Return of the Avenger

Largely unnoticed among restorations of more glamorous fighters, the waddling, two-story-high Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber has become a favorite warbird survivor. Why? Because hundreds of Avengers lived on as firebombers, thanks to a cavernous torpedo/bomb bay that could easily be filled with a borate tank, and some of them continued flying well into this century. Supplies of spares are ample, since major civilian operators stockpiled every TBF/TBM part they could find. (TBF means Avengers made by Grumman, and TBMs are their General Motors–built brethren.) Despite their bulk, the big Grummans are nonetheless restorable and manageable single-engine airplanes, and they represent as meaningful a combat history as does any Spitfire or Mustang.

One such ex-tanker is the TBM-3E that has been brought back to life by the National Capitol Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force. It had been owned by Forest Protection Services, a Canadian company that at one time operated 43 Avengers, the largest such fleet in the world. This particular airplane flew until 1996, then was kept on active standby, albeit largely outdoors, until it was acquired by the CAF in 1999. Its turret was long gone and the bomb-bay doors were trashed during conversion for borate bombing, but the airplane was otherwise complete.

This project’s particular glory is that the job was done entirely by unpaid volunteers—enthusiastic and remarkably skilled amateurs, most of them elderly vets—in a Pennsylvania farm shed barely big enough to hold workspace and the wingless fuselage. Newly made bay doors cost $16,000, and a working turret was built up from three derelict units by the airplane’s initial CAF owner, the now-disbanded Stars and Stripes Wing.

An ex-Avenger radioman, 86-year-old Jack Kosko, was in charge of the team, and a good thing too; he had already restored another flying TBM, which he donated to the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in Reading, Pa. Other than a few avionics and instruments required for modern flight status, his newest project has been returned to its service condition. Built in 1945, the airplane was a Marine trainer and then a Canadian navy subchaser, and it never saw combat. Many authentic parts were bought and scrounged from Avenger fans throughout the country, and others were fabricated in Kosko’s workshop. The good-as-new Avenger was scheduled to make its first flight earlier this year.

 -Stephan Wilkinson

Martin Four-Oh-Four

The Martin 4-0-4 airliner owned by Baltimore’s Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum received a brilliant new, mostly yellow color scheme last October when it was painted to represent the prototype in the series, which wore civil registry number N40400. Derived from the unpressurized, 30-passenger Martin 2-0-2, the larger 4-0-4 was a 40-passenger, pressurized, air-conditioned prop liner viewed as a potential DC-3 replacement and a competitor to the Convair 240/340. Martin test pilots took the first 4-0-4 on its maiden flight on October 21, 1950. Martin initially built 103 4-0-4s for half a dozen airlines. Two of the aircraft went to the U.S. Coast Guard under the designation RM-1. Stationed at Washington National Airport for many years, they were redesignated VC-3As in 1961.

The 4-0-4 was powered by two 2,400-hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800-CB16 radials. After service with frontline carriers, many were sold to other users and one became an executive transport for Frank Sinatra. With a wingspan of slightly more than 93 feet and a cruising speed of 280 mph, the 4-0-4 was faster than its Convair competitor but costlier to operate. Its modest success and the happy memories it created for many airline passengers were overtaken by the jet age.

The museum’s 4-0-4, previously owned by the short-lived Systems International Airways, is one of about 10 that survive on static display. “When we received the plane, its exterior paint finish was in poor condition,” said museum spokesman Gene DiGennaro. “The interior was in excellent condition. Between 2001 and this past summer, the 4-0-4 received very little care and the exterior finish went downhill.” The repainting project was made possible by a $25,000 grant from Lockheed Martin. Because no color photo of the prototype exists, the museum used a photograph of a contemporaneous model and descriptions in literature to come up with the final color scheme.

-Robert F. Dorr

Wings Remembered

Charles Runion’s small Tennessee aviation museum is filled with what most folks would consider junk, but he’s no hoarder. Wings Remembered is an unparalleled collection of mainly U.S. World War II artifacts recovered from crash sites and through donations of flight gear, uniforms, letters, diaries, medals and photos from the families of long-gone veterans. Cockpit sections, engine parts, a Norden bombsight and bombardier’s compartment, rusty landing gear, crumpled wing and fuselage skins with insignias still visible…Runion has everything from a 12-foot-tall B-24 vertical stabilizer to an R-2800 valve rocker arm from a P-47 shot down during the Battle of the Bulge.

