They torpedoed enemy ships during World War II. Now they fight fire.
- By Marshall Lumsden
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
A screech from the loudspeaker pierces the air, followed by the matter-of-fact voice of the dispatcher: “We have an action call.”
The flight leader sprints to the flightline, followed by other pilots and aircrew. Within two minutes, three Grumman TBM Avengers have fired up, and the lead airplane begins to taxi. I close my eyes and listen to the rising and falling chorus of 1,950-horsepower Wright R-2600 radial engines. I can imagine this roar on a carrier deck as the squadron prepared for battle in the Philippine Sea 57 years ago. Soon these sounds will be only a memory.
We are, in fact, at Miramichi Airport, a former Royal Canadian Air Force base in eastern New Brunswick, near the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Avengers, neatly painted in white and gray with yellow wingtips, are tankers, the last working survivors of their breed. They line up by large storage tanks at the edge of the ramp, where 625 U.S. gallons of fire retardant—a slurry of red dye, fertilizer, clay, and water—are rapidly pumped into bomb bay tanks. One by one they take off, climb to about 1,500 feet, and vanish over the southern horizon on their way to a newly reported forest fire.
On December 15, 1941, the Avenger prototype made its first successful flight. The first production models, coming off the line in early 1942, were TBFs (“F” being the U.S. Navy’s designation for Grumman Aircraft, the manufacturer). In 1943, Eastern Aircraft, a division of General Motors in Trenton, New Jersey, began to manufacture them simultaneously as TBMs. In 1944 Eastern took over entirely. In September 1945, when production ceased, 9,837 Avengers had been delivered.
Built to strict Navy specifications as a torpedo bomber to replace the obsolete Douglas Devastator, the Avenger carried a crew of three: pilot, navigator/radioman, and machinist’s mate/turret gunner. Its internal bays could carry 500-pound bombs or a 2,000-pound torpedo.
The Avenger played a major role in defeating the Japanese fleet in every campaign in the South Pacific. Along North Atlantic shipping lanes, Avengers operating off escort carriers went on the offensive against German U-boats, making the sea safer for merchant ships. By the end of the war, pilots had come to appreciate the ruggedness and stability of the seasoned battler, which could take savage punishment and still make it home. Among some pilots, though, its ungainly appearance earned it the nickname “turkey.”
“I always referred to it as ‘the great iron bird,’ the only completely cast iron airplane ever designed by man,” says Lee Pasley, today a retired businessman in Billings, Montana. As a 22-year-old lieutenant (junior grade), Pasley flew TBMs with U.S. Navy Torpedo Squadron One off the carrier Yorktown (the second one with that name) and the Bennington in the South Pacific. “It was a good, solid, honest airplane,” he says. “Nothing tricky about it at all. You could just walk her right straight down through from a dead stall and still have enough control to keep the wings level. Was it a good airplane? I’m still here.” Two days before the war ended in the Pacific, Pasley was shot down by anti-aircraft fire over Tokyo Bay and held prisoner by the Japanese.
Probably the most famous Avenger pilot is former president George H.W. Bush. Shot down during an attack on a Japanese-held island in September 1944, Bush bailed out and was rescued by a U.S. submarine.
The Avenger served the U.S. Navy until 1954. In the 1950s, under the Mutual Defense pact, TBM-3s were sent to Canada, the United Kingdom (which had used them during World War II as well), the Netherlands, France, and Japan, for the Japanese Self-Defense Force. The latter were the last TBMs to leave military service, retiring in 1962.
In 1956, the U.S. Forest Service picked up eight surplus TBMs and began to test them as tankers for fighting forest fires. Powerful, rugged, and capacious, TBMs could reach blazes in places that were not accessible to firefighters on the ground. Because surplus TBMs were cheap, entrepreneurs in the Western states bought them up, equipped them for spraying and firefighting, and contracted their services to federal and state governments.
Meanwhile, in the province of New Brunswick, where 83 percent of the land is forested and wood products are a mainstay of the economy, annual infestations of budworms threatened stands of spruce and fir. Forest Protection Limited was formed in 1952 and initiated a spraying program. In 1960 the company began to replace the fleets of slow Stearman biplanes it had been hiring on a seasonal basis with the more effective TBMs, and by 1977, FPL owned 23 Avengers. Around 1990 the budworm hit the bottom of its natural population cycle, and the TBMs were devoted almost exclusively to firefighting.
