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The Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger

The TBF was primarily designed to replace the obsolete Douglas TBD Devastator. The first of two XTBF-1 prototypes, BuNo. 2539, made a highly successful first flight on 1 August 1941. The pilot, as with most experimental Grumman aircraft at the time, was the chief experimental engineer himself, Bob Hall. Grumman was fast becoming overloaded with work and was well into the construction of Plant 2, a complete new factory twice as big as the first. Here would be built the 286 TBF-1s ordered "off the drawing board" back in December 1940.

Then, as often happens, trouble came out of the blue. On November 1941 the XTBF-1 was flying in the hands of Bob Cook and engineer Gordon Israel. Near Brentwood, about 10 miles east of the Bethpage plant, they found the bomb bay was burning fiercely. The only cause anyone could think of later was an electrical fault. Cook and Israel hit the silk, and the flaming torpedo-bomber dived into some woods. This did not damage the program, and by this time the US Navy had changed its order for 286 to an open-ended contract.

On an unseasonably hot Sunday morning, 7 December, 1941, all was bustle at Bethpage as, amid colorful ceremony, the vast new Plant 2 was dedicated. Spotlighted in the middle was the gleaming new second prototype XTBF-1, which was to be the priority product. Suddenly the company vice-president, Clint Towl, was called to the telephone by the public address system. He picked up the instrument to be told, "The Japs have attacked Pearl Harbor; we are now at war." Towl prohibited any announcement, and the public began to go home; then, when the last of the thousands had gone through the gate, the plant was locked and searched for any saboteurs. It was to be a secure place for the next four years; and the TBF was appropriately named Avenger. Although the Avenger had an inauspicious start at the Battle of Midway, be sure to read its final score below!

Grumman built 2,291 TBFs before General Motors, Eastern Aircraft Division, began building them later under license from Grumman. The US Navy nomenclature designated these identical aircraft as TBMs with GM building 7,546 for a type total of 9,837. (TBF = Grumman-built, and TBM = GM built).

Early models of both the TBF and TBM had Wright "Twin Cyclone" R-2600-8 engines developing only 1700 hp. Later production saw increases in power up to 1900 hp with the R-2600-20 engine. This engine was also used on the Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat, B-25 Mitchell, and some models of the A-20Havoc. TBM-3s, with nearly 4,000 being built, had the more powerful engines. This required more cooling, the oil cooler was moved to the lower engine cowl lip and four more cowl flaps were added to each side. These changes and the removal of the 30 caliber ventral "stinger" gun are the primary visual differences between early and later model Avengers.

TBM-3 specifications

Dimensions: Wing span 52'2", Length 40'0'
(Width with wings folded: 16 ft)
Height: 16 ft 5 inches
Empty Weight: 10,843 lbs
Max Gross Weight: 18,250 lbs
Power: Wright "Twin Cyclone" R-2600-20 engine
14 cylinders in two banks of 7, giving 1900 hp
Max Speed: 267 mph at 16,000 ft.
Ceiling: 23,400 ft
Range: 1,130 miles ( 2,265 miles with aux. fuel tank.)
Fuel: 325 US gallons. (90 ea wing, plus 145 fuselage tank)
Oil: 32 US gallons
Crew: 3 - Pilot, Gunner, plus Radioman in fuselage station

Armed and Radar Equipped

The TBF/TBM could carry one 2,000 lb torpedo; four 500 lb bombs or depth charges, twenty 100 lb bombs, mines or an auxiliary fuel tank of 275 gallons in the bomb bay. Combined wing stations carried either two 100 gallon droppable fuel tanks or two bombs of up to 1000 lb each depending on the mission. With a "useful load" of nearly 8,000 lbs of fuel and armament provided a wide range of missions - and the Avenger was outstanding in all.

At first the Grumman TBF-1 had a .30 cal gun mounted on the cowl, a 30 cal ventral gun (stinger) and the .50 cal gun in the powered turret. The turret is electrically powered, and traverses more that 180 degrees side-to-side, as well as elevation, with cam following safety switches to inhibit shooting off its own tail surfaces. By June of 1943 the -3E version had the single cowl gun replaced by two .50 cal guns in the wings and the ventral "stinger" machine gun was removed. The rudimentary but effective ASB radar with dual, aimable Yagi antennas was replaced the more advanced APS-4 radar with a single antenna mounted within a pod on the right wing. This increased the surface ship detection from approximately 40 miles to over 300. Internal armoring was also reduced by almost 250 lbs while power and gross weight were increased in these, the most common Avenger models.

