They torpedoed enemy ships during World War II. Now they fight fire.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 7 of 8)
Bobby LeBlanc put one in the woods himself three years ago. “About 20 minutes out at 2,000 feet I heard a couple of bangs and I saw some smoke,” he remembers. “There was oil all over my windscreen. I started to see flames coming out from the side of the cowling. When I started diving down the fire went out. I found out later that the ring gear on the propeller had broken. Everything went out and I was just a glider, but it doesn’t glide very well.
“I picked myself a nice spot at the end of a clear-cut,” he continues. “I left my wings level and one wing caught the tree. It cut it off from the aileron out.” The TBM kept going to the far end of the clear-cut and hit in the tops of some tall trees, then fell to the ground, landing at an angle. It was a jolt, but LeBlanc had his shoulder harness locked and the switches off (to prevent the formation of sparks, which could start a fire). He is philosophical about the incident. “Any type of airplane, you’re bound to have an accident,” he says. “Nothing is perfect. We’re fortunate we can still talk about it. Another type of airplane and we might not be here to tell it.”
Most of the pilots will be sad to see the sturdy TBMs go. Nobody will miss them more than Pat Greene, though. “They’re like your children,” he says. “They’re all different, but you love them all. I was joking with [general manager] Dave Davies—well, I wasn’t really joking, but I said if he would keep one TBM, I’d work on it for free.”
By mid-summer, the future was sitting brazenly on the ramp near the old Avengers—a brand-new Air Tractor 802F, embodying the latest technology in tanker/sprayers. Powered by a 1,420-horsepower Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine, it can carry 800 gallons. It can drop its load in 50-gallon increments in any pattern for up to 16 separate drops, and for spraying it uses a GPS system that is accurate within a few feet. The pilot can monitor it all on a screen in the cockpit.
Moreover, the AT-802F has automatic flow control for the spray. Every movement of the flight is recorded, including where and when the spray is released and from what altitude. The airplane can deliver its load faster than the old Avenger, because close to the drop zone, it is more maneuverable. And with its fingertip control, autopilot, and air conditioning, it is also more comfortable.
It doesn’t impress Pat Greene. “Every one of the TBMs has a personality,” he says. “That’s what bothers me about the new one. It has no class, no personality to it.”
Even after years of muscling them around, the pilots will miss the adventure of flying the Avengers. “Just because the Honda is smoother and more high-tech doesn’t mean we wouldn’t rather ride Harleys,” says Eric Bradley.
Like the others, Bobby LeBlanc hopes against hope for more time. “Maybe with a little luck we can add a few more years,” he says. “It’s still a thrill to fly them. And we’ve saved a lot of trees and a lot of jobs for people working in the woods.”