SB2C Helldiver by Monogram

1/48 scale
Kit No. 6831
Cost: $5.00 (way back when)
Decals: One version – U.S. Navy
Comments: Old kit, raised panel lines, sliding canopies, folding wings, retractable landing gear, movable arrestor hook, functioning bomb bay doors, muliti-part greenhouse canopy

History

The Curtiss SB2C Helldiver was the last dive bomber in U.S. Navy service. While it eventually became a successful aircraft in the Pacific War, it had a painful development period and initially a checkered reputation, due to a combination of design restrictions, initial poor workmanship, and the fact that it replaced an extremely popular dive bomber, the Douglas “Slow But Deadly” SBD Dauntless. Any aircraft following the Dauntless would have been the target of resentment, but so beloved was the rugged heroine of the Battle of Midway that many SBD units resisted transitioning to the Helldiver as long as they could. In fairness, upon its introduction, the Helldiver was underpowered and suffered from several flaws affecting its performance, literally requiring thousands of modifications.

Ironically, the Helldiver had its origins in the U.S. Navy’s awareness of the limitations of the SBD. Popular thought it was, the Navy knew that the successor to the SBD would have to be faster, carry a bigger payload, and have better range — and the search began as soon as the SBD entered service. In 1938, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics circulated a Request for Proposals (RFP) calling for just such a new scout-bomber. Certain characteristics which dramatically affected the Helldiver’s development were dictated in advance: the powerplant was to be the still experimental Wright 14-cylinder R-2600 Cyclone; it had to have the ability to carry a 1,000 lb. bomb load in an internal bomb bay; and two of the aircraft (with wings folded) had to fit onto a 48 foot-by-40 foot elevator with a foot of clearance all around.

Much of the Helldiver’s poor performance, particularly its directional instability, has been blamed on this single Navy specification. The aircraft needed to be lengthened to cure this problem, but the claim has often been made that it could not be lengthened since it would no longer fit on the aircraft carrier elevators. This is not true. Upon introduction into service the Helldiver was 36 feet, 8 inches in length, with a wingspan of 49 feet, 8 and 5/8 inches. Even if its length were positioned to fit onto the elevator’s shorter forty-foot dimension, the Helldiver could have been another 1 foot, 4 inches long, and still met the Navy specifications. The claim that the elevator dimensions caused the Helldiver to be too short are not valid. On the other hand, if the Helldiver’s length had been placed on the forty-eight dimension, it could have been 46 feet long — 10 feet longer than it actually was. Whatever the effect the additional length would have had on the plane’s performance, the fact remains that Curtiss designers did not make the most of the available space. Interestingly, the few photos of the Helldiver on Navy carrier elevators, show one plane on the elevator at a time, begging the question, was the Navy’s specification based on actual deployment conditions?

Six companies submitted proposals, and the Curtiss-Wright Corporation won the contract in May 1939 with its XSB2C-1 prototype. There was trouble from the beginning. Wind tunnel tests, begun in February 1940, revealed the airframe’s poor longitudinal stability and excessive stall speed. The former problem was directly linked to the Navy’s design specifications. The SB2C had 60% more power than the SBD-1 and was twice as heavy, yet it was only 4 feet longer — an increase in length of only 18 percent. Added to this was the Helldiver’s greater girth — in cross-section, it was considerably bulkier than the SBD. With the dramatic increase in power, weight and volume, but restrictions on how much length could be added to the airframe, the inevitable result was longitudinal instability, which had a significant effect on how the Helldiver handled. Since its length was restricted by the elevator dimensions of the Navy’s carriers, the only other solution was to increase the area of the tail — which is what the Curtiss-Wright engineers did. This led to the Helldiver’s distinctive, large paddle-like tail, and its nickname, “Big Tailed Beast.”

While old by today’s standards, at the time of its introduction in 1963, Monogram’s Helldiver sported unusual detail in the form of the engine face within the cowling and the molding of the propeller.

