A legendary test pilot brings a long-abandoned TBM back to life.
Restoring a World War II aircraft is such a major undertaking that few but fanatical hobbyists or professional mechanics are willing to take it on. Pilot Corwin H. “Corky” Meyer not only tackled such a project, he picked an Eastern Aircraft TBM Avenger, a huge airplane with complicated systems—and he started working on it at age 71! Meyer, who died on June 1 of this year, wasn’t your average pilot, however. He became a test pilot for Grumman Aircraft on Long Island in 1942, and within just a few days was testing a new version of its TBF Avenger torpedo bomber.
One of the largest single-engine planes of World War II, the Avenger was complex for its day, with folding wings, hydraulically powered bomb bay and powered gun turret at the rear of the canopy. The version Meyer tested was equipped with a new Wright R-2600 engine, producing 1,900 hp. On his first TBF flight, the supercharger failed and he was forced to dead stick the big Grumman. On his second flight, the carburetor failed, with the same result. On his third flight, accompanied by a mechanic who had been asking for a ride, a partial engine failure necessitated a quick return—“the longest five minutes of my life,” as Meyer later described it. When the smoking TBF hit the runway, the mechanic bailed out before it stopped and never asked for another ride.
Eventually the engine problems were worked out, after which the Avenger faithfully served the U.S. Navy until 1954. Meyer went on to test the Grumman F6F, F7F, F8F, F9F Panther jet and F11F Tiger. He continued his test-flying career at Edwards Air Force Base from 1952 to 1954, where he piloted the experimental Grumman XF10F Jaguar with variable-sweep wings. The first civilian pilot to be carrier qualified by the U.S. Navy, Meyer later became CEO for Grumman American.
It seemed only natural that Meyer would pick a Grumman plane to rebuild. In 1988 he found a nearly flyable TBM-3E, purchased it for $75,000 and transported it to his home at the Leeward Air Ranch in Ocala, Fla. A license-built version of the TBF produced by the Eastern Aircraft division of General Motors, the TBM-3E was a later version of the torpedo bomber equipped for anti-submarine warfare. The Navy removed the aft powered turret, since the TBM-3E operated in areas where enemy aircraft were not a threat, and armed it with depth charges instead of a torpedo. An observer position, with large windows, replaced the turret.
As soon as the aircraft arrived at Leeward, the wings and control surfaces were removed. Since the fuselage was too large for Meyer’s hangar, he stored it in a friend’s wooden hangar. Unfortunately, the hangar caught fire one night and burned to the ground, destroying the fuselage. Meyer eventually found another one in Connecticut that had been sitting in a field for 20 years. It was structurally sound, though it was missing Plexiglas and the bomb bay doors. Corky had to cut down five trees that had grown up around the fuselage before it could be moved.
About this time Meyer met Art Miller, an aircraft inspector and mechanic who agreed to help. Miller started removing all the parts and stripping off the paint and zinc chromate preservative. They used an air gun that shot crushed walnut shells to clean every nook and cranny prior to repainting.
Meanwhile Meyer spent a year locating the engine, propeller, canopy, pumps, fittings, instruments and hundreds of other parts for the big Grumman. Miller recalled that among the hardest components to find were the missing bomb bay doors.
Rigging the cables and hydraulics for the bomb bay doors proved to be a major challenge. In addition, removing and repairing the self-sealing bladder fuel tanks led to problems. During the years the fuselage had spent in the open field, small animals and insects had found a home in the tanks. The resulting debris made it all but impossible to collapse and pull the tanks out of the access hole. When he finally managed to extract them, Miller recalled, it “was like birthing a whale!” Many hours went into repairing, rebuilding or replacing the hydraulic lines and pumps, as well as rewiring the electrical system, wing-folding system, instruments and avionics and replacing the fabric on the control surfaces.
Finally, after 31⁄2 years of 60-hour weeks, the day came for the TBM’s first flight, in May 1994. The first engine start revealed a generator problem, which was fixed. Then, as Meyer climbed into the cockpit, he remarked that it had been more than 51 years since his last Avenger flight. Miller recalled that Corky was somewhat apprehensive about using 100LL gasoline in the big Wright due to its lower octane rating, resulting in lower horsepower. The engine was designed to use 114/145 octane fuel, and no doubt Meyer was thinking back to his first few flights in the Avenger. The flight went well, however. In his autobiography, Corky Meyer’s Flight Journal, he wrote, “The very second I felt the landing gear hit the lock-up after takeoff I felt like I had test flown another Avenger only a few hours before. The smells, noises, vibrations, and the picture view from the cockpit all came back to me and it was spellbinding.”
Meyer found that the Avenger was nose heavy with the aft turret and armament removed. The lower weight made up for the loss of horsepower, but ballast would need to be added to allow three-point landings. Miller said he had expected to see a “brown trail of walnut shells” following the Avenger on its first flight, since they were still finding them everywhere in the plane years after they stripped off the old paint.
Meyer ended up selling the Avenger after flying it for a short time. Now owned by the Freeberg family and based in Ramona, Calif., it’s flown by Bob Forbes, an experienced TBM pilot. In fact Forbes, who has logged more than 600 hours in the Avenger, flew TBMs for the California Department of Forestry, dropping borate on forest fires.
The Freebergs’ TBM is painted in the colors of composite squadron VC-13 in WWII. Since VC-13 sank six U-boats in the Atlantic and two Japanese ships in the Pacific, the squadron kill markings are painted on the Avenger’s fuselage.
I was recently treated to a flight with Forbes in the TBM on a beautiful fall day. Walking up to the aircraft, I was impressed by its sheer size. With a wingspan of a little over 52 feet and length of 40 feet, it weighs in at just over 18,000 pounds. It must have been a handful to land on a small carrier deck— and a beast for crews to move around on a pitching ship.
I was strapped into a seat just aft of the cockpit equipped with a nonstandard control stick, throttle and instrument panel. Forbes fired up the 14-cylinder R-2600 and unfolded the wings. Extended, the wings looked enormous from my vantage point. When Forbes pushed the throttle up to takeoff power, I felt a slow, deliberate acceleration to liftoff at 75 knots.We climbed out to 3,000 feet and stabilized at 170 knots. Forbes told me we were burning 75 gallons per hour as we cruised along. The view from the back seat was spectacular, but forward visibility was limited due the armored rollover pylon between Forbes and me. I could see around it enough to get a sense of where we were headed.
Forbes offered to let me fly, and as I took the controls and started a turn I again got the feeling that this plane could be a handful landing on a gusty carrier deck. The ailerons seemed very heavy, though pitch control was more normal.
We headed back to base, with Forbes at the controls. The tower approved an overhead approach, and at the runway’s far end Forbes rolled hard left, for a perfect Navy “break.”He rolled out on the downwind and lowered the flaps and gear. We slowed to about 75 knots on final, and Forbes flew the Avenger down for a smooth touchdown and rollout.
As Forbes folded the wings, I thought about all the time, effort and money that had gone into rebuilding and maintaining this beautiful airplane. Thanks to Corky Meyer, Art Miller, the Freeberg family and Bob Forbes, this piece of living history still takes wing and makes appearances at airshows (including a scheduled stop at MCAS Miramar’s September 30–October 2 salute to the naval aviation centennial), reminding us all of the debt we owe our military forces.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.