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Grumman TBM-3E Avenger “Doris Mae”

Grumman TBM-3E Avenger “Doris Mae” passing show center at Leesburg Executive Airport (Photo by Cliff Davis)

The History of “Doris Mae”

Our TBM-3E Avenger “Doris Mae” (BuAer 91426) is a Grumman-designed (TBF) aircraft built under contract number 418 and license by General Motors in New Jersey in 1945. The aircraft was accepted into service on March 3, 1945, at Fleet All-Weather Training Unit, Atlantic (FAWTULANT) in Key West, Florida. She would serve a short tour here before being reassigned to Overhaul & Repair Bureau of Aeronautics Maintenance & Supply (O&R BUAER M&S) in Norfolk, Virginia, and then transferred to O&R BUAER M&S San Diego. The Avenger would cross the States once more, being stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Nart in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, on November 10, 1945.

After WWII, thousands of surplus aircraft, including Avengers, were stored at NAS Litchfield Park, Arizona. Here, many of these aircraft were put back into service due to the demands of the Korean War. Unfortunately, the facility was closed in the late 1950s; the remaining aircraft were either sold off, moved to other facilities, or smelted on-site. Our Avenger spared the smelter, remaining on the East Coast at NAS Nart. It was transferred one last time to O&R BUAER M&S Norfolk before being stricken from service in October of 1952. She had flown over 1,100 hours in service to the United States.

Service to Our Friends Up North

Luckily, our Avenger was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in 1952. It was modified to serve as an AS3M for anti-submarine warfare of VC-920 Squadron. These modifications included turret removal and ASW operator station installed in its place, and magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom installed. In addition, RCN Avengers was painted gloss dark gray on the upper third of the fuselage, upper wings, and gloss sky below on the tail and elevators. After mid-1952, a third RCN color scheme was introduced on the Avengers that was gloss dark grey as above and gloss light grey below.

After serving with the RCN and being stricken from service in July 1960, the Avenger was purchased by Skyway Air Services in Langley, British Columbia (BC), Canada, given the registration ‘CF-MUE’ with an identifier number “18” on her nose and “618” on the tail. It was modified by Fairey Aviation facilities of Victoria, BC, for aerial spraying against the western black-headed budworm in New Brunswick. These modifications came complete with a protruding conformal tank in the bomb bay, in which the bomb bay doors were removed and discarded, and a fairing installed on the aft part of the canopy where the turret originally was.

After completing the annual spring spraying of spruce budworm in 1961, the Avenger would start to serve a new role as a fire bomber. In 1962, the British Columbia Forestry Service entered into its first firebombing contract with Skyway. The Avenger would have a tank gating system installed to drop water or other fire suppressants and continue insect control. In 1968, Art Seller, owner of Skyway Air Services, would sell the company to Les Kerr, who named the new company Conair Aviation and would continue using the Avenger as a fire bomber till 1977.

In August 1977, the Avenger was acquired by Forest Protection Limited (FPL) in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and labeled “Tanker 18.” It would only be 11 months before “Doris Mae” would take back to the sky as FPL contracted eight TBMs for firebombing service from July 4 to August 8, 1978. The aircraft would perform double-duty of insect control and firebomber until 1993 when the budworm infestation ended.

Aug 5 & 26 – “First and last fire calls received. 35 fires were fought over 281.2 hours and eight TBMs plus one spare were used.”

– Forest Protection Limited (FPL) 1978 Annual Report

This is the last time we can find a mention of our specific TBM flying to combat fires. FPL would gradually replace their TBMs with Air Tractor AT-802s due to the high maintenance cost of the Avenger, selling its last TBM in 2012. Through Skyway, Conair, and FPL, approximately 88 TBMs were saved from the scrap heap.

