If you’ve never seen a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber belching smoke, revving up to full power and getting ready to leap into the air, trust me: It’s a sight you’ll never forget.
This big, blue massive hunk of war iron was one of the heaviest aircraft to operate from carrier decks during World War II, typically weighing about 18,000 pounds.
As a member of a volunteer outfit that preserves and flies military planes, I have a small role in getting that big Avenger to open-house events and air shows where it can thrill and inspire audiences. Our starting point is near a town in Virginia whose name many people spell wrong.
To bolster awareness of historic military aviation, volunteers keep, care for, and fly a trio of vintage aircraft at Culpeper Regional Airport, Virginia, 50 miles south of the Washington, D.C. Beltway. The airport serves Culpeper (population 16,349) and surrounding environs.
Dressed in authentic colors from World War II, the airplanes are a Stinson L-5 Sentinel liaison craft, a Vultee BT-13 Valiant basic trainer and a General Motors TBM-3E Avenger torpedo bomber. Collectively these warbirds – as restored military aircraft are called – offer up the sights, sounds, and smells of American air power during the war years.
The National Capitol Squadron of the Commemorative Air Force is the operator of the L-5, BT-13 and TBM-3E. Although named for a building (the capitol) rather than a city (the capital), the NCS squadron is in every respect the CAF’s presence in the Washington, D. C. region.
Nationwide, according to its web site, the CAF operates more than 160 airplanes in more than 80 locations. The most famous may be the B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber, “Fifi,” which resides in Texas but frequently tours the country. The mission of the CAF, says the web site, “is education, such that generations of Americans will value and support the contributions of military aviation in assuring our nation’s freedom.”
I became a member of the National Capitol Squadron just last year and quickly became accustomed to hanging around these aircraft and swapping tall tales with other aviation buffs.
The NCS squadron’s L-5 Sentinel is painted to represent “Gayle Ann,” an L-5 used for artillery spotting duty by the 25th Liaison Squadron, Thirteenth Air Force, in the Philippines in 1945. Pilot Staff Sgt. Jerry Felter and observer Capt. Leo Kellett flew the real, wartime “Gayle Ann.”
Our BT-13 is painted in the markings of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pioneers who trained in Alabama and fought in Europe. The BT-13 is currently in need of a new engine, but we hope to have it back in the air soon.
Almost every U. S. Army pilot went through basic training in the BT-13 – the “Vibrator” to a generation of irreverent airmen – during the war years. It was the plane typically encountered in the second phase of a three-stage training program. “It was the first aircraft in which I learned to use a radio and the first in which I flew in formation,” said retired Lt. Col. Huie Lamb. “The BT-13 was pretty forgiving and it taught you the basic principles.”
U.S. industry built 11,538 of all versions of the BT-13, including the Navy SNV, during the war years.
Our TBM-3E Avenger is one of the few surviving examples of the big, blue aerial dreadnaught flown during World War II by George Bush, who later became the 41st U.S. president. Ours is finished in the colors of Marine Corps squadron VMTB-143, the “Rocket Raiders,” which operated from the escort carrier USS Gilbert Islands (CVE 107) late in World War II in the Pacific.
Production of the Avenger totaled 9,839 airframes, including 2,293 from Grumman and 7,546 from the Eastern Division of General Motors.
In addition to operating planes, NCS has its Historic Aircraft Youth-Mentorship Maintenance Team, an effort that encourages youngsters to learn aircraft mechanics and maintenance. Both the maintenance program and the larger CAF organization are 501(c)(3) public charity institutions.
“Our squadron hopes to honor, educate and inspire,” said Dan Haug, unit leader of the National Capitol Squadron. “We honor those who served, educate citizens about our military heritage, and inspire young people to see a future in aviation.”
Like all volunteer organizations, this one relies on support from community and from friends everywhere, so even the smallest donations are welcome and may be tax deductible.
And when you get to Culpeper and want a guided tour of some great airplanes, stop by and visit!