Keep ’Em FlyingAug 25, 2023 12:32PM ● By Diana Barnett
“The war to end all wars,” World War II was fought from 1939 to 1945. The action began in Europe, but the U.S. was thrust into the conflict when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
“The Japanese had a quality air force and the American fleet was not especially strong in planes that could land and take off from ocean carriers,” explained Keith Swinehart, 84, a member of the Rocky Mountain Wing (RMW), the local branch of the Commemorative Air Force.
The push was on for American companies to develop more efficient planes. That’s when the Grumman company out of New York produced the first five new torpedo bombers, which arrived on December 7, 1942. The planes were aptly named the “Avenger” because they were designed to avenge the destruction caused by Japanese flyers.
Once deployed, these planes changed the course of the war against Japan. Big, noisy and powerful, the Avenger flew from carrier decks and traveled long Pacific distances. The aircraft had wings that folded upward, so when it landed on an ocean carrier, several could be tethered and lined up.
“The Avenger was the biggest single-engine plane built for World War II,” said RMW Executive Officer Kent Taylor, 72. “Fully loaded, the aircraft weighed 18,000 pounds, including a three-man crew with a pilot, gunner and radio operator; a 2,000-pound torpedo; lots of 50 caliber ammunition, 325 gallons of gas and 30 gallons of oil.”
The torpedo bomber (TBM/TBF) gained the reputation as one of most iconic aircraft of the era. Former president George H. W. Bush flew an Avenger while in the Navy. While bombing a Japanese radio tower, his plane was shot down and he was forced to jump into the ocean. Fortunately, he was rescued by an American submarine.
The Avenger has an impactful and colorful history. That’s why a small group of pilots banded together in 1957 and started the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) to protect historic aircraft from extinction. The group aims to keep these historic planes in viewable —and flying condition—thereby sharing the history and spirit of the Greatest Generation with future generations.
The local CAF chapter made its debut in 1981, with a small squadron working to bring historic aircraft to the western slope. Four years later, the group proudly welcomed the TBM N53503 Avenger to reside in the hanger at the Grand Junction airport.
CLAIMS TO FAME
Produced near the end of the war, the local plane did not see combat, but it was placed in duty on American aircraft carriers. Later, it was provided to the Royal Canadian Navy on a lend-lease program, where it served with the HMCS Magnificent carrier searching for submarines.
In 1953, the plane was selected to lead the formation flyover of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation Review of the Fleet. It was then transferred into Canadian firefighting service, its torpedo cavity filled with fire retardant.
In 1970, the plane was donated to a CAF branch in Harlingen, Texas, where it flew with the Ghost Squadron. After sitting outside for a few years in Mesa, Arizona, the plane was acquired by the Grand Junction Rocky Mountain Wing.
The plane required about $300,000 to bring it up to speed. Several local CAF members contributed personal resources to make it happen.
“Our Avenger has several other claims to fame,” Taylor added. “It is the only aircraft to have been inducted into the Colorwado National Register of Historic Properties, and the seventh aircraft to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and only one of three that still flies.”
Not only did the plane lead the flyover formation for the royal coronation, but it participated in the 65th anniversary reenactment in Boulder in 2019. The group even received a letter from Queen Elizabeth’s personal secretary thanking the group for their efforts.
The Avenger was also requested to appear in Steven Spielberg’s film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” as well as some episodes of the TV series “Gold Rush.”
EDUCATE, INSPIRE, HONOR
At its Grand Junction hangar, RMW also maintains a 1946 J3 Piper Cub, which was used to train aspiring pilots.
Members also do outreach to local schools, inviting students and teachers to their onsite museum to learn about World War II and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and to view artifacts and memorabilia including magazines, photographs, autographed items, uniforms and artwork.
RMW relies on memberships, donations and funds raised from living history plane rides and air shows to help support their projects, none of which would be possible without its dedicated members and volunteers.
On September 30, RMW brings back its first Keep ’Em Flying 1940s Hangar Dance since COVID. Costumes are encouraged as attendees dance to 1940s swing music by Swing City Express. There will also be a “best dressed” contest and swing dance lessons outside the RMW aircraft hangar at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, Navigators Way, Gate 10.
Buy tickets online at bit.ly/hangar_dance or call 970-256-0693.
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