Why Grumman’s TBF Avenger Was the Ultimate Torpedo Bomber

Grumman’s Avenger torpedo bomber—the largest single-engine airplane of World Struggle II and the final of its breed—made an enormous contribution to Allied victory.

Just like the barrage balloon and the assault glider, the torpedo bomber is a weapon we are going to by no means see once more. Its destiny had been sealed practically 4 many years earlier, however the temporary 1982 Falklands Struggle confirmed that ship-killing missiles such because the Exocet may obtain greater than a whole air wing of World Struggle II torpedo bombers. And so they may accomplish their mission at near-supersonic speeds from stand-off vary. In the present day, no person wants airplanes launching submersible motorboats whereas flying on the pace of a quick automobile.

The torpedo bomber’s glory days, when Ger­man capital ships and whole Italian fleets have been being torpedoed within the European theater whereas the Japanese misplaced their treasured plane carriers within the Pacific, lasted from 1940 to late ’42. But the Grumman TBF Avenger, the best torpedo bomber to fly in any struggle, lived on far past its star flip. As floor ship targets disappeared, Aven­gers started dropping extra bombs than torpedoes, and the airplane developed new roles as WWII progressed: anti-submarine hunter-killer, convoy guardian, shut air help assault plane, radar platform, airborne early-warning sentry, long-range reconnaissance patroller and in the end that almost all utilitarian of roles, service onboard supply truck. The massive Grumman had the substantial bomb bay, unusually spacious inside, a number of seats and glorious efficiency to get away with it.

At proper, Leroy Grumman reveals how he used an eraser and paper clips to conceive the Avenger’s uncommon folding Sto-Wings.A aircraft captain checks the touchdown gear of a Grumman TBF-1 on board an escort service in mid-1943. (Proper; Cradle of Aviation Museum, Left; Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Although it will not be apparent, this beast of an airplane was a supersized model of the F4F Wildcat. Each have been midwing, barrel-bodied, hell for stout warplanes with shocking efficiency despite the fact that they have been typically characterised as underpowered. The Avenger launched service aviation to Grumman’s outstanding Sto-Wing system, enabling an airplane to fold its wings alongside its physique like a chicken. Sto-Wings have been rapidly fitted on the Wildcat as properly, starting with the F4F-4 model. On the Avenger they narrowed the wingspan from 54 toes 2 inches to simply over 18 toes and eradicated the necessity for further overhead room on a service’s hangar deck.

Leroy Grumman got here up with the Sto-Wing by twiddling with a draftsman’s eraser to characterize a fuselage and paper clips caught into it as wings. He hit on what’s referred to as a skewed axis—a hard and fast pivot level on the wing root that allowed the Avenger’s wings to concurrently rotate and fold. The Sto-Wing remained a characteristic of many Grumman plane proper as much as the E-2 Hawkeye.

Grumman's Sto-Wing system reduced the big bomber's wingspan to just over 18 feet saving critical deck space. (National Archives)
Grumman’s Sto-Wing system decreased the massive bomber’s wingspan to simply over 18 toes saving important deck house. (Nationwide Archives)

Although it’s clear who invented the Sto-Wing, naming the designer of the Avenger is tougher. Some say it was Roy Grumman, others vote for firm cofounder and chief engineer William Schwendler. However the man within the trenches appears to have been engineer Robert Corridor, a former air racer and designer of a number of of the Granville Brothers Gee Bees. An all-rounder, Corridor additionally made the Avenger’s first flight on August 7, 1941. 

With a most takeoff weight of 17,893 kilos, the Avenger was the largest single-engine airplane produced throughout WWII by any combatant. It outlifted the heaviest P-47 Thunderbolt by simply shy of 400 kilos. The Avenger’s bomb-bay load was a neat ton: a 2,000-pound torpedo or 4 500-pound bombs.

