My Father’s Helldiver, things I didn’t know

The past few days have brought an educational experience I didn’t expect to have. It concerned the World War II dive bomber known as the Helldiver.  And it began when I chanced upon a YouTube video offering a half-hour training film directed at WWII-era Navy Helldiver pilots (the video is above, try it out!).  The Helldiver was the plane my father helped flight test when he worked for Fairchild, in Montreal, Canada, from 1943 to 1945.  He may have even watched this same film as part of his own training. The video opened my eyes to what a very complicated piece of machinery the Helldiver was to fly.  A little more digging on the web, after watching the film, acquainted me with something else I didn’t know — namely, that flying the Helldiver harbored no small potential for peril for its flight-testing and combat crews.  In other words — and if I translate this new knowledge into its relevance for the history of our family — it took rather more courage than I had previously imagined for my father to strap himself into that plane before every one of his test flights.

In what sense was the plane dangerous?

Well, there was a bevy of reasons — none of which, by the way, I knew before the brief tutorial YouTube’s video sent me on.

First of all, the plane was still relatively new and untested when my father started his job at Fairchild.  Moreover, its initial flight testing experience hadn’t been promising.  The plane went through hundreds of design modifications over the course of its development and early use.  The Curtiss Helldiver SB2C’s Wikipedia page notes that a prototype of the plane “suffered teething problems” with its “Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone engine and three-bladed propeller.”  Additional difficulties, continued Wikipedia’s article, included   

structural weaknesses, poor handling, directional instability and bad stall characteristics.  In 1939, a student brought a model of the new Curtiss XSB2C-1 to the MIT wind tunnel. Professor Emeritus of Aeronautical Engineering Otto C. Koppen was quoted as saying, “if they build more than one of these, they are crazy”. He was referring to controllability issues with the small vertical tail.

The Helldiver’s woes had begun all the way back with the U.S. Navy’s design specification requiring that two of the planes had to fit at the same time on an Essex class carrier’s 41 X 48 foot elevator.  This requirement necessitated fold-up wings and a fuselage that was too short for the plane’s wingtip-to-wingtip, extended width.  This design disproportion, in turn, resulted in poor controllability in flight, which in due course occasioned substantial increases in the tail unit’s size.  Controllability was a particularly vexing problem for the Helldiver because it was, after all, a carrier-based aircraft.  Hence, pilots had to repeatedly negotiate the tricky challenge posed by carrier landings.  As one source noted about this problem in particular:  “The approach speed for a carrier deck landing was 85 knots, but the ailerons response below 90 knots was poor, making the airplane hard to control at the most critical phase of its flight.”

Joseph-Roizen-Dorval

Joseph Roizen (1923-1989)

A variety of mechanical problems bedeviled the Helldiver too.  A test flight of its first prototype plane, in February, 1941, crashed on landing when its engine failed — although the pilot was lucky enough to survive.  A modified prototype, in December of that year, crashed when a wing snapped off during a dive.  Additional mechanical problems included landing gear failures, failures to secure its landing hook because of the plane’s bounce characteristics on landing, tails breaking off on landing, and complaints of poor workmanship.  Poor controllability led to the cancellations of orders from both the British and the Australian Royal Navies.  If all that weren’t enough, the Truman Committee strongly criticized Curtiss’s production practices respecting the Helldiver in a report issued in July of 1943.  The airplane’s production was scheduled to begin in December, 1941, the report noted, but hadn’t actually commenced until September, 1942.  “It has been hopelessly behind schedule,” complained the report, “and to date Curtiss-Wright has not succeeded in producing a single SB2C which the Navy considers to be usable as a combat airplane” (Truman Committee Report, July 7, 1943, p. 14).

Still more peril attached to the Helldiver in that it was, of course, a dive bomber.  This meant it attacked enemy targets at sea by means of a steep — say 70-degrees or more — diving maneuver, which of course contributed extra stresses to both the airship and its occupants.  The Army and the Navy had a longstanding disagreement regarding the value of dive bombing.  “The U.S. Army Air Corps,” wrote Robert Guttman (2000),

was convinced that it could hit any target from high altitude by means of level bombing, using precision optical bombsights…The Navy believed that a relatively small moving target, like a warship taking evasive action, would be virtually impossible to hit by level bombing. Naval aviators felt that pinpoint dive-bombing attacks, delivered simultaneously with coordinated low-level torpedo-plane attacks, would be the most effective method of dealing with an enemy fleet.

Beyond their evasive maneuvering, enemy ships could also present targets that were massive in scale and well-armored, thus requiring heavy ordnance to damage, disable, or sink them.  The Helldiver, therefore, had to carry a heavyweight bombing punch.  One design variation, the SB2C-4, came equipped with an internal bomb bay capable of carrying a 1,000-lb. bomb in addition to its other weapons.  Heavy punch, however, also required the Helldiver itself to be big and heavy. It weighed in at about 10,500 pounds empty and about 16,500 pounds takeoff weight, the latter representing of course more than 8 tons.  (By way of comparison, the British Spitfire fighter plane weighed 5,000 lbs. empty and 6,600 at takeoff.)  The Helldiver stood 13 feet, 2 inches tall.  Dimensions like these gave the plane a massive appearance, which may have contributed to one of the nicknames pilots attached to it, “The Beast.”  This sort of size and weight, combined with its dive bombing assignment and its problematic control profile, made the plane an all the more daunting and perilous flying challenge for its crews — notably, in my father’s case, the crews that flight tested the plane when it came off the production line.

I’ve ordered a book from Amazon on the history of the Helldiver.  A staff member, Bruce McLeod, at the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre has very kindly offered to see what he can unearth about my father’s service with the Helldiver while he was employed by Fairchild.  I’ll be revising this post or adding one or more additional posts as more info comes in.  For the time being, though, about all I can say is:  “Way to go, Dad!  Good job!”

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