2023 TBM Reunion

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Photos and story by John Freedman

Now in its seventh year, the 2023 TBM Reunion was held at Illinois Valley Regional Airport (KVYS) in Peru Illinois. The event started out as a birthday celebration for TBM owner Brad Deckert, and it has since grown into the largest annual gathering of the Grumman Avengers.

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Six of the seven TBM Avengers lined up in a row. This gives you an idea how compact the aircraft became using the Sto-Wing concept.

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Deckert Brad Deckert flew a solo demonstration with his TBM-3E Bu. 85632 (NL81865) #83. Built in 1945, 81865 was used by the US Marine Torpedo Bombing SQN 234 off the USS Vella Gulf during the Okinawa campaign, it has the bullet holes to prove it! Retired from the US Naval fleet in 1956, it then spent many seasons as a fire bomber before returning it to original state. It now wears its WW2 Marine scheme.    

An afternoon and night show was held on Friday the 19th May, and a Saturday airshow and Salute to Veterans on the 20th May. The night portion of Fridays show featured Matt Younkin flying his Beech 18 routine, then the seven TBMs engine run and glow, with a Wall Of Flame finale.

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Skyraider: East Iowa Air Inc. Douglas AD-4N Skyraider #126959 (N959AD) was accepted by the US Navy in October 1952. It served on various carriers including USS Yorktown and USS Wasp. Placed in storage in 1957, it was then delivered to the l’Armee de l’Air (French Air Force) as No. 50 in 1960. It saw service in the Chad civil war before transferring to the Chad AF in April 1976. It made its way to French civilian owners before ending up in the USA in 1989. Called ‘Naked Fanny’ for Medal Of Honor winner LTC William A. Jones, who lost his radio during a search and rescue, so he flew his damaged Skyraider to Nakhon Phanom airbase NKP (known by troops as Naked Fanny) to report the position of the downed F-4 crew.

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Jets: Paul Keppeler in his Canadair CT-133 Silver Star leads Carl Schwerman in the Code 1 Aviation Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross.

The gathering is an all warbirds event, this year featuring displays from; Tim Savage’s P-40N Kittyhawk Mk, Wes Stowers/ Billy Strickland P-51D ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’, East Iowa Air Inc. AD-4N Skyraider ‘Naked Fanny’, Tri State Warbird Museum’s TB-25N ‘Yankee Doodle’, CAF Indiana Wing SNB-2 (Beech 18), Paul Keppeler CT-133 Silver Star (T-33), Stephen Jones CT-133 Silver Star (USAF colors), Code 1 Aviation’s L-39, and two SNJ/T-6s.

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TBM Glow: Seven TBM Avengers running at once; the exhaust flames from the Twin Cyclones glowing. Rated at 1900 Horse Power, a total of 13,300 HP on display.

There were seven Avengers at this year’s event; Brad Deckert’s TBM-3E #T83, Tom Buck’s TBM-3E #63 ‘George Bush’, Tri State Warbird Museum’s TBM-3 #7, Simmons Aviation TBM-3U #50, Few TBMS TBM fire bomber #3 ‘Suzanne’, Steve Sorge’s TBM-3 #2, and Ellenville LLC TBM-3U ‘She’s The Boss’.

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Concluding the TBM flight, three Avengers do an elephant walk back to the ramp.

The Grumman TBF made its first flight on December 7 1941, and was the first aircraft type the US took on charge after entering WW2. It was the heaviest single engined aircraft of the war, and the heaviest aircraft to operate from an aircraft carrier at the time. The aircraft was named the Avenger, but it gained that name in October 1941, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Designed by Grumman as the TBF, the majority of airframes were built by the Eastern Aircraft division of General Motors that is where the TB(M) designation comes in. 9839 Avengers were built for the US Navy, Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force. After WW2 they were also operated by; Brazil, Cuba, France, Japan, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Uraguay, and the US Marines.