A TBM-1 prepares for takeoff from the light carrier Monterey in June 1944 to attack targets on Tinian. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
A TBM-1 prepares for takeoff from the sunshine service Monterey in June 1944 to assault targets on Tinian. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Amongst pilots, the corny joke concerning the Avenger was that it was so heavy it may fall sooner than it may fly. Definitely throughout takeoffs from escort carriers this typically felt true. Bombed-up Avengers needed to be catapulted, however an escort service’s catapult was solely 45 toes lengthy and the perfect the ship may do into the wind was 19 knots. “We might come off the catapult at 90 knots—barely flying pace,” recalled turret gunner James Gander. “We might dip down once we left the deck till we bought our pace up.” The airplane’s ponderous efficiency compared to the Wildcat led escort service crews to nickname it the “Turkey.”

The Avenger had no underwing ordnance hardpoints, however it did quickly get launch rails for HVARs—high-velocity plane rockets, 4 beneath every wing. They have been potent missiles, offering the airplane with the firepower of a destroyer’s broadside. In reality the rockets typically had heavy, solid-metal warheads, designed to punch by means of a submarine’s hull merely with the facility of inertia. Regardless of the rockets being unguided, Avenger pilots rapidly grew to become adept at drilling explosive HVARs deep into Japanese caves. 

The most typical fantasy concerning the Avenger is that it made its first public look on December 7, 1941, and was that day instantly given its retaliatory title. In reality the airplane had been named in early October, two months earlier than anyone deliberate on avenging Pearl Harbor. The primary manufacturing Avenger got here off the road on January 3, 1942—the primary new Amer­ican plane design to enter the struggle.

Its fight debut was a catastrophe. Six TBF-1s of torpedo squadron VT-8, relayed from the service Hornet to Halfway Atoll, attacked the Japanese fleet on June 4, 1942. Just one returned, shot to items, its turret gunner useless and radioman wounded. The Navy started having second ideas about its new torpedo aircraft.

This TBF-1 was the sole survivor of an attack by six Avengers from torpedo squadron VT-8 on June 4, 1942, during the Battle of Midway. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
This TBF-1 was the only survivor of an assault by six Avengers from torpedo squadron VT-8 on June 4, 1942, in the course of the Battle of Halfway. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

However the huge Avenger recovered rapidly as its pilots gained expertise. Three months later, within the Battles of the Japanese Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal, Avengers sank the sunshine service Ryujo and the battleship Hiei. In the end, Avengers have been concerned within the sinking of 12 carriers, six battleships (together with the superships Yamato and Musashi), 19 cruisers, 25 destroyers and 30 submarines within the Pacific and Atlantic.

Most Avengers have been manufactured by Common Motors, not Grumman. GM had established a division referred to as Japanese Plane utilizing 5 empty automobile factories within the Northeast. It took over Avenger manufacturing when Grumman discovered itself overwhelmed by the necessity to crank out the brand new F6F Hellcat. Grumman constructed nearly 3,000 TBFs; GM’s 7,500-some have been designated TBMs. (Assume M for Motors and also you’ll by no means confuse the 2.)

“What adopted was the conflict of two worlds,” wrote David Doyle in his ebook TBF/TBM Avenger. “GM began out with the concept that it might present…Grumman easy methods to mass produce airplanes. Grumman began out with the concept that GM could be fortunate if it managed to provide one airplane. GM was extra unsuitable than proper. Grumman was extra proper than unsuitable.” 

Cars and airplanes are each advanced machines, however they’ve vastly totally different manufacturing necessities. Automobiles may very well be churned out by the hundreds on ceaseless manufacturing traces, whereas airplanes have been produced by means of a stop-and-go technique. Weight didn’t matter a lot with pre-EPA automobiles however was essential for airplanes. Plane tolerances have been tight, automobiles may cope with quarter-inch panel gaps. Modifications throughout manufacturing have been frequent with airplanes, uncommon with automobiles.

Grumman facilitated the method by delivering to East­ern the “P-Okay airplane”—a TBF assembled fully with sheet-metal screws made by the Parker-Kalon Corpora­tion, so the airplane may very well be disassembled and reassembled till GM’s operators bought it proper.

