Eastern TBM-3 Avenger
WWII carrier-based single-engine three-crew mid-wing torpedo bomber, U.S.A.
Archive Photos 1
Eastern TBM-3 Avenger (BuNo 53835, c/n 3897, N3967A) on display (10/10/2012) at the CAF Museum, Falcon Field Airport, Mesa, Arizona (Photo by Lt. Col. Marc Matthews, M.D., USAF retired)
The Grumman TBF Avenger (TBM by General Motors) was a torpedo bomber developed initially for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, and eventually used by several air or naval arms around the world.
The Avenger entered U.S. service in 1942, and first saw action during the Battle of Midway. Despite losing five of the six Avengers on its combat debut, it survived in service to become one of the outstanding torpedo bombers of World War II. Greatly modified after the war, it remained in use until the 1960’s.
Design and Development 2
The Douglas TBD Devastator, the U.S. Navy’s main torpedo bomber introduced in 1935, was obsolete by 1939. Bids were accepted from several companies but Grumman’s TBF design was selected as the TBD’s replacement and two prototypes were ordered by the Navy in April 1940. Designed by Leroy Grumman, the first prototype was called the XTBF-1. It was first flown on August 1, 1941. Although one of the first two prototypes crashed near Brentwood, New York, rapid production continued.
Grumman’s first torpedo bomber was the heaviest single-engine aircraft of World War II, and only the USAAF’s Republic P-47 Thunderbolt came close to equalling it in maximum loaded weight among all Single-engine fighters, only being some 400 lb (181 kg) lighter than the TBF, by the end of World War II. The Avenger was the first design to feature a new compound angle wing-folding mechanism created by Grumman, intended to maximize storage space on an aircraft carrier; the Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat and later models of Wildcat received a similar folding wing and the Grumman F6F Hellcat employed this mechanism as well. The engine used was the Wright R-2600-20 Cyclone 14 twin-row radial engine (which produced 1,900 hp/1,417 kW). The aircraft took 25 gallons of oil and used one gallon per minute at start-up. There were three crew members: pilot, turret gunner and radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner. One 0.30 caliber machine gun was mounted in the nose, a 0.50 caliber (12.7 mm) gun was mounted right next to the turret gunner’s head in a rear-facing electrically powered turret, and a single 0.30 caliber hand-fired machine gun mounted ventrally (under the tail), which was used to defend against enemy fighters attacking from below and to the rear. This gun was fired by the radioman/bombardier while standing up and bending over in the belly of the tail section, though he usually sat on a folding bench facing forward to operate the radio and to sight in bombing runs. Later models of the TBF/TBM dispensed with the nose-mounted gun for one 0.50 caliber gun in each wing per pilots’ requests for better forward firepower and increased strafing ability. There was only one set of controls on the aircraft, and no access to the pilot’s position from the rest of the aircraft. The radio equipment was massive, especially by today’s standards, and filled the whole glass canopy to the rear of the pilot. The radios were accessible for repair through a tunnel along the right hand side. Any Avengers that are still flying today usually have an additional rear-mounted seat in place of the radios, allowing for a fourth passenger.
The Avenger had a large bomb bay, allowing for one Bliss-Leavitt Mark 13 torpedo, a single 2,000 pound (907 kg) bomb, or up to four 500 pound (227 kg) bombs. The aircraft had overall ruggedness and stability, and pilots say it flew like a truck, for better or worse. With its good radio facilities, docile handling, and long range, the Grumman Avenger also made an ideal command aircraft for Commanders, Air Group (CAG’s). With a 30,000 ft (10,000 m) ceiling and a fully loaded range of 1,000 mi (1,610 km), it was better than any previous American torpedo bomber, and better than its Japanese counterpart, the obsolete Nakajima B5N Kate. Later Avenger models carried radar equipment for the ASW and AEW roles. Although improvements in new types of aviation radar were soon forthcoming from the engineers at MIT and the electronic industry, the available radars in 1943 were very bulky, because they contained vacuum tube technology. Because of this, radar was at first carried only on the roomy TBF Avengers, but not on the smaller and faster fighters.
Escort carrier sailors referred to the TBF as the turkey because of its size and maneuverability in comparison to the F4F Wildcat fighters in CVE airgroups.
