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thedrifter
10-31-06, 01:27 PM
November 06, 2006
The Lore of the Corps
Helldiver became king of the skies for a time

By Fred L. Borch and Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

Flying was different in the late 1920s and early 1930s: Marine aviators whisked through the sky in fabric-covered biplanes with open cockpits, exposed to the elements.

The landing gear did not retract; instead of pointy noses, aircraft had round, open-faced engines surrounded by cowl rings.

The Curtiss F8C Helldiver fighter joined the Corps’ fleet in 1931. A fabric-covered craft based on the earlier Curtiss Falcon that Marines had flown in Nicaragua, the F8C was manufactured by the Garden City, N.Y., company founded by air pioneer Glenn Curtiss.

The Helldiver was a sturdy, stable aircraft that briefly qualified as state of the art in a rapidly changing era. A 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1340-4 radial engine drove the Helldiver’s two-blade propeller, which was deemed revolutionary because it was made of metal instead of wood. The plane had a maximum speed of 118 knots.

The first Helldivers to reach leatherneck units were 25 F8C-4 models, hand-me-downs from the Navy. The Corps received 63 new F8C-5 models, which offered minor improvements to the basic design. The Helldiver typically carried a pilot in front and an observer in back.

The service also acquired the sole F8C-7 model. This one-of-a-kind Helldiver had a Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine; the Corps used it as a VIP transport.

One of the F8C-5s was modified with an enclosed cockpit to become the personal aircraft of Col. Thomas Turner, officer in charge of Marine aviation from May 1929 until his accidental death in Haiti in October 1931.

Heavily armed for its era, the F8C-5 Helldiver carried two fixed .30-caliber machine guns in the nose and another .30-cal operated by a gunner in the rear cockpit. It could also carry a 500-pound bomb or two 116-pound bombs.

F8C fighters appeared in the 1931 movie “Hell Divers,” starring a mature Wallace Beery and newcomer Clark Gable. Navy and Marine pilots did much of the flying in the film.

In the early 1930s, the F8Cs were redesignated as O2C observation airplanes and landed an even bigger role on the silver screen.

In 1933, film director Merian Cooper used O2C-1 Helldivers to swat a giant gorilla off the top of New York City’s Empire State Building in the original version of “King Kong.”

The 1976 remake, directed by John Guillermin, was set in modern-day New York: The gorilla climbed atop the World Trade Center and was fired upon by helicopter gunships such as the UH-1E Hueys flown by Marines in Vietnam.

When director Peter Jackson created a third “King Kong” for release in 2005, he returned to the 1933 setting. No F8C or O2C Helldivers exist, so Jackson built two full-sized, nonflying replicas.

The last Marine Helldiver was retired in July 1936. The popular name was re-used for Curtiss’ SB2C monoplane dive bomber flown by Navy and Marine crews during World War II.

Fred L. Borch retired from the Army and wrote “Kimmel, Short and Pearl Harbor.” His e-mail address is borchfj@aol.com. Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is the author of “Air Combat,” a history of fighter pilots. His e-mail address is robert.f.dorr@cox.net.

Ellie