The Avenger was distinctive in having an electrically operated gun turret designed by Grumman quite than one purchased from Sperry, Bendix, Erco or different specialists. Such turrets have been mechanically or hydraulically operated and have been lower than exact in motion. The Grumman turret was designed by the corporate’s sole electrical engineer, Oscar Olsen, who got here up with the concept of utilizing amplidynes—electromechanical amplifiers generally used to rotate large naval gun turrets. Miniaturized by GE at Olsen’s request, amplidynes turned out to be glorious at offering speedy and constant motion for the Avenger’s huge “goldfish bowl,” as gunners referred to as it. When Olsen informed Invoice Schwendler of his thought, Schwendler mentioned he hoped it labored, since they might in any other case have a four-foot gap within the airplane with nothing to suit into it.

A TBF-1C of VT-6 catches a wire aboard Intrepid during operations in the central Pacific. (PF-[Aircraft]/Alamy)
A TBF-1C of VT-6 catches a wire aboard Intrepid throughout operations within the central Pacific. (PF-[Aircraft]/Alamy)

An Avenger turret gunner didn’t hammer away on the enemy behind a set of spade grips, comic-book type. He sat alongside his .50-caliber machine gun, its breech subsequent to his left ear, controlling the turret’s movement and the gun’s firing with a pistol-grip deal with. 

Actor Paul Newman, who joined the Navy aspiring to be a pilot however flunked the preflight bodily due to colour blindness, ended up as a radioman and gunner in Avengers. How Newman later achieved worldwide fame as an car racer, in a sport that relies upon closely on coloured sign lights and flags, is a query that flight surgeons have by no means answered. Although typically described as a turret gunner, Newman managed the one ventral .30-caliber stinger mount from his station within the rear fuselage.

It has been variously written that the stinger gunner fired from a standing place, or whereas kneeling or laying inclined. We requested the curator of Lengthy Island’s Cradle of Aviation Museum, 10 minutes’ drive from the location of the unique TBF manufacturing unit, to climb into the museum’s restored Avenger and see what he thought. “The gunner would have sat along with his legs straddling the gun, or presumably kneeling,” replied Joshua Stoff. “He undoubtedly couldn’t have stood, and if mendacity down, I don’t see how he may have elevated and depressed the gun. Both approach, visibility for the gunner was poor—solely down and to the rear. However the stomach is fairly roomy for one particular person, even with all of the radio gear put in.”

An aviation ordnancemen services a TBM-1C's .50-caliber gun turret. (National Archives)
An aviation ordnancemen providers a TBM-1C’s .50-caliber gun turret. (Nationwide Archives)

Roomy certainly. Some Avengers have been used as squadron hacks, typically flown between naval air stations and close by get together cities. A “designated driver” named Wellington Smith holds the document for cramming 17 pilots, plus himself, right into a TBM for a flight from Holtville, Calif., again to close by Naval Air Facility El Centro.

Late within the struggle, as Avengers more and more attacked floor targets, radiomen/gunners have been dropped from flight crews. Trapped within the unarmored stomach, they have been weak to even rifle fireplace from the bottom, and the demise and harm charge for radiomen soared. 

The turret was entered from beneath, the gunner climbing up into the fishbowl from the radioman’s compartment whereas dealing with ahead, then squirming round to face aft within the seat whereas maneuvering a heavy plate of armor. Bailing out meant reversing the method, the gunner then discovering his parachute within the compartment beneath and clipping it onto his harness, forcing the massive entry door open towards the slipstream and, together with the radioman, leaping out. Neither crewman had the house to in any other case put on a chute, although the pilot did. Not surprisingly, pilots often survived a bailout whereas crewmen went down with the ship. Many Avenger crewmen say they’ve by no means heard of a turret gunner efficiently bailing out. 

Early Avengers had a seat between the cockpit and the turret, a number of of them fitted with primary flight controls, however it was hardly ever occupied in fight except a photographer or observer was alongside for the trip. The seat was quickly gone, the house taken up by cumbersome Forties radios and radar electronics, although most restored Avengers have reverted to the third seat for passengers.