The Avenger was the first US aircraft to be fitted with rockets used for ground attack. These were 5-inch HVAR variety with four mounted on each wing. The first use of the aerial rockets were to sink a U-boat on January 11, 1944.

The first torpedoes were the unreliable Mark 13 models which required to be dropped "low and slow" by the brave pilot who is most likely attacking a well-armed ship. In 1943 the reliable Mark 13-IA (ringtail) torpedo was deployed and could be dropped from a speed of up to 280 mph and 800 ft. Various techniques were used by different squadrons with accurate altitude often provided by a theAvenger's radar altimeter - separate from the search radar.

Bombs were also dropped by the pilot, either in a cluster or, using the "intervalometer" (set by the radioman) in a four-bomb stick. The pilot usually entered a 30 to 45 degree dive to about 500 ft elevation before releasing the bombs. A four-bomb stick, spaced 60 to 75 ft apart was used on maneuvering ships.

The "Middle Seat" Question

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 original vacuum tube radio equipment was massive, especially by today's standards, and it filled the whole glass canopy to the rear of the pilot and ahead of the gun turret. These radios were accessible for adjustment and repair through a "tunnel" within the fuselage radioman's position. In addition, the Avenger was extensively equipped with search radar and communications on all bands from low frequency through VHF allowing it to become the early warning "eyes" for the fleet. The radio operator was always kept busy.

Our aircraft has been modified to provide an additional rear-mounted seat in place of the radios, which increases our crew compliment to four.

This is one of the first TBFs built and is likely one of those assigned to VT-8 squadron lost during the Battle of Midway. It shows the original four man crew which was later reduced by eliminating the horizontal bombardier behind the pilot. This area was quickly filled with communications radios, radar altimeter, IFF (Identification-Friend or Foe transponder) and a hydraulically operated autopilot as the TBF/TBM was continually upgraded with more modern equipment.

TBF/TBM Avenger In Battle

In the Atlantic theater, Avengers were launched from 14 smaller escort carriers (CVE) on anti-submarine roles. This was often done in pairs. One Avenger would be used as the "hunter" and carry additional fuel and droppable sonar-bouys to find submarines in the critical mid-Atlantic area beyond the reach of land-based bombers. When enemy subs were sighted, another "killer" Avenger would be bought in armed with depth charges and rockets. The 1160 lb, Mk 34 acoustic-homing anti-submarine torpedo called "Fido" was also successfully used in the Atlantic. The first submarine kill by Avengers was U-569 on May 22, 1943 with 53 final kills and one capture during WWII.

Although only 12 Japanese submarines were credited to the Avenger, both of the world's largest battleships - the Mushai and the Yamato - were sunk by Avenger bombs and torpedoes in the Pacific. The final Pacific score showed that Avengers accounted for 6 of the 10 Japanese battleships, 11 of the 15 carriers, and 10 of 14 heavy cruisers lost. Of the 12 remaining large Japanese ships, submarines sank eight and surface ships sank four. None were lost to horizontal bombing by Army planes.

The Marine Corps began land-based operations with TBF-1s at Guadalcanal in November 1942. The first Marine attack squadrons in combat in the Pacific had begun as SBD units, but by 1945, 23 Marine squadrons, land-based or on four escort carriers, used Avengers. These were used primarily for ground attack and tactical support.

Due to its weight, the Avenger was certainly not as nimble as the lighter Japanese Zerosand other enemy fighters. Therefore the best air-to-air combat tactic was to dive at a target aircraft, shoot, and continue the dive away. However the Avenger could absorb a lot of punishment and was well loved by those crew members that managed to limp home with battle damage. There are records of when the enemy had expended all of its ammo and simply had to leave. In spite of its shortcomings as a fighter, 98 aerial kills were recorded by Avenger air crews, and only 20 were lost in aerial combat from 1943 until the war's end. Other WWII aircraft designed by Grumman proved just as rugged, earning them the affectionate title of the "Grumman Iron Works".