Operational History 2
On the afternoon of 7 December 1941, Grumman held a ceremony to open a new manufacturing plant and display the new TBF to the public. Coincidentally, on that day, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, as Grumman soon found out. After the ceremony was over, the plant was quickly sealed off to guard against possible sabotage. By early June 1942, a shipment of more than 100 aircraft was sent to the Navy, ironically arriving only a few hours after the three carriers quickly departed from Pearl Harbor, so most of them were too late to participate in the pivotal Battle of Midway.
Six TBF-1’s were present on Midway Island, as part of VT-8 (Torpedo Squadron 8), while the rest of the squadron flew Devastators from the USS Hornet. Unfortunately, both types of torpedo bombers suffered heavy casualties. Out of the six Avengers, five were shot down and the other returning heavily damaged with one of its gunners killed, and the other gunner and the pilot injured. Nonetheless, the US torpedo bombers were credited with drawing away the Japanese combat air patrols so the American dive bombers could successfully hit the Japanese carriers.
Author Gordon Prange posited in Miracle at Midway that the outdated Devastators (and lack of new aircraft) contributed somewhat to the lack of a complete victory at Midway (the four Japanese fleet carriers were sunk directly by dive bombers instead). Others pointed out that the inexperienced American pilots and lack of fighter cover were responsible for poor showing of US torpedo bombers, regardless of type. Later in the war, with improving American air superiority, attack coordination, and more veteran pilots, Avengers were able to play vital roles in the subsequent battles against Japanese surface forces.
On 24 August 1942, the next major naval battle occurred at the Eastern Solomons. Based on the carriers USS Saratoga and USS Enterprise, the 24 TBF’s present were able to sink the Japanese light carrier Ryujo and claim one dive bomber, at the cost of seven aircraft.
The first major prize for the TBF’s (which had been assigned the name "Avenger" in October 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942, when Marine Corps and Navy Avengers helped sink the battleship Hiei, which had already been crippled the night before.
After hundreds of the original TBF-1 models were built, the TBF-1C began production. The allotment of space for specialized internal and wing-mounted fuel tanks doubled the Avenger’s range. By 1943, Grumman began to slowly phase out production of the Avenger to produce F6F Hellcat fighters, and the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors took-over, with these aircraft being designated TBM. The Eastern Aircraft plant was located in North Tarrytown (re-named Sleepy Hollow in 1996), NY. Starting in mid-1944, the TBM-3 began production (with a more powerful powerplant and wing hardpoints for drop tanks and rockets). The TBM-3 was the most numerous of the Avengers (with about 4,600 produced). However, most of the Avengers in service were TBM-1’s until near the end of the war in 1945.
Besides the traditional surface role (torpedoing surface ships), Avengers claimed about 30 submarine kills, including the cargo submarine I-52. They were one of the most effective sub-killers in the Pacific theater, as well as in the Atlantic, when escort carriers were finally available to escort Allied convoys. There, the Avengers contributed in warding off German U-Boats while providing air cover for the convoys.
After the Marianas Turkey Shoot, in which more than 250 Japanese aircraft were downed, Admiral Marc Mitscher ordered a 220-aircraft mission to find the Japanese task force. At the extreme end of their range, 300 nm (560 km) out, the group of Hellcats, TBF/TBM’s, and dive bombers took many casualties. However, Avengers from USS Belleau Wood torpedoed the light carrier Hiyo as their only major prize. Mitscher’s gamble did not pay off as well as he had hoped.
In June 1943, future-President George H.W. Bush became the youngest naval aviator at the time. While flying a TBM with VT-51 from the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), his TBM was shot down on 2 September 1944 over the Pacific island of Chichi Jima. Both of his crewmates died. However, he released his payload and hit the target before being forced to bail out; he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Another famous Avenger aviator was Paul Newman, who flew as a rear gunner. He had hoped to be accepted for pilot training, but did not qualify because of being color blind. Newman was on board the escort carrier USS Hollandia roughly 500 mi (800 km) from Japan when the Boeing B-29 Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The Avenger was the type of torpedo bomber used during the sinking of the two Japanese super battleships Musashi and Yamato.
The Avenger was also used by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm where it was initially known as the Tarpon however this name was later discontinued and the Avenger name used instead, as part of the process of the Fleet Air Arm universally adopting the U.S. Navy’s names for American naval aircraft. The first 402 aircraft were known as Avenger Mk 1, 334 TBM-1’s from Grumman were the Avenger Mk II and 334 TBM-3 the Mark III.