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Entering service in 1942 the US Navy operated them into the 1960s. The TBF/M had a crew of 3, had a gross weight of 15,536 lb, and could carry 2000 lb of stores. The massive weapons bay was designed to carry the Bliss-Leavitt Mark 13 Torpedo or four 500 lb bombs. It was powered by a 2 row Wright R2600-20 Twin Clyclone 14 cylinder radial engine capable of 1900 HP. Escort carrier sailors referred to it as the ‘Turkey’ due to its size and maneuverability. After their military service many were used in civilian roles including as airborne firebombers. In 1945 the RNZAF was the first to trial their use as aerial top dressers dropping super phosphate from them in trials at Ohakea Air Base and Hood Aerodrome in New Zealand.

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Leroy Grumman said he used an eraser and two paper clips to come up with his amazing Sto-Wings system, that folded the 54 foot 2 inch wingspan against the body to make it just over 18 feet. This allowed the aircraft to take up much less room on deck, in the hangar deck and not have to interfere with the hangar height.

The city of Peru Illinois has adopted the TBM as their own. They have even painted a silhouette of an Avenger on a water tower. Due to donations and support from the local community it is free to park and enter the show. Thousands came along to enjoy the event, so if you are looking for something to do May next year, come along to the next TBM Reunion!

Tri State Warbird Museum’s NAA NB-25N Mitchell 45-8898 ‘Yankee Doodle’ at North American Aviation Kansas City, Kansas in August 1945. Too late for the war it was placed in storage before being converted to a trainer in 1948, and assigned to Bolling, Kelly, Offutt and Wright-Patterson AFB. Stricken in 1959 and sold for $2,202 it sat for 24 years before restored by Tom Reilly.

Carl Schwerman in the Code 1 Aviation Czechoslovakian built Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatross. The L-39 is a popular jet warbird, first flown in 1968 it is still in service in the Soviet Block countries, and operates a turbofan engine.

Military reenactor Michael Augle poses in front of the NB-25N Mitchell bomber. The aircraft still wears the paint job it wore for the 2019 Catch 22 mini series based on Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel. 

NAA P-51D Mustang 44-74009 (N51KB) rolled out of North American Aviation’s Inglewood CA factory in October 1944. It operated with the USAAC until 1951, then as 9275 in the Canadian Air Force till 1957. It then entered civilian ownership. N51KB is painted as Capt. Jesse Frey ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ of the 362nd Fighter Squadron, 357th Fighter Group. At the 2007 Gathering of Mustangs and Legends, Billy Strickland/ Wes Stowers met Capt Frey and after seeing photos of his real aircraft they repainted it in 2010.

Tim Savage’s Curtiss P-40N1 N740PN (AC42-104827) was shipped to Australia under lend lease and issued RAAF serial A29-414. While operating in New Guinea with RAAF 78 SQN as “Come In Suckers” it was written off in a landing accident at Tadji (Aitape) It was recovered from there in 2001 and restored at Pioneer Aero at Ardmore New Zealand.

While researching this article I gained a new respect for the Avenger. Where many warbirds survived the scrap heap due to their sexy looks, Grumman’s dump truck soldiered on for around 15 years of military service, and then spent around 32 years as aerial sprayers, and fire bombers. Now there are some 41 air worthy examples left flying in the world from the 9839 built.

Tri State Warbird Museum’s TBM-3E #53420 (N420GP) entered US Navy service in May 1945 and arrived at Pearl Harbor as the war ended. In 1950 it was sold to the Royal Canadian Navy, after 10 years it was sold surplus to Art Seller of Skyways Air Services who was one of the first to convert TBMs into spraying and firefighting aircraft. Later it was sold to Conair Ltd. and Forest Protection Ltd. spending a massive 34 years as an aerial asset. It was then sold to Vintage Wings of Seattle, WA, and then to Doug Rued of Minot ND who spent 8 years restoring it to its WW2 configuration.

The finale of the Friday night airshow was the Wall Of Flame that lit up the night sky.

The finale of the Friday afternoon airshow was a Missing Man formation flown by four of the TBMs. The Missing Man is a salute to fallen comrades, that is illustrated by one of the formation pulling away from the rest and heading skyward.

Seeing Matt Younkin fly his routine in the Beech AT-7C (Beech 18) #4383 (N9109R) is amazing, his control over a twin engine transport is masterly. But watching Matt do this at night is breath-taking. 

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