There were a host of additional modiifications to the SB2C, so many that they could not be smoothly integrated into the existing factory production lines. Curtiss had to establish separate assembly lines for the modifications, known as Mod II and Mod III, before the Helldiver was considered ready for service. Even still, early Helldivers were underpowered, with the Wright R-2600-8 engine fitted into early versions of the Helldiver and Avenger alike, producing only 1,700 horsepower upon take-off. Crashes during the first carrier take-offs were common, with more than a few aircraft “going into the drink,” such as three planes from the U.S.S. Essex. The commander of the Essex’ VB-15 told pilots to allow an additional 50 feet beyond what was specified in the flight manual for take-off. This resolved the problem, although the Helldivers still struggled into the air. Wright subsequently developed the R-2600-20, which produced and additional 200 horsepower on take-off. This was not as much as pilots wanted, but more power was a definite improvement.

The Helldiver’s baptism of fire came on November 11, 1943 when a squadron of 24 aircraft of VB-17 from the U.S.S. Bunker Hill attacked the port of Rabaul, New Guinea in the South Pacific, inflicting heavy damage on the Japanese fleet. Later that same month, subsequent attacks on the island of Tarawa in support of the Marines’ amphibious landing were equally successful.

Monogram’s kit is of the SB2C-5, a late war variant similar to the SB2C-4, distinguishable mainly by its frameless pilot’s canopy. A total of 555 SB2C-5’s were built and most did not see extensive action during WWII, but saw a great deal of post-war fleet service, remaining on active status until they were phased out in favor of the AD-1 Skyraider in 1949.

The Kit

Editor’s Note: Unlike most old kits reviewed on this site, I am the original owner of this one, having purchased it at Woolworth’s back in 1980 when those white-box Monogram kits were considered new rather than vintage (which gives you an idea how long it’s been part of the kit stash).

The pilot figures were considered exceptionally realistic in the early 1960’s.

Monogram’s Helldiver is injection molded in dark blue and consists of 56 parts, 5 of them clear plastic for the windscreen and greenhouse canopy. It shows its age in that the fuselage and wings bear not only raised panel lines but raised rivet detail as well. The cockpit tub has a small amount of engraved detail that is crude by today’s standards, but upon the Helldiver’s first release in the 1960’s was considered state-of -the-art. There is a rear bulkhead with a hole into which a tab on the pilot’s back is cemented. The pilot figure, like the rear gunner, is well-detailed. There is no other cockpit detail. In contrast, the rear gunner’s station bears a fair amount of raised detail on the fuselage interior sidewalls.

 

There are two parts for the rear flight deck and a third for the radio, which is molded as a single piece with the radio operator/gunner’s rear bulkhead. The rear gunner is cemented onto a pedestal – there is no pretense of providing the most basic seat, although on the actual SB2C the rear gunner sat on a bucket seat without a seatback — comfort was not a priority. The engine face is molded into the one-piece cowling. Parts are provided to make the landing gear retract (although the landing gear themselves are crude), and the wings fold, and there is a mechanism to make the bomb bay doors open and close. There is raised detail on the interior of the landing gear doors and bomb bay doors.

This kit is rather old, but caused a sensation upon its introduction in the 1960’s, with all its working parts. A slew of aftermarket parts have come into being to modernize it, including white metal landing gear by Scale Aircraft Conversions (No. 48139); a landing flaps set by Eduard (No. 48527); a wheel bay set by Aires (No. 4489); a photo-etch fret for the bomb bay by Eduard (No. 48526); interior and exterior detail sets by Eduard (Nos. 49349 and 48518); Eduard Masks (No. EX053); a set of resin exhausts by Quickboost (No. 48-248); and a resin cockpit by True Details (No. 49016). However, with the introduction of Monogram’s retooled Promodeler version of the Helldiver in the 1990’s, motivation for such extensive aftermarket detailing faded considerably.

Conclusion

This is a great old Monogram kit that admittedly needs work and a bit of aftermarket lipstick to look pretty enough for most of today’s modelers. Still, highly recommended.

References

  • U.S. Navy Carrier Bombers of World War II; Copyright 1987 Squadron Signal Publications; Carrollton, Texas, USA, and by Vintage Aviation Publications, Oxford, England.
  • SB2C Helldiver in Detail & Scale by Bert Kinzey; Copyright 1997 by Squadron Signal Publications; Carrollton, Texas, USA, and by Detail & Scale
  • Monogram instruction sheet
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