The only other operator in World War II was the Royal New Zealand Air Force which used the type primarily as a bomber, operating from South Pacific Island bases. Some of these were transferred to the British Pacific Fleet.
During World War II, the US aeronautical research arm NACA used a complete Avenger in a comprehensive drag-reduction study in their large Langley wind tunnel. The resulting NACA Technical Report shows the impressive results available if practical aircraft did not have to be practical.
In 1945 Avengers were involved in pioneering trials of aerial topdressing in New Zealand that led to the establishment of an industry which markedly increased food production and efficiency in farming worldwide. Pilots of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 42 Squadron spread fertilizer from Avengers beside runways at Ohakea air base and provided a demonstration for farmers at Hood Aerodrome, Masterton, NZ.
The postwar disappearance of a flight of American Avengers, known as Flight 19, was later added to the Bermuda Triangle legend.
100 USN TBM-3E’s were supplied to the Fleet Air Arm in 1953 under the US Mutual Defense Assistance Program. The aircraft were shipped from Norfolk, Virginia, many aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Perseus. The Avengers were fitted with British equipment by Scottish Aviation and delivered as the Avenger AS.4 to several FAA squadrons including No. 767, 814, 815, 820 and 824. The aircraft were replaced from 1954 by Fairey Gannets and were passed to squadrons of the Royal Naval Reserve including No. 1841 and 1844 until the RNR was disbanded. The survivors were transferred to the French Navy in 1957-1958.
One of the primary postwar users of the Avenger was the Royal Canadian Navy, which obtained 125 former US Navy TBM-3E Avengers from 1950 to 1952 to replace their venerable Fairey Fireflies. By the time the Avengers were delivered, the RCN was shifting its primary focus to anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and the aircraft was rapidly becoming obsolete as an attack platform. Consequently, 98 of the RCN Avengers were fitted with an extensive number of novel ASW modifications, including radar, electronic countermeasures (ECM) equipment, and sonobuoys, and the upper ball turret was replaced with a sloping glass canopy that was better suited for observation duties. The modified Avengers were designated AS3. A number of these aircraft were later fitted with a large magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom on the rear left side of the fuselage and were redesignated AS3M. However, RCN leaders soon realized the Avenger’s shortcomings as an ASW aircraft, and in 1954 they elected to replace the AS3 with the Grumman S-2 Tracker, which offered longer range, greater load-carrying capacity for electronics and armament, and a second engine, a great safety benefit when flying long-range ASW patrols over frigid North Atlantic waters. As delivery of the new license-built Grumman CS2F Trackers began in 1957, the Avengers were shifted to training duties, and were officially retired in July 1960.
Camouflage Research 2
TBM Avengers were used in wartime research into counter-illumination camouflage. The torpedo bombers were fitted with Yehudi lights, a set of forward-pointing lights automatically adjusted to match the brightness of the sky. The planes therefore appeared as bright as the sky, rather than as dark shapes. The technology, a development of the Canadian navy’s diffused lighting camouflage research, allowed an Avenger to advance to within 3,000 yards (2,700 m) before been seen.
Civilian Use 2
Many Avengers have survived into the 21st century working as spray-applicators and water-bombers throughout North America, particularly in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
Forest Protection Limited (FPL) of Fredericton, NB once owned and operated the largest civilian fleet of Avengers in the world. FPL began operating Avengers in 1958 after purchasing 12 surplus TBM-3E aircraft from the Royal Canadian Navy. Use of the Avenger fleet at FPL peaked in 1971 when 43 aircraft were in use as both water bombers and spray aircraft. The company sold three Avengers in 2004 (C-GFPS, C-GFPM, and C-GLEJ) to museums or private collectors. The Central New Brunswick Woodsmen’s Museum has a former FPL Avenger on static display. An FPL Avenger that crashed in 1975 in southwestern New Brunswick was recovered and restored by a group of interested aviation enthusiasts and is currently on display. FPL was still operating three Avengers in 2010 configured as water-bombers, and stationed at Miramichi Airport. One of these crashed just after takeoff on April 23, 2010, killing the pilot. The last FPL Avenger was retired on July 26th, 2012 and sold to the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Dartmouth Nova Scotia.
There are several other Avengers in private collections around the world today. They are a popular airshow fixture in both flying and static displays.
General Motors (Easter Aircraft) TBM
Royal Navy Avenger
Specifications (TBF Avenger) 2