The day hearts and hopes soared

Lance Raitt of the Grumman TBF-1 Avenger restoration team. Photo: Bruce Barnard.

It cranked and cranked. Then it cranked some more.

Eight to 10 men with avgas coursing through their veins, all in hi viz, all with hearts in mouths and hopes soaring at about 30,000 feet and beyond, were standing by.

Others were in and around the cockpit and that big 1900hp twin row radial engine – all mumbling, fiddling and tweaking.

Classic Flyers had invested $30,000 to make this engine work, and its platoon of engineers had given a commensurate number of voluntary hours – actually 3750 working days – all unpaid. Plus a lot of pride and passion. There was much at stake.

Thirty seconds of cranking later, it belched a big cloud of smoke and sputtered.

“Hey!” The cry went up. Then it died again. “Oooohh!” High excitement and expectation died quicker than a reluctant World War II aircraft engine.

She’s not pretty, this Grumman Avenger. Snub-nosed and beamy, the heaviest single engine plane of World War II. And also known unflatteringly as ‘Chuff’, ‘Turkey’ and ‘The Pregnant Beast’. But after all these years she’s still a temptress, still a teaser. Doting men at Classic Flyers are trying to caress her back to life and at the crucial moment she is resisting, she is holding out.

More cranking, much more smoke, start, stop, start, stop, start. Just like the hearts watching it. Then life itself.

“Then it caught,” says Classic Flyers numbers man Bryce Thompson. He’s the accountant, spreadsheets are his thing, but he too is passionate about aeroplanes. He was there that day recently when they fired up the Grumman Avenger – the first time for 57 years apparently – the first time since war service. So you can understand the angst and the expectation.

“But it turned out brilliantly,” says Bryce. “We just wanted it to fire, just to prove that it was still good, that it would eventually work. And 57 years is a long time not to be fired up.”

This is a story about men who took dust and dreams and aluminium and made it roar. They started with a pile of scrap that had been carted halfway round the world and magically transformed it back into an aeroplane, a World War II torpedo, a piece of living history, a not so static “static display” at the Classic Flyers Aviation Museum.

“They will paint it up, they will wheel it out, they’ll start it up and it’ll taxi around,” says Bryce. “But it will never fly, it will never be operational.”

That’s because the dedicated Classic Flyers men doing the restoration job have the knowledge, the expertise and the will. But they don’t have the necessary bits of paper. “They’re not fully certified so the Avenger would never get its classification, its airworthiness.”

“And to get the right man to do the job would cost about $300 to $400 an hour. And they’ve already done 30,000 hours.” You do the math. “It would be prohibitive,” says the man with the purse strings. ”It just couldn’t happen.” That’s just the reality.

Bits are procured, bits are begged and borrowed, bits are donated or paid for at cost and bits are sponsored. It couldn’t work otherwise. And invariably when crucial bits arrive in the hanger they don’t fit. “The Avenger was a rapidly evolving aircraft,” says Bruce. “Ours is an early model, most parts are for later models so we have to rework stuff all the time.”

The aircraft is Avenger by name and avenger by nature. It was so-called as a demonstration of American intent and muscle after the attack on Pearl Harbour. It was a very “un-flash workhorse” – a three-man crew, three Browning machine guns, rockets and 2000 pounds of bombs – pressed into service in response to the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters and just in time for the Battle of Midway.

It had “overall ruggedness and stability” according to some accounts. But according to others “it flew like a truck, for better or worse. But “the truck” had some notable drivers – one being future American president George ‘Dubya’ who flew the Avenger off the carrier USS San Jacinto in 1944.

But this “truck”, our “truck”, was recovered from a children’s playground in the UK after the war and shipped out to Gisborne.

“They’re still pulling kid’s lolly papers from the wings and other nooks and crannies,” says Bryce. “It sat going nowhere, unrecognisable as an aircraft, with the Gisborne Aviation Preservation Society, for about 15 years.”

Classic Flyers entered into an agreement to ship it to Tauranga, spend some good money restoring it to the point where it would become a not-so-static, static display for five years.

“We have had it two years. It’s come a long way but it still needs work,” says Bryce.

And along the way they’ve learned to cope with disappointment. “The first two occasions we tried to fire her up, there was no response, no noise whatsoever; nothing.” And the third time there was an almighty crack, like a bolt of lightning.

“It just fired at the wrong time. There was a huge puff of smoke and that was the end of it.” Then they stripped down the engine to figure the problem.

More smoke – so what’s with Grumman Avengers and all the smoke? Are they just petulant? The specs tell us an Avenger took 25 gallons of oil and used one gallon of oil per minute at start. Excess was burned off. “They’re all heavy on oil,” says Bryce. “It’s just the way they work.”

So heavy all-round. Heavy on oil, heavy on budgets, heavy on attention, heavy on need. A real lump of an aeroplane. But an extraordinary testament to the commitment and skills of the restoration team at Classic Flyers. “Geniuses,” said the punters on Facebook. “Oh wow, we were there when they fired her up,” said another; and “Keep up the good work guys, awesome”.

It has been two years but there is more good work to be done on the Grumman.

Then there’s an aircraft accident sitting outside the hangar awaiting the attention of restorers. Well, it looks like the aftermath of an air accident. It’s the fuselage of de Havilland Devon and it’s chocka full important bits and bobs. The de Havilland’s going to need love, time and dollars sooner or later.

But it’s at a good place.

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