The rocker arm was in fact donated by me, and many of Runion’s relics come from people who also have crash remnants or a granddad’s leather jacket in the attic. (I first heard of Runion’s collection from a cousin who contributed her father’s gear from his days as a B-29 radioman.) Runion also makes frequent trips to crash sites when he’s in Europe on business (his company manufactures precision metal parts), and he has a network of amateur wreck hunters, particularly in Germany, to feed him parts. “Fortunately for us,” he says, “pieces of American aircraft are essentially worthless [to the Germans]. As far as they’re concerned, the valuable stuff is Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf parts.”

Runion’s single most noteworthy relic is a data plate that has been confirmed to have come from one of Doolittle’s Raiders. The B-25 landed in Siberia, and 50 years later a friend of Runion’s found the severed cockpit section lying on a disused part of the largely abandoned Russian base. It had been totally stripped and then crushed by a tracked vehicle— probably a tank—and virtually all that remained was the unnoticed data plate.

Though Runion hopes to find space and a grant to support a larger public museum, his collection is currently open by appointment only, in a 3,000- square-foot space attached to his offices in Lebanon, about 30 miles east of Nashville: email [email protected] or call (615) 444-7719 to set up a visit.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Brewster Buffalo Discovered at Midway

More than 7,000 marine species can be found in the Papa-hanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (of which Midway Atoll is a part), and now the World Heritage Site can claim a new discovery: a rare Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo. The wreckage predates the pivotal Battle of Midway by several months. The team of maritime archaeologists who documented the site traced the fighter to VMF-221’s 1st Lt. Charles W. Somers Jr., who crashed in the lagoon while trying to land in a storm on February 12, 1942, and swam to safety. A month later Somers was awarded a DFC. According to the citation, as part of a four-plane flight on March 10, he helped shoot down a four-engine Kawanishi H6K flying boat “despite difficult aerial combat conditions because of heavy cloud formations, in which the enemy plane took full advantage in his evasive tactics.”

Multiple shipwreck sites have been identified in the area, and three World War II aircraft have been found. Somers’ airplane, however, is the first discovered that was stationed at Midway to defend against the Japanese. Only one other known example of the much-maligned Buffalo exists, a Finnish B-239 pulled from a lake in eastern Karelia in 1998 and restored by the Central Finland/Finnish Air Force Museum.

Fifi Grounded, Flies Again

Fifi the sole B-29 still flying, met with troubles too familiar to the storied Superfortress. During its last airshow flight of the 2012 season, the airplane, all was grounded after experiencing an engine problem. When the Commemorative Air Force, operators of the big bomber, discovered that repairs to the no. 2 engine (a custom-build hybrid Wright R-3350) and purchase of a spare engine would exceed $250,000, a “Keep Fifi Flying” fundraising campaign was quickly launched.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response to the Fifi engine fund campaign,” said Karissa Kienast, spokesperson for the CAF. “As of the first of December we had received approximately $105,000 from over 400 different donors.” The funding was enough to get the B-29 airborne again, and on January 13 the crew flew Fifi home to Addison, Texas. “All of the engines ran beautifully,” Kienast said.

A spare engine has been ordered and is expected to be available in time for the CAF’s appearances at a number of airshows this year. For the upcoming tour schedule and additional information, visit airpowersquadron.org.

Small Town With a Big Heart

A sleepy town in the Lancashire region of England, 1940s Dar- wen seemed an unlikely source for a heroic wartime contribution. True, the town was accepting evacuees from London and Manchester, as had hundreds of other communities. But with its 32,000 residents feeling the effects of a severe industrial depression and a burgeoning world war, what could one town do? In September 1940, with the encouragement of Lord Beaverbrook, several British communities instituted Spitfire Funds, each with a goal of raising £5,000 (about $8,000, or $300,000 today) to offset the costs of airplane construction. Darwen was the smallest of the participating towns, but its residents raised the funds within just four months (punctuated by a German bombing of its downtown in October 1940).

In March 1941, the Darwen Supermarine Spitfire was allotted to the RAF’s No. 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill. Over the next several months it carried out several successful missions, downing two Messerschmitt Me-109s in June 1941. The next month it disappeared on a bomber escort mission.

Late in November 2012, residents of Darwen paid homage to their history, unveiling a stainless-steel statue of a Spitfire in the town’s center. The soaring monument, measuring almost 23 feet tall, was created through an apprentice program at Darwen-based WEC Group. The metals engineering firm has donated a number of notable civic projects to the town in recent years. For more information, visit m-tec.uk.com/darwen-spitfirememorial.html.

 

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.