A New Lease on Life

In 2001, the Avenger was then purchased by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Stars & Stripes Wing for $64,000 and flown to Frederick, Maryland, for restoration to its current WWII configuration. All flight control surfaces were recovered, new bomb bay doors bought for $20,000, and three decrepit turrets acquired from CAF Headquarters for $500 with partial restoration done by Col. Norm Birzer. Shortly afterward, the TBM was put up for assignment by Headquarters when the Stars & Stripes Wing disbanded.

CAF Headquarters then assigned the Avenger to the Capital Wing in July 2008. Next, the aircraft was moved to Jack Kosko’s restoration facility in Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania fall 2008. Here, major restoration efforts began early in the first quarter of 2009. On April 18, 2014, “Doris Mae” would take to the skies once again in her first post-restoration flight. The final restoration of the TBM into its original WWII configuration was completed with over $200,000 spent in May 2014. The Wing’s efforts on the restoration earned the CAF President’s Choice Award for 2011. Test and maintenance flights were done in early 2014 at Hagerstown Regional Airport, with the FAA approving the aircraft, now designated “N40402” for return to flight status. It was then flown to our hangar in May 2014.

According to research with the National Museum of the Marine Corps, TBM-3Es served in many Marine Torpedo Bombing Squadron (VMTB) units in the Pacific: 131; 132; 134; 143; 232; 233; 234; 242, & 332. After research on possible unit association and aircraft finish schemes for the TBM restoration, the Capital Wing decided to complete the aircraft as one of the U.S. Marine Corps VMTB-143 TBMs, assigned to the USS Gilbert Islands (CVE 107). It would carry the markings of “P87” and its nose art as “Doris Mae.” In World War II, the primary flight crew of “Doris Mae” was 1ST Lt. William “Billy” Hay (Pilot), Sergeants Charlie Hoke (Radio/Gunner), and Robert Cardno (Turret Gunner). This decision was based on several aspects of the findings of the research conducted:

  1. VMTB-143 was organized and trained as a Close Air Support (CAS) unit. This type of aircraft roll fit’s nicely with the CAS history of our L-5 “Gayle Ann” (which also directed USMC aircraft in an airborne FAC role).
  2. VMTB-143 flew its combat missions off the USS Gilbert Islands, one of the so-called “jeep carriers” of WWII, which a total of 122 built. The carrier survived as the last of her class through the Korean War. It was later re-commissioned as the USS Annapolis (AGMR-1), serving during the Viet Nam war. This connection allows us to tell a unique USN/USMC story.
  3. With our BT-13 aircraft (USN designation SNV), combined with the Avenger and L-5, we’re able to present a package of Basic, Advanced, and Combat aircraft for display at air shows. It is an excellent method to tell the story of WWII Navy and Marine Corps pilot training, transition to mission readiness, and accomplishment.

The following summary of VMTB-143 history is extracted from several places in the excellent website material on the squadron at  adamsplanes.com

VMTB-143 (the “Rocket Raiders”)

This squadron has its place in history as one of the first squadrons to be specifically trained for close air support (CAS) from carriers. As the battle zone across the Pacific shifted throughout the war, Marine Corps leadership realized that no land-based Marine squadrons could support ground units until an airbase could be captured. Unless something happened, all CAS would have to come from the Navy. So they argued successfully to have their own carriers with specially trained CAS units.

In June 1944, VMTB-143 reformed at MCAS Goleta to train for this carrier duty aboard the USS Gilbert Islands. Not only were they to become carrier qualified, but the 3-man crews were expected to be proficient in the bombing, rocketing, depth charging, strafing, torpedoing, and aerial defense. The USS Gilbert Islands was one of only four carriers with all-Marine flight crews in WW2 (the ship’s complement was still Navy).

While onboard the USS Gilbert Islands, the squadron earned three Battle Stars for supporting the Marines on Okinawa, air support for the Australian landings at Balikpapan and Borneo, and operations off Japan’s coast. VMTB-143 also had the highest scoring air-to-air shoot downs of any USN or USMC TBM Avenger unit.