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.”