The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver had nicknames of “Son of a Bitch Second Class,” the “Beast,” and worse by many a pilot

A black and white image of a 1945 Curtiss Helldiver shot from below while the plane was in flight.

By the end of the Pacific theater during World War II, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver had become the main dive bomber and attack aircraft on USN carriers. But problems with its development delayed its introduction and saddled it with a bad reputation. (Photo from the Paul S. Maynard archive)


The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver sent Japanese warships to the bottom of the ocean. It pulverized fortifications on Japan’s home islands. And the Helldiver left a trail of wreckage in its wake, yet, it was a less-than-stellar performer built by an aircraft company in decline.

According to a report by Robert F. Dorr in, its design was a recipe for trouble.

It was a round, blue tube squatting on a tiny tailwheel carrying a pilot and radioman-gunner in tandem behind a 1,900-horsepower Wright R-2600 radial engine, he wrote.

With a wingspan of 49 feet, 9 inches, the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver had nicknames of “Son of a Bitch Second Class,” the “Beast,” and worse by many a pilot, Dorr wrote. However, “the plane was neither as bad as its critics said nor as good as its manufacturer hoped.”

Bad Reputation

“The Helldiver’s career began with problems. The prototype XSB2C-1 made its maiden flight on December 18, 1940, but it was destroyed just days later.

Curtiss rebuilt the aircraft and flew it again in October 1941, but it crashed a second time after a month. After production moved to Columbus, Ohio, from Buffalo, New York, the first production Helldiver flew in June 1942.”

The Columbus plant would go on to build more than 5,000 Helldivers. Only a few survivors exist. In the Battle of the Philippine Sea, 45 Helldivers, most of which had been launched from extreme range, were lost when they ran out of fuel while returning to their carriers, according to the Helldiver’s Wikipedia page

Stability and Structural Issues

From the start, the blue warplane garnered a reputation for poor stability, structural flaws, and poor handling, wrote Dorr in

“Britain rejected the Helldiver after receiving 26 examples. Lengthening the fuselage by one foot and redesigning the fin fixed the aerodynamic problems.

“The stability and structural issues were exaggerated — yet more than one Helldiver broke in half when making a hard tailhook landing on a wooden carrier deck.

“The Helldiver offered an internal bomb bay that could accommodate a 1,000-pound bomb and be closed by hydraulically operated doors,” wrote Dorr. “Hardpoints under the wings accommodated additional ordnance.”

“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.”

By this time, Curtiss had smoothed out nearly all imperfections in the design, Dorr wrote. The next-generation SB2C-4 followed, introducing “cheese grate” upper and lower wing flaps perforated like a sieve; they enhanced stability.

By the war’s end, technological advancements allowed other aircraft to deliver an equal or greater bombload with comparable accuracy, eliminating the need for a specialized dive bomber. Thus, the SB2C Helldiver was the last dive bomber in the Navy’s inventory.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver Specifications

Crew: 2

Length: 36 feet 8 inches

Wing span: 49 feet 9 inches

Wing area: 422 square feet

Empty weight: 10,547 pounds

Number built: 7,140

Gross weight: 16,616 pounds


Powerplant: 1 × Wright R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone 14-cylinder air-cooled radial piston engine, 1,900 hp

Propellers: 1 4-blade constant-speed prop

Maximum speed: 295 mph at 16,700 feet

Cruise speed: 158 mph

Combat range: 1,165 miles with 1,000-pound bombload

Service ceiling: 29,100 feet

Rate of climb: 1,800 feet per minute


Guns: 2 × 20mm (0.787 inch) AN/M2 cannon in the wings; 2 × 0.30 inch (7.6mm) M1919 Browning machine guns in the rear cockpit; 4 X 0.50 inch (13mm) M2 Browning machine guns, two each in gunpods mounted on underwing hardpoints

Rockets: 8 5-inch high-velocity aircraft rockets

Bombs:  2,000 pounds in the internal bay, or 1 Mark 13-2 torpedo on underwing hardpoints: 500 pounds of bombs each

*Specs from Wikipedia

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another image from my dad, Paul Smith Maynard, who worked four decades in aviation as an engineer.

Dad began his career in about 1943 after graduating from West Virginia University. He started with Curtiss-Wright Corp.  , an early pioneer in making flying machines. He went on to work at North American Aviation and Rockwell International.

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