Historical past’s most well-known Avenger pilot was future president George H.W. Bush. Barely 18 and a highschool graduate (he would attend Yale solely after the struggle), the 6-foot-2 Bush was one of many tallest pilots within the Navy and for a very long time assumed to be its youngest aviator, an honor that truly accrued to at least one Charles Downey.

Lieutenant (j.g.) George H.W. Bush sits in the cockpit of his TBM-1C Barbara III—named after his future wife, Barbara Pierce—on the light carrier San Jacinto. (George W. Bush Presidental Library and Museum)
Lieutenant (j.g.) George H.W. Bush sits within the cockpit of his TBM-1C Barbara III—named after his future spouse, Barbara Pierce—on the sunshine service San Jacinto. (George W. Bush Presidental Library and Museum)

Bush was by all accounts a superb pilot. He logged 1,228 hours of Avenger time, flew 58 fight missions and made 126 traps, all of them profitable, aboard the short-decked gentle service San Jacinto. WWII carriers all had straight decks, so as soon as an Avenger pilot dedicated to touchdown he both caught a wire—there have been solely three on San Jacinto—or bumped into the crash barrier close to the bow. Counting on that heavy-duty web typically concerned crashing into plane parked simply past it. There was no such factor as a bolter, or go-around, as there’s aboard a contemporary, angled-deck service.

On small carriers, choosing up the no. 2 wire—the most secure process—banged an Avenger down atop the aft elevator, which, in response to writer Barrett Tillman, “tilted the elevator ahead and resulted in a four- or five-inch ‘curb’ for the wheels to hit.” The outcome typically was a blown tire or two.

Bush went by means of three TBMs: Barbara, Barbara II and Barbara III. He safely ditched the primary one after dropping oil stress throughout a catapult launch and being denied permission to re-land by a touchdown sign officer busy retrieving different Avengers. On September 2, 1944, whereas bombing a well-defended radio set up on the tiny island of Chichi Jima, he bailed out after Barbara II’s engine was hit and caught fireplace. This time he misplaced his crew, a proven fact that tortured him the remainder of his life. 

The British enthusiastically adopted the Aven­ger for its Fleet Air Arm early in 1943, giving legendary Royal Navy check pilot Eric “Winkle” Brown the chance to fly it continuously. Brown discovered that the Avenger’s one aeronautical failing was that it spun quickly and dangerously if anti-spin controls weren’t instantly exerted. (The airplane was placarded towards intentional spins.)

Bombing with an Avenger required a steep glide-bomb method. Brown famous the pullout was “a two-handed, considerably frenetic affair, one hand pulling [the stick] with all its energy and the opposite retrimming frantically.” However the Avenger “stabilized nearly instantly, a attribute that was crucially vital if a clear and correct drop was to be achieved.” Brown additionally thought of service landings out of a really steady 78-knot method, with good visibility over the nostril, “extraordinarily simple…about as simple as that tough artwork is ever more likely to be.”

Many Avengers carried Norden bombsights, which have been quickly discovered to be ineffective. The Norden was meant for high-altitude, degree bombing and it couldn’t deal with the slant ranges it was being requested to compute. Forms and inertia led the Navy to proceed supplying Avengers with dead-weight Nordens, and in the end three-quarters of Norden’s manufacturing went to the ocean service. The bombsights have been linked to an autopilot system referred to as Stabilized Bombing Method Gear that Avenger pilots discovered they might a minimum of use on lengthy flights, bypassing the unpleasantly heavy flight controls.

An Avenger’s multitasking radioman/ventral gunner was additionally meant to be the airplane’s bombardier. On the ahead finish of his cramped compartment was a small, slanted window that peered into the darkish bomb bay. When the bay doorways opened, the window offered a view down and forward, between the racks of bombs. If a torpedo was in place, there was nothing to see however the prime of the tin fish. So torpedo drops have been managed by the pilot, eyeballing his heading, airspeed, altitude and distance to the goal, aided by a “tor­pedo director”—a reflector gunsight—atop the instrument panel.

