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.