The Grumman TBF Avenger (designated TBM for aircraft manufactured 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. It entered U.S. service in 1942, and first saw action during the Battle of Midway.
Grumman's first torpedo bomber was the heaviest single-engine aircraft of World War II, and it was the first design to feature a new wing-folding mechanism created by Grumman, intended to maximize storage space on an aircraft carrier; the F4F-4 and later models of Wildcat received a similar folding wing and the F6F Hellcat (both designed by Grumman) would employ this mechanism as well. The engine used was the Wright R-2600-20 (which produced 1,900 horsepower). There were three crew members: pilot, turret gunner and radioman/bombardier/ventral gunner. One .30-caliber machine gun was mounted in the nose, a .50 caliber gun was mounted right next to the turret gunner's head in a rear-facing electrically powered turret, and a single .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 .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, which increases crew to four.
During the Battle of Midway, all of the three aircraft carriers' torpedo groups (from the , , and ) had taken horrendous casualties; one group had a single survivor (Ensign George Gay). This was partly due to the slow speed of the Devastator (less than 200 mph (320 km/h) during glide-bombing) and its weak defensive armament. Ironically, the first shipment of TBFs had arrived only a few hours after the three carriers quickly departed from Pearl Harbor (although a few eventually participated, operating from Midway Island).
The Avenger had a large bomb bay, allowing for one Bliss-Leavitt Mark 13 torpedo, a single 2000 lb (900 kg) bomb, or up to four 500 lb (230 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 (CAGs). With a 30,000 ft (10,000 m) ceiling and a fully-loaded range of 1,000 miles (1,600 km), it was better than any previous American torpedo bomber, and better than its chief opponent, the then obsolete Japanese 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.
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 ward against possible enemy action. By early June 1942, a shipment of more than 100 aircraft was sent to the Navy (although most were too late to participate in the pivotal Battle of Midway).
However, six TBF-1s were present on Midway Island, as part of VT-8 (Torpedo Squadron 8), while the rest of the squadron flew Devastators from the Hornet. Unfortunately, most of the pilots had very little previous experience, and only one TBF survived (with heavy damage and casualties). As author Gordon Prange mentions in Miracle at Midway, the outdated Devastators (and lack of new aircraft) contributed somewhat to the lack of a complete victory.
On 24 August 1942, the next major naval battle occurred at the Eastern Solomons. With only the carriers and Enterprise, the 24 TBFs present were able to sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryūjō and claim one dive bomber, at the cost of seven aircraft.
The first major "prize" for the TBFs (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.
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. Starting in mid-1944, the TBM-3 began production (with a more powerful powerplant and wing hardpoints for drop tanks and rockets). The dash-3 was the most numerous of the Avengers (with about 4,600 produced). However, most of the Avengers in service were dash-1s 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 theatre, 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 nautical miles out), the group of Hellcats, TBF/TBMs, and dive bombers took many casualties. However, Avengers from torpedoed the light carrier Hiyō 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 ), his TBM was shot down on 2 September 1944 over the Pacific island of Chichi Jima. Both of his crewmates died; however, because he released his payload and hit the target before being forced to bail out, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Another famous Avenger aviator is 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 onboard the escort carrier roughly 500 miles from Japan when the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
TBF/TBMs sank the two Japanese "super battleships": the Musashi and the Yamato (which was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's flagship for most of the war). The Avengers played a major role in the Allied victory during World War II, although torpedoes had become largely outdated (replaced by the faster and more effective dive bombers) by then.
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. The first 402 aircraft were known as Avenger Mk 1, 334 TBM-1s from Grumman were the Avenger Mk II and 334 TBM-3 the Mark III. Post war the antisubmarine version was the "Avenger AS Mk IV" in RN service.
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.
One of the primary postwar users of the Avengert 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 AS 3. 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 AS 3M. However, RCN leaders soon realized the Avenger's shortcomings as an ASW aircraft, and in 1954 they elected to replace the AS 3 with the 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 CS2F Trackers began in 1957, the Avengers were shifted to training duties, and were officially retired in July 1960.
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. FPL was still operating 3 Avengers in 2007 configured as water-bombers. 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 the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum and is currently on display.
There are several Avengers in private collections around the world.