Towards the end of WWII saw the development of the TBM-3W, the Navy’s first Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft. Developed under Project Cadillac, it had a large APS-20 radar antenna underneath the fuselage that could detect enemy aircraft far beyond the line-of-sight of surface vessels. A circular area 200 miles in every direction could be scanned from 20,000 feet and relayed to ships. All armament had to be removed to accommodate the electronics and its operator, located with his console within the fuselage, and the XTBM-3W first flew on August 5, 1944. The extra fuel tanks were usually carried in this long-range "hunter" role with missions lasting up to 10-12 hours. In March 1945, deliveries began on the first 27 being rebuilt at the Johnsville Navy facility, and trials were made on the Ranger in May 1945. Four-plane TBM-3W units were first deployed with AEW installations on the Enterprise, Hornet, and Bunker Hill, late in 1945.

The last 24 Avengers were delivered to the Navy in August 1945.

The Final WWII Score

According to the USN statistics below, the Avenger single engined bomber bore the brunt with most bombs delivered (32,700 tons), and ships sunk. They accounted for 98 enemy aircraft destroyed while suffering only 47 losses in air-to-air combat. Note that this was against much nimbler and more heavily armed fighters! Of the 729 total Avenger losses, 422 came from anti-aircraft fire simply due to their tough and dangerous low-level mission - dropping bombs, launching rockets, depth charges, and torpedoes. The other "Operations" losses account for very bad landings, flying into the ground, fuel starvation, and other non-shellfire induces losses. With nearly 10,000 aircraft delivered, and over 46,000 combat sorties flown, the Avenger may be considered one of the safer places to be. Remember that "Fighters make movies - bombers make history"

TBF/TBM Losses Enemy Aircraft
in Combat
Tons of

WWII Totals

On Action Sorties Other
A/A A/C Ops Bombers Fighters
Carrier - USN 35,564 348 27 231 339 227 22 50 24,245
Carrier - USMC 496 5 0 0 1 0 0 0 304
Land-based - USN 3,290 16 9 15 20 3 0 7 2,701
Land-based - USMC 7,151 53 11 14 56 16 1 18 5,437
Other 137 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 50
Totals 46,638 422 47 260 416 246 23 75 32,737
729 Combined 98 Combined
Carrier - CV 18,254 199 21 147 127 109 13 38 13,461
Carrier - CVL 6,379 72 4 40 85 57 4 6 4,831
Carrier - CVE, USN 10,931 77 2 44 127 61 5 6 5,953
Carrier - CVE, USMC 496 5 0 0 1 0 0 0 304

Aerial Combat

Sorties Enemy A/C
Enemy A/C
Enemy A/C
per each

Total War

Bombers Fighters Bombers Fighters Lost Damaged
Carrier based 429 60 458 22 50 27 46 2.7
Land Based 94 2 142 1 25 20 34 1.3
Totals 523 62 600 23 75 47 80
523 662 Combined 98 Combined 47 2.1 Total War

For the Year 1942 16 1 32 1 4 7 2 0.7 This Year
1943 56 12 62 8 7 8 18 1.9 "
1944 284 34 266 7 31 7 21 5.4 "
1945 73 13 98 6 8 5 5 2.8 "

Continuing Use Post-war

After the war, the Navy’s carrier-based Avengers had no foreign surface fleets to oppose, and the attack forces shrunk. Submarines remained the only potential naval threat, so some Avengers were modified to the TBM-3S configuration, whose turret was removed.

Airborne early warning became a top priority, and by June 1948, the first AEW squadron, VC-2, was formed with TBM-3Ws, as additional conversions were made until 156 were in the fleet by 1953. Radar countermeasures were tested by TBM-3Q version. The last TBM-3E left squadron (VS-27) service in October 1954, but many Avengers also filled utility and non-combat roles.

When the Mutual Defense Assistance Program (MDAP) was established, second-hand TBM-3s of various modifications were sent to allied powers, with 117 sent to Canada in 1950 (including ours), 19 to Uruguay in 1949/50, and 140 to France, beginning in May 1951. Shipments of 100 TBM-3Es began in March 1953 for the Royal Navy, where they served ASW squadrons as Avenger AS.4, AS.5, or ECM.6, depending on what electronics was fitted. After their replacement by the Fairey Gannet in 1955, 47 were passed to France, and another 19 to the Netherlands were added to 58 acquired earlier from the United States.

In an ironic twist, 20 Avengers became the first combat planes of the new Japanese Navy (called the Maritime Self-Defense Force) in 1954/55. These became the last TBMs remaining in military service until retirement in 1962, but civilian Avengers(including ours) worked as forest firefighters in North America for many years afterwards.

Click the Our Own Avenger's History tab at left for more information.

Capital Wing
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Brandy Station, Virginia 22714
For more information call: 540-402-1818

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