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The Avengers

They torpedoed enemy ships during World War II. Now they fight fire.

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.”

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