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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS Feed 'Beast' is bum rap for Helldiver

Story and photos by FREDERICK A. JOHNSEN
Big wings, big tail, big everything characterize the Curtiss Helldiver at AirVenture 2011.
Reaching for the sky, the wings and flexible tailguns of the only flyable SB2C Helldiver greet visitors to Warbird Alley.

The Beast is a beauty in the eyes of Curtiss Helldiver pilot Ed Vesely.

Ed flies this huge single-engine SB2C dive bomber with the unofficial nickname of “Beast.” You can’t miss it in the Warbirds area. The big Curtiss has suffered an image problem ever since World War II when pilots spoiled by the docile Douglas Dauntless were jolted by the rigors of flying the Helldiver. Even Curtiss called its baby the Beast in a wartime brochure intended to educate newbies how to tame it.

In spite of the popular lore denigrating the SB2C’s flying qualities, Ed says, “I’ve never had one Helldiver pilot tell me it was a bad airplane.” He calls the Helldiver “extremely stable…it’s under-rated.”

A Beastly intro
Ed’s introduction to the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Helldiver—the last of the breed still flying—came with a good briefing from another Helldiver pilot who helped demystify it for Ed.

“The most surprising thing was the extremely heavy rudder,” he says. Other control forces are lighter.

Ed also observes that the Helldiver—at least this late SB2C-5 variant—“does not like to fly below a hundred knots.” Its wing, with a planform similar to that of the Curtiss P-40 fighter, has a higher wing loading than some other Navy carrier-based bombers.

“Because of its high wing loading it hits the deck harder,” Ed explains.

Some pilots who grew up with the lighter Dauntless didn’t like the way the Beast treated them.

But they were built for it.

Can the Helldiver perform any aerobatics?

“The book says it can, but the CAF says ‘No,’” Ed observes.

He’s okay with that—no need to stretch the boundaries too far with this last flier.

Baptism by fire
The Helldiver entered combat on November 11, 1943, when Squadron VB-17 attacked the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul.

The Helldiver typically carried a pair of wing-mounted 20 mm cannons plus two flexible-mount .30-caliber defensive machine guns operated by an aft-facing gunner.

The SB2C could carry up to a ton of ordnance with 1,000 pounds stowed in an enclosed bomb bay and another half-ton on wing hard points.

As the war progressed, Helldivers increasingly assumed dive bombing duties from the Dauntless. By February 1945, Helldivers were bombing the Japanese home islands.

As newer designs like the Douglas Skyraider entered postwar fleet service, Helldivers slipped away, some entering the inventories of Greece and Thailand.

Resurrection squared
The CAF Helldiver joined the Navy in July 1945 and was mustered out at the end of August three years later.

Service as an aeronautical school training aid kept this SB2C-5 from the scrapper until a museum acquired it in May 1963.

Looking to help fill the CAF’s ambitious wish list, a member bought this Helldiver and donated it to the organization in 1971.

Engine failure in 1982 led to an emergency landing that seriously damaged this Helldiver. Some who saw the broken bird said it would never fly again.

Tell that to the West Texas Wing of the CAF. Thousands of volunteer man-hours under the skillful direction of Nelson Ezell fueled by more than $200,000, brought the only flying Helldiver back to life in September 1988.

Changes during the rebuild included a swap of the Helldiver’s former Curtiss Electric propeller for the Hamilton Standard fan it now rides behind.

When the rebuilding team needed a replacement for the damaged R-2600 engine, fate smiled and led them to a QEC (quick engine change) unit still in a can behind a hangar in Junction, Texas. The engine’s owner was persuaded to abandon his plans to scrap the spare mill, Ed recalls.

Ed says the Navy’s robust anti-corrosion measures dating back to World War II still help keep the Helldiver’s aluminum clean.

Only traces of surface corrosion needed attention in a few spots when the big bomber was repainted two years ago.

Expanding duties
The Helldiver received two permissions recently. One allows the CAF to sell rides in the bomber to help fund its upkeep.

The other qualifies the Helldiver to fly formation with current Navy aircraft to honor the service’s legacy.

The Helldiver graces the cover of this year’s special AirVenture Oshkosh 2011 commemorative souvenir program, sharing the sky with a modern F/A-18 painted in a World War II tri-color camouflage scheme similar to that worn by the SB2C.

Ed hopes to re-create that scene at AirVenture on Saturday.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to fly it,” he adds.


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