Today there are only seven TBM tankers left flying in New Brunswick. Three more are at the company hangar in Fredericton being readied for delivery to buyers, one a private collector in France. David Davies, the genial general manager of FPL, discusses the economics of their long survival: “We had a real public debate here in 1990 when we put these TBMs on as fire tankers,” he says. “They were saying these were old aircraft. We’re saying these are young aircraft. There’s three to six thousand hours on the airplane. That’s it. We’ve got 11 good years out of them. One more year and they’ve done their job. These were all purchased in the 1970s for twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. Even when you add a $130,000 per airplane conversion, what’s that against these new aircraft in the $1.2 million range?”
Miramichi Airport, the summer base for FPL’s Forest Fire Air Tanker Operations, is 45 minutes by Cessna 172 to the northeast of Fredericton. From 800 feet above the terrain, all you can see of New Brunswick looks like a forest. Here and there are a small village, an isolated house or a stump-filled patch of clear-cut, and a highway along a meandering river. The green landscape rolls gently away on both sides.
At Miramichi, two flights of three TBMs are parked in rows facing each other across the ramp. They look sleek and well-cared for, but no longer very warrior-like. The gun turrets have long since been removed, and the canopies faired to cover the gaps. Aft of the cockpit, the windows of the navigator’s compartment have been painted over.
Chief pilot Eric Bradley explains how they work: “Initially, someone will spot a forest fire in New Brunswick somewhere and they’ll call in to the dispatcher at this base and request tankers for air support. We’re sitting around goofing off, joking and pretending everything is normal. When the siren goes off, everybody goes into action.”
From here, you can jump in a TBM and fly anywhere in the province in less than an hour. If the fire is far enough away, the aircraft will shift operations to one of 11 satellite airstrips, most of which are equipped with storage tanks filled with aircraft fuel, retardant, which is dropped on the unburned vegetation surrounding a fire to make it fireproof, and foam, which is used to douse a blaze. Each firefighting flight includes three TBMs and two support aircraft: a Cessna 337 Skymaster and a Cessna 210 or 206.
FPL’s strategy is to attack a fire quickly before it gets out of hand. The Skymaster is airborne ahead of the others. An air attack officer, a forester with expertise in fire behavior, sits in the right seat. He will reach the fire first, size it up, make contact with the ground crews if they are there, and direct the TBMs when they arrive. The Cessna 210, carrying a mechanic and two crew members to refill the retardant tanks, heads for the appropriate satellite field, which will usually be within 10 or 15 miles of the fire.
“It takes only two or three minutes to load [retardant],” says Bradley, “and a total of about six minutes to get airborne, including the time for warmups and runups.”
Around three in the afternoon, the fire siren sounds. I run for the Skymaster. This is my chance to see the TBMs in action. Pilot Glen MacDorman is already in the Skymaster’s cockpit, preparing to start up. He motions me to the rear seat. Air attack officer Bob Steeves sits beside him.
The dispatcher tells us the fire is at Little Sevogle River, about 22 nautical miles from the airport. Even as the Avengers are being filled with retardant, we are on our way, heading northwest at about 1,000 feet. MacDorman starts to enter the coordinates relayed by the dispatcher into the Global Positioning System unit when we spot the smoke ahead. The GPS, a Garmin GNC 250 navcom, is the most sophisticated piece of equipment on the TBMs. The readout can give the pilot the heading, track, distance off course, ground speed, and estimated time of arrival, as well as bearing and distance to the fire.
We make a steep right around the head of the fire at about 500 feet. It is a small one, not more than a couple of acres, probably started by campers or fishermen. But the tops of the taller trees are already ablaze, and unless the fire is put down, it can spread quickly. A ground crew is already working at the scene. Nearby a female moose stands placidly in the middle of a small pond.
The tankers radio that they are on the way, and the fire attack officer decides he wants the first tanker to hit the head of the fire. MacDorman switches on the siren to warn the ground crews. (A full load of fire retardant can knock down a large tree.)
The TBMs come in one at a time. They make their pass at about 125 mph with wing flaps set at 10 degrees. The pilots can drop the full load of 625 gallons, or drop half on the first pass and the rest on a second pass. Or they can drop a “string load,” which is one half followed immediately by the remainder. Drops are usually made at an altitude of 100 feet or less. The fire retardant is not intended to extinguish the fire but instead to isolate the fire by creating breaks in its path. Once the fire is surrounded by a ring of retardant, the burning areas inside are extinguished with foam.
