive bomber.
Helldiver was also nicknamed “Big-Tailed Beast”. Compared to the Douglas SBD Dauntless it replaced, the Helldiver was a much larger aircraft that can operate from the latest carriers and carry a considerable array of armament. It featured an internal bomb bay that reduced drag when carrying heavy ordnance. Standard armament included a pair of fixed forward-firing 20mm cannons in the wings and a pair of 7.62mm M1919 Browning air-cooled machine guns in the rear cockpit.
The Helldiver was designed with a metal, low-monoplane wing, with a crew of two seated in tandem within a long cockpit – the pilot in the forward area and the tail gunner in the aft. The aircraft was fitted with a single Wright-powered engine at the extreme forward of the fuselage powering a three-bade propeller. The fuselage sported straight wings with a tapered trailing edge and rounded tips. The design was specifically engineered with a large-area tail assembly for improved handling.
Helldiver made its maiden flight on December 18, 1940, and entered service in December 1942. The program suffered so many delays that the Grumman TBF Avenger entered service before the Helldiver, even though the Avenger had begun its development two years later. A total of 7,140 SB2Cs were produced in World War II.
Though Curtiss had made numerous changes, the initial version still suffered from a number of difficulties. Once assigned to carriers, it had tailwheel and hook failures that limited it to service ashore until the problems were addressed. In addition, the electrical and hydraulic systems required a lot of maintenance on parts that were difficult to access. Overall, the Helldiver made a poor first impression among both aircrew and maintainers, earning it the pejorative nicknames “The Big-Tailed Beast” and “Son of a Bitch, 2nd Class”. Regardless, the Helldiver proved a most potent mount and was able to carry a greater ordnance payload than her predecessor.
Despite the problems, some of which only emerged well after it entered service, initial demand for the Helldiver was high, leading the Navy to assign additional construction to Fairchild Aircraft’s Canadian branch and the Canadian Car & Foundry Company. Though the U.S. Navy was the primary customer, both the British navy and the Australian air force placed orders for Helldivers.
Nevertheless, the Helldiver’s problems proved too much trouble for these additional customers. The Army took delivery of only about 900 A-25s before deciding it did not need a dedicated dive bomber, while both the Australians and the British quickly decided the Helldiver was unsuited to service and canceled their orders.
Modified again, Helldivers returned to carriers in May 1943, but performance was still poor. The Helldiver did not make its combat debut until November 1943, in a raid on the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Adm. Marc Mitscher launched a strike force against the Japanese carriers that included 51 SB2C-1C Helldivers and 26 Dauntlesses. The entire strike was launched at extreme range, and this distance significantly affected the Helldivers due to their smaller fuel load: only five returned to land safely on the carriers. Of the 46 lost, 32 ran out of gas and crashed or ditched. Tellingly, only two Dauntlesses were lost: one was shot down and one crashed on landing.
The Helldiver would remain in Navy and Marine Corps service until 1950, but after the war, the U.S. sold surplus Helldivers to the navies of Italy, Portugal, Thailand, Greece, and France. The French navy kept them in service until 1958, and Helldivers saw their last combat in the third phase of the Greek civil war and with the French in the First Indochina War.