| Grumman built|
|XTBF-1||Two prototypes each powered by a 1,700hp R-2600-8 engine, second aircraft introduced the large dorsal fin.|
|TBF-1||Initial production model based on the second prototype, 2,291 built (some as TBF-1Cs)|
|TBF-1C||TBF-1 with provision for two 0.5 in wing guns and fuel capacity increased to 726 gallons.|
|TBF-1B||Paper designation for the Avenger I for the Royal Navy.|
|TBF-1D||Conversions of the TBF-1 with centimetric radar in radome on starboard wing leading edge.|
|TBF-1CD||Conversion of TBF-1Cs with centimetric radar in radome on starboard wing leading edge.|
|TBF-1E||TBF-1 conversions with additional electronic equipment.|
|TBF-1J||TBF-1 equipped for bad weather operations|
|TBF-1L||TBF-1 equipped with retractable searchlight in bomb bay.|
|TBF-1P||TBF-1 conversion for photo-reconnaissance|
|TBF-1CP||TBF-1C conversion for photo-reconnaissance|
|XTBF-2||One TBF-1 re-engined with a 1,900 hp XR-2600-10 engine.|
|XTBF-3||Two TBF-1 aircraft with 1,900 hp R-2600-20 engines.|
|TBF-3||Planned production version of the XTBF-3, cancelled|
| General Motors|
|TBM-1||as TBF-1, 550 built.|
|TBM-1C||as TBF-1C, 2336 built.|
|TBM-1D||Conversions of the TBM-1 with centimetric radar in radome on starboard wing leading edge.|
|TBM-1E||TBM-1 conversions with additional electronic equipment.|
|TBM-1J||TBM-1 equipped for all weather operations|
|TBM-1L||TBM-1 equipped with retractable searachlight in bomb bay.|
|TBM-1P||TBM-1 conversion for photo-reconnaissance|
|TBM-1CP||TBM-1C conversion for photo-reconnaissance|
|TBM-2||One TBM-1 re-engined with a 1,900hp XR-2600-10 engine.|
|XTBM-3||Four TBM-1C aircraft with 1,900hp R-2600-20 engines.|
|TBM-3D||TBM-3 conversion with centimetric radar in radome on starboard wing leading edge.|
|TBM-3E||TBM-3 conversion with centimetric radar in radome on starboard wing leading edge and strengthened airframe.|
|TBM-3H||TBM-3 conversion with surface search radar.|
|TBM-3J||TBM-3 equipped for all weather operations|
|TBM-3L||TBM-3 equipped with retractable searchlight in bomb bay.|
|TBM-3M||TBM-3 conversion as a missile launcher.|
|TBM-3N||TBM-3 conversion for night attack.|
|TBM-3P||TBM-3 conversion for photo-reconnaissance.|
|TBM-3Q||TBM-3 conversion for electronic countermeasures with large ventral radome.|
|TBM-3R||TBM-3 conversions as seven-passenger, Carrier onboard delivery transport.|
|TBM-3S||Anti-submarine strike version converted from TBM-3.|
|TBM-3U||General utility and target towing conversion of TBM-3.|
|TBM-3W||Anti-Submarine search conversion of TBM-3 with APS-20 radar in ventral radome.|
|XTBM-4||Three prototypes based on TBM-3E with modified wing incorporating a reinforced center section and a different folding mechanism.|
|TBM-4||Production version of XTBM-4, 2,141 on order were canceled.|
| Royal Navy designation|
for the TBF/TBM
|Tarpon||Original Royal Navy name, changed to Avenger|
|Avenger I||RN designation of the TBF-1, 400 delivered.|
|Avenger II||RN designation of the TBM-1/TBM-1C, 334 delivered.|
|Avenger III||RN designation of the TBM-3, 222 delivered|
|Avenger IV||RN designation of the TBM-3S, 70 cancelled|
|Avenger AS4||RN designation of the TBM-3S, 100 delivered postwar|
| Royal Canadian Navy designations|
for TBM-3E conversions
|Avenger AS 3||Modified by RCN for anti-submarine duty, dorsal gun turret removed, 98 built|
|Avenger AS 3M||AS 3 with magnetic anomaly detector boom added to rear fuselage|
Flight 19 disappeared on 5 December 1945 while on a training mission over the Atlantic. According to the popular Bermuda Triangle stories, the flight leader reported a number of odd visual effects while lost; i.e. mentions of "white water", the ocean "not looking as it should", and his compass spinning out of control, before simply disappearing. Furthermore, Berlitz in his book claimed that because the TBM Avenger bombers were built to float for long periods, they should have been found the next day considering what were reported as calm seas and a clear sky. However, not only were the aircraft never found, a Navy search and rescue seaplane that went after them was also lost and never found. Adding to the intrigue is that the Navy's report of the accident was ascribed to "causes or reasons unknown".
While the basic facts of the Triangle version of the story are essentially accurate, some important details are missing. The popular image of a squadron of seasoned combat aviators disappearing on a sunny afternoon did not happen. By the time the last radio transmission was received from Flight 19, stormy weather had moved in and the Sun had set. Only the Flight Leader, Lt. Charles Carroll Taylor, had combat experience and any significant flying time, but at the same time he had less than six months of flight experience in the south Florida area, less than the trainees serving under him, and a history of getting lost in flight, having done so three times previously in the Pacific theater during World War II and being forced to ditch his Avengers twice into the water. Lt. Taylor also has since been depicted as a cool, calm and confident leader. Instead, radio transmissions from Flight 19 revealed Taylor to be disoriented, lacking confidence in his decisions, and completely lost.
Exaggerated claims also often stated that all the aircraft were having compass problems, however later naval reports and written recordings of the conversations between Lt. Taylor and the other pilots of Flight 19 do not indicate this. As for the Navy's report, it is stated that blame for the loss of the aircraft and men rest upon the flight leader's confusion. However the wording was changed from blaming Taylor to "cause unknown" in a second official report in deference to the wishes of his family. It was this incident as stated in the second, altered report, plus the later losses of the airliners Star Tiger and Star Ariel, which began the legend of the Bermuda Triangle.