Tanker 13, piloted by flight leader Erwin Joyall, comes in first. We bank sharply over the TBM’s flight path and drop down to follow alongside and just above him to the drop. It feels like we are in a dogfight at treetop level. Joyall drops a full load, making a good hit on the head of the fire, and climbs away. The cabin of the Skymaster is filled with the smell of wood smoke.
The second and third tankers are directed to drop retardant along the fire’s flanks to pinch it off. The third tanker is flown by Bob Blanchard, a temporary pilot who is working his first fire. He hits his target. “Not bad for the first time out,” observes MacDorman.
Steeves asks the tankers to refill with foam. In a few minutes they are back again to make drops directly on what’s left of the fire. By the time we head back to Miramichi, the blaze has been doused. Only strings of white smoke drift up from the blackened patch of woods. MacDorman radios to the ground crews, “It’s all yours now.”
The fire season in New Brunswick starts around the first of May and ends in mid-September. Pilots contract to work only during that time, during which they earn a base salary plus pay for the hours they fly. Flying time ranges from 60 to 100 hours for the season, depending on fire conditions. “They’ll make the money and then they’ll all quit flying through the winter,” says chief pilot Eric Bradley. “Most of them will stay at home and do other things they want to do.”
Pilots based at Miramichi have no scheduled days off during the season. Seven days a week, they gather in the operations headquarters building about noon. After meeting in the conference room, where they read the weather forecast and fire hazard reports, they wander into the lounge or out to the flightline to check their aircraft. Most of the time they wait, talking shop. The all-clear usually sounds about 6 p.m.
The pilots are Canadian; most are from New Brunswick. All are middle-aged. Conversations are in English, often tinged by the inflections of Acadian French or the throatier accents of the Québécois. Their collective flying experience is impressive—none is military, but they have logged thousands of hours of low-altitude, single-engine time as instructors, bush pilots, cropdusters, tanker jockeys, and charter pilots.
“This is blue-collar flying,” says Bradley. “Some people look down on it but we love it. You get your hands dirty. There’s no epaulets, there’s no white shirt and tie. These pilots actually work. I think the guys who do this, they’re more type-A personalities. They get bored easily. They need that constant stimulation of takeoff and landing. They think of themselves as stick-and-rudder pilots.”
Bradley himself is a former member of a championship Canadian skydiving team, with more than 3,000 jumps. Twenty years ago he gave up a job as a biology teacher and turned to cropdusting. “My father was a private pilot and had a Tiger Moth,” he says. “I was weaned on that. I have it in my blood.”
Offered a ride in an Avenger, I accept happily. Tanker 23 has had the rear crew seat reinstalled, and it is the only TBM that can carry a passenger. The pilot is John Gomany, a young-looking 60-year-old grandfather from Alberta. He hands me his business card: “Commercial Pilot. Fire Bombing. Spraying. Bush. Charter. Advanced Flying Instruction. Test Pilot. Fly Anything Anywhere. Single and Multi-Engine. Wheels. Skis. Floats.” Gomany has flown 55 types of aircraft and logged more than 10,000 hours. He has been working for FPL for 25 years and has over 1,500 hours in the Avenger.
Because the Avenger’s high tail wheel lowers its rather short nose, visibility inside the roomy cockpit past the big radial R-2600 ahead is excellent. The rear compartment is something else. The pilot’s seat blocks the forward view and the canopy behind me is painted over, so the best visibility is to the sides. I pull the battered helmet down over my ears (there is no intercom) and strap into an old seat-pack parachute that will serve more as a seat cushion than anything I might actually use in an emergency.
Gomany taxis out. Steering on the ground is done with the brakes since the swiveling tailwheel turns freely until it is locked for takeoff. The TBM surprises me by lifting off smartly from three points after a run of about 1,200 feet. Within a few seconds, I have the sensation that the airplane has been carved from a solid block. It feels tight and stable in the air. Later, when I ask pilots what it’s like to fly, they describe a similar feeling.
Bobby LeBlanc, who began flying Avengers in the late 1970s, says of his first flights: “At first it seemed like a lot of noise in the cockpit, and you were sitting very high and the attitude seemed strange, especially when you were taking off. Once you got that solved, it is like flying a Super Cub, actually. It is very stable.”
But nimble it is not. All agree that it is heavy on the controls. Every change in speed and power requires a constant hand on the trim wheels. “You have to stay on top of it all the time,” says Eric Bradley. “You have to show it who’s boss.”
