This is a history of Forest Protection Limited’s (FPL’s) association with some 88 TBM Avenger aircraft used in the spruce budworm aerial spray program, primarily in the province of New Brunswick, Canada. This text has been compiled from many sources. From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, Avengers were contracted by FPL from all over Canada the western United States. FPL purchased many of those same Avengers in the establishment of its own fleet, which at one time had the most working Avengers flying at any one time in the World. Although FPL’s Avengers were gradually replaced by the AT803, they continued to be used as fire bombers well into the 2000s. The last Avenger left FPL in 2012.
The TBM-3E Avenger is a rare aircraft. Approximately 40 are currently airworthy in the world, 27 are on display, and 14 are in storage or undergoing restoration from a total of 9,389 manufactured for WWII. Avengers participated in all major engagements of the U.S. Navy starting with the Battle of Midway. It was utilized in anti-submarine patrol, search and rescue, and airborne early warning. A large, heavy but versatile and easy-to-fly aircraft, it can attain 267 mph and 1900 horsepower. While primarily designed as a torpedo bomber, its large weapons bay and capability to handle ordnance on its wings allowed it to perform level bombing, dive bombing, and rocket attacks.
[Warbirds News, 24 Aug 2017]
The TBM-3 Avenger in Civilian Life
Declared surplus in 1960, many TBM’s carried on in civilian life as sprayers and fire suppression air tankers. The large bomb bay was adapted to hold a 500 Imperial gallon tank.
The retardant delivery system had a capacity of 500 Imperial gallons in 2 compartments. The pilot can select full 500 gallon drop, 2 single drops of 250 gallons each or staggered drop with delay set as desired, depending on coverage desired and fuel type involved. Drop speed is 110 knots and drop altitude is approximately 100 ft above forest canopy. Retardant is a clay-fertilizer-water mixture that fireproofs unburned fuels and is used to contain a forest fire rather than smother it. Reload is land-based from satellite airstrips with retardant storage throughout the province.
The TBM carried four times the payload at about 80% greater speed and with an operating range of about double that of a Stearman. This resulted in fewer personnel and about half the airstrips required by the Stearmans. The forest area requiring treatment was generally large and continuous, and did not require the more maneuverable Stearman, which were more suitable for small isolated treatment areas.
The Avenger Graveyard – Litchfield Park, Arizona
The US Navy operated a Naval Air Station in Litchfield Park, Arizona from the WWII era into the late 1950’s. After WWII, thousands of surplus aircraft, including Avengers, were stored at Litchfield Park, sometimes called the Litchfield Plane Boneyard. Many of these aircraft were put back into service to meet the demands of the Korean War. Those that were not simply sat out in the dry hot climate for many years. A decision was made to close the facility in the late 1950s. The aircraft that remained were either sold off, moved elsewhere, or were smelted on-site. It took years to either sell or recycle all of the WWII aircraft.
The First TBMs Used Commercially
There is documentation for the commercial use of a TBM as a fire bomber in the US as early as 1954. This aircraft — a TBM-1C, BuNo 46122, Reg. N9394H — was owned by Paul Mantz Air Services of Los Angeles, California and flown by Ed Ball. Ed also flew TBMs in New Brunswick (NB) during Spruce Budworm operations in the mid-1960s and in Maine in 1963 on their budworm spray project. [See images of this aircraft on page 2 of “Another Tanker Thread – TBM/TBF’s”, The Warbird Information Exchange).]
The USDA Forestry Service (USFS) received eight surplus TBM-3U’s in 1956 for borate bomber development (Larkins and Turner 2011, Warbirds International). These were registered as N102Z, N103Z, N104Z, N105Z, N106Z, N107Z, N108Z, and N109Z.
The first time that TBMs were used in Canada for forest spraying operations was in British Columbia (BC) in 1957 (see Lejeune 1975). Four US-registered TBMs were leased from US contractors by Skyway Air Services of Langley, BC, to spray for Western Black-headed Budworm. At this time (May/June), Skyways owned several Stearmans (some of which had traveled to NB since 1952), but they had been contracted to FPL to spray for spruce budworm in NB.
With the availability of surplus TBMs from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and with favourable performance reports as sprayers and water bombers in the US, Canadian contractors bought 15 TBMs in 1958. The decision to introduce TBMs into the NB spray program was not done without knowledge of their ability as sprayers in Canada.
Below is a list of 81 Avenger airframes that survived US military service as presented in the Warbird Registry’s pages. An additional 78 TBMs not associated with the FPL spray program also survived military service. In many cases this author has updated the Registry with information from this project.
|53139 (A-11)||53697 (W-87)||85665 (W-77)||86180 (S-02)|
|53200 (A-11)||53787 (A-02)||85715 (?-02)||86244 (W-84)|
|53307 (W-75)||53857 (A-12)||85733 (R-02)||91159 (W-78)|
|53334 (W-75)||53858 (R-12)||85836 (W-84)||91289 (W-99)|
|53337 (?-07)||69323 (R-12)||85854 (W-77)||91426 (R-02)|
|53420 (A-06)||85460 (A-05)||86020 (W-10)|
|53592 (W-82)||85499 (S-82)||86064 (W-83)|
|53638 (A-12)||85597 (?-02)||86090 (W-77)|
|53072 (W-74)||53610 (A-11)||69325 (A-02)||85983 (A-05)|
|53078 (W-75)||53632 (W-73)||69327 (D-03)||86091 (W-73)|
|53209 (W-83)||53726 (D-07)||69354 (C-60)||86098 (W-74)|
|53241 (W-73)||53732 (W-72)||69361 (D-08)||86175 (W-67)|
|53256 (W-71)||53759 (W-60)||69459 (D-02)||86195 (W-71)|
|53351 (W-74)||53768 (A-02)||69531 (W-78)||91110 (A-10)|
|53392 (W-69)||53775a (W-72)||85632 (A-11)||91171 (S-06)|
|53484 (W-70)||53775b CF-ZTS (W-73)||85829 (W-75)||91398 (?-70)|
|53507 (?-61)||53784 (W-72)||85833 (W-70)||91521 (D-02)|
|53554 (W-71)||53785 (A-02)||85870 (W-58)||91565 (W-75)|
|53558 (W-58)||53829 (A-03)||85883 (W-72)||91586 (D-02)|
|53575 (?-02)||53835 (A-02)||85886 (A-03)||91714 (?-02)|
|53607 (R-02)||53914 (R-05)||85928 (W-75)||91733 (A-05)|
Spray TBMs not on Warbird Registry List (= 4):
53488 (W-69) FXOO
53496 (W-61) FMSX
53670 (W-65) FMSY
69347 (W-63) FIMT