An Avenger drops a Mark 13 with a plywood tail shroud during a training flight from Naval Air Station Norfolk, Va., in 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
An Avenger drops a Mark 13 with a plywood tail shroud throughout a coaching flight from Naval Air Station Norfolk, Va., in 1942. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

Solely the pilot may management torpedo launch, although the crewman within the stomach compartment had inflight entry to the bomb bay and will change the torpedo’s depth setting. Both the pilot or the bombardier may open the bomb-bay doorways, electrically or manually. The torpedo’s launch change was atop the pilot’s joystick. There was additionally a handbook T-handle emergency launch.

Bombing, nevertheless, was speculated to be within the fingers and eyes of the bombardier and his magical Norden, sighting by means of that aslant window. The bombardier was additionally answerable for arming the bombs earlier than the drop and for setting the intervalometer—a tool that managed the timing of the 4 bombs’ launch. They may all be dropped without delay, however releasing them as a spaced-out stick gave higher protection and a better probability of a minimum of one bomb hitting a small goal.

The Avenger’s most media-worthy second was the epic of Flight 19, 5 TBMs that departed on a primary bombing and navigation coaching flight over the Atlantic on December 5, 1945. The train couldn’t have been easier: take off from Naval Air Station Fort Lauderdale, fly straight east and drop some observe bombs, flip north and fly awhile, flip due west till you hit the U.S. coast, go south and land again at Fort Lauderdale. Three left turns with all of Florida to hit.

The Grummans discovered themselves over the Bahamas, as they need to have been, however for unknown causes the pilots determined the islands have been the Florida Keys. It didn’t assist that they have been flying a really primary time-speed-distance train but the clocks had been faraway from each one among Flight 19’s Avengers—a not unusual little bit of pilferage by individuals who had entry to cockpits, since eight-day plane clocks have been rapidly detachable and made nifty souvenirs.

Flight 19 ended up flying northwest from what they thought have been the Keys. 5 airplanes and 14 crewmen quickly disappeared without end into the Atlantic, as did the 13-man crew of a Martin PBM-5 Mariner despatched out to seek for them. A tanker steaming within the space reported an enormous explosion within the distance, so it was assumed the gas-heavy PBM had suffered the implications of a gas leak. The reason for the Avengers’ disappearance has by no means been definitively decided, although they undoubtedly ran out of gas.

By the end of World War II a few Avengers were modified with an APS-20 search radar that could detect low flying aircraft. Designated TBM-3W, they would pioneer airborne early warning. (U.S. Navy)
By the tip of World Struggle II a number of Avengers have been modified with an APS-20 search radar that might detect low flying plane. Designated TBM-3W, they might pioneer airborne early warning. (U.S. Navy)

A 1952 Florida journal article concerning the lack of Flight 19 steered that they had fallen prey to a mysterious airplane-eating, ship-sinking stretch of ocean that the writer dubbed the Bermuda Tri­angle. Thus the Avenger got here to play its half among the many world’s extra widespread conspiracy theories, alien-abduction plots and tinfoil-hat ruminations.

The Navy’s final torpedo bomber was the Doug­las A-1 Skyraider—the immortal Spad of Vietnam Struggle fame. On Could 2, 1951, early within the Korean Struggle, eight Skyraiders made the world’s last-ever floor torpedo assault, towards the Hwacheon Dam. Eight Mark 13 torpedoes have been dropped, seven hit the dam and 6 exploded, crippling the construction for the remainder of the struggle.

It was really the tip of an period.  


For additional studying, contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson recommends: Avenger at Struggle, by Barrett Tillman; TBF/TBM Avenger, by David Doyle; Flight of the Avenger: George Bush at Struggle, by Joe Hyams; and Trying Backward: Don Banks – One TBF Turret Gunner’s Story, by Stephen A. Banks.

This characteristic initially appeared within the September 2021 challenge of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss a problem subscribe!

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