Aloft, Gomany points the nose eastward and we head out briefly over the sun-dappled waters of Northumberland Strait toward the Atlantic Ocean. Back at Miramichi, he eases into the pattern and lands smoothly. When we are down, it occurs to me that I wasn’t aware of the wheels coming up or down. Gomany confirms that after more than 50 years, the old machinery still works without a creak. Two small rods recede into the tops of the wings to indicate the landing gear is down, at which point the pilot can feel the change in air resistance.
Almost before we have come to a stop on the line, Patrick Greene is crouched on the wing to talk to the pilot. He is the chief inspector, in charge of keeping the old birds running. He is actually an employee of Woodlands Aviation, which maintains the TBMs under contract to FPL. No matter; it would take more than a mere contractual arrangement to come between Greene and these beloved machines.
Greene’s relationship to the TBMs is longstanding and deeply intuitive. So is his communication with the pilots. Indeed, his best tools seem to be his ears. “If you’re willing to listen,” he says, “I don’t think there’s anything you won’t know long before the pilot does. Even if you never looked, you can hear it.” Greene is at the loading pit every time a flight comes in, listening intently to the sound of each engine. “Each time these guys come in here to reload, they want to keep an eye on you to see the nod that it’s okay,” he says.
“The pilots and us [his crew of eight], we’ve known each other for a long time, so we rely on each other a lot,” he explains. “Every night when they come back, we talk to each one of them for 15 minutes while they’re still sitting in the seat. I’m with them all the time. You talk to them and you know the problem.”
Listening to each Avenger on the ground, he can diagnose a problem with an engine, and most of the time he can come close to pinpointing which cylinders are performing under par. He can also tell who is flying an Avenger as it comes in to land because he can recognize the engine settings preferred by individual pilots.
Greene has had a love affair with TBMs since he was in the ninth grade, when he used to skip class to come out to the airport and hang around, handing up tools and parts to the mechanics and wiping down the airplanes. “I think they got sick of me, so they hired me,” he says. In 1994, he became the head of maintenance.
“They’re a forgiving airplane to work on,” he says. “There’s nothing hard about it. The U.S. Navy structural manual is the best I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t matter what you do, whether you have to change six inches of a stringer or a rib. It’s all in that book. The aircraft has lots of room to work in, and they’re built so rugged they can withstand a lot of changes.”
Certainly the TBMs have seen a lot of changes. When they were converted to tankers, they underwent many alterations. Gun turrets were removed to save weight, gun mounts were taken out of the wings, hydraulic systems were altered, weight was shifted to compensate for the change in the center of gravity, wing-folding actuators and hydraulics were removed, batteries were moved to the rear of the fuselage to add ballast, and drop tank controls and gauges were added.
And yet, stuff happens. In his office, Greene reaches into a desk drawer and produces two metal objects. One is half of a massive connecting rod cleanly sheared off and partially split. The other looks like a small baked potato wrapped in foil, but in the hand it is heavy and solid, the remains of a piston melted by extreme heat.
To Greene, this is evidence of the TBM’s toughness and durability. To others, including management, it might be a different kind of omen. Erwin Joyall was the pilot involved. “I was climbing out, just coming to 1,500 feet,” he remembers. “The engine started making noise, and there was every type of smoke you could think of—black, brown, white. A big vibration, but it was still running some. I never pulled the power entirely, although I was expecting it to totally disintegrate any second.”
He prepared to make an emergency landing in a swamp when suddenly the engine smoothed out a bit and seemed to pick up power. Since he was not far from Miramichi, he headed back to the field at low altitude. He set down on the runway dragging a cloud of smoke that obscured the airplane. A wrist pin had apparently broken, releasing the piston. But after swallowing up the loose parts, the R-2600 had pulled itself together and carried on, while blowing a spectacular plume of smoke and oil out the stacks.
There are plenty of scary flying stories passed around about the bad old days, when maintenance was the responsibility of the contract pilots. Pat Greene remembers pilots who carried vise grips in the cockpit to hold things like hydraulic lines or controls together when they loosened or broke. I was told that 33 TBMs have crashed in the New Brunswick woods.
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.”
John Gomany admits that the 802 might be a good airplane to retire on. But, he says somewhat wistfully, “The one thing I want to do is to take off and land a TBM on a carrier deck. I know it could do it.”
I hope, by some miracle, he gets his wish.