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The TBM-3E tanker undergoes a warplane makeover courtesy of volunteers from the Commemorative Air Force's National Capitol Squadron. (Courtesy David Cohen)

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.