Close Encounters of the TBM Kind

The late Wilson "Connie" Edwards TBM-3E Bu.53119 off on the way from Marana, Arizona to her new home with the Historic Aircraft Preservation Group in Chino, California on November 10th, 2019. The mountains in Arizona's Sonoran desert form a perfect backdrop for this magnificent beast of an aircraft. (photo by Wally "Rip" Van Winkle)
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With the passing of the legendary Wilson “Connie” Edwards earlier this year, the remnants of his once vast vintage military aircraft collection have gradually been finding new homes. While readers will be well aware of some of the higher profile aircraft he once owned, such as the half dozen or so Hispano Buchons which Edwards parted with a couple of years before his death, it would be easy to have overlooked such gems as the TBM Avenger he and his son “Tex” once owned. The Avenger now has a new owner, and one of our regular readers, Wally “Rip” Van Winkle, caught up with the plane in Marana, Arizona a week ago, as it staged through the airport to its new home in Chino, California…

The pilot strapping in before his flight from Marana out to Chino. (photo by Wally “Rip” Van Winkle)

Close Encounters of the TBM Kind

by Wally “Rip” Van Winkle

On November 10, 2019, TBM-3E Bu. 53119 (N33BM) was on the move westward. The Avenger made an overnight stop at Marana Regional Airport (KAVQ) in Arizona after leaving Big Spring Texas on the way to her new home with the Historic Aircraft Preservation Group (HAPG) at Chino Airport (KCNO) in Chino, California.

The now-faded “Wild Turkey” nose art on the late Connie Edward’s TBM. (photo by Wally “Rip” Van Winkle)

General Motors’ Eastern Aircraft Division, which built the aircraft, delivered her to the US Navy sometime in mid-to-late 1945, but she arrived to late to see combat. Following WWII,  ‘Three Bravo Mike’ was one of several Avengers which became available for Foreign Military Sales. While little is available regarding her US Navy service, records show that the Royal Canadian Navy received her at the end of May, 1952. She served with VC 32, a Fleet Requirements Unit at RCNAS Shearwater in Halifax, Nova Scotia as an Avenger A.S. Mk.3M. The RCN struck her off charge almost exactly six years later in May, 1958.

A General Motors Avenger A.S. 4 drops its arresting hook and prepares to land aboard HMCS Magnificent. This is much the way that the HAPG’s Avenger would have looked during her time in Canadian military service. This example depicted is technically still designated a TBM-3E, but has received a lot of modifications, including the removal of the dorsal turret, for conversion into a sub-hunter. Many Canadian Avengers received these mods. (image via Wikipedia)

The Simsbury Flying Service in Simsbury, Connecticut acquired 53119 in about 1960, one of eight former RCN Avengers they bought for conversion into sprayers. They registered her with the FAA as N33BM.

The HAPG’s newly acquired TBM was owned by the Simsbury Flying Service, operating alongside seven other former RCN Avengers with the company, including this one seen here. The Avenger depicted is N6583D (ex-Bu.53503) which still survives, flying with the Commemorative Air Force’s Rocky Mountain Wing in Grand Junction, Colorado. Interestingly both TBMs are depicted in a famous scene in the Steven Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. (image via San Diego Air & Space Museum)

Simsbury Flying Service wound down their Avenger fleet in the late 1960s, selling the aircraft on to various other entities and individuals. Interestingly, three of them went back north across the border for continued service in the agricultural spraying business. N33BM enjoyed a more sedate career following her sale in 1970, flying as a warbird on the air show circuit for the first time under the ownership of Leo “Baron” Volkmer, of Dallas, Texas. At some point, Volkmer had the Avenger reconfigured to more closely represent a WWII example, with the removal of the spray tank, and the addition of the dorsal gunner’s turret (the RCN had removed the turrets for service in their fleet). The Texan also had the aircraft repainted into a rough, gloss dark blue over light grey U.S. Navy scheme with the number white 33 on her nose cowling. Indeed it was with Volkmer that the aircraft first gained the nose art “Wild Turkey” – painted in red, cursive letters on the fuselage, just ahead of the cockpit windscreen, although Volkmer is known to have referred to his Avenger as Nellie at the time. Back in the early 70s, Avengers were still working hard for a living as sprayers and, according to Mike Dillon’s December, 1972 article in Air Progress, this Avenger was believed to be the only active, military-configured TBM on the air show scene at the time. The same article also detailed a rather hair-raising anecdote from the photo-flight for the piece which stated, “During the photo mission, they spotted a U. S. Navy destroyer cruising off Point Loma, near San Diego. Diving down on the deck, they opened the bomb-bay doors and buzzed the astonished sailors in a mock torpedo run. Ah, sweet nostalgia! Unfortunately, a decidedly un-nostalgic FAA man was waiting for the old warbird when it landed. But he let our he roes off with a warning.” It’s hard to imagine such a lenient reaction today! Volkmer sold the aircraft to the late Wilson “Connie” Edwards in 1974, and he flew the aircraft sporadically. The Avenger’s last  public display was apparently EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2012, and the aircraft was hangar-bound shortly afterwards.

One of this particular airframe’s claims to fame is its depiction in a scene from in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the  TBM Avengers from Flight 19 that had “disappeared” over the Bermuda Triangle in 1945 mysteriously reappear 30 years later in the Sonoran desert (how appropriate). A still from the movie clearly shows White 33 covered with sand along with three other Avengers and a Grumman F6F Hellcat behind a group of UFO investigators (The pilots were brought back later in the film by an alien space ship!). The scene was filmed at El Mirage Dry Lakebed over May 17-18, 1977… You can see her clearly as White 33 in a clip from the film below. The afore-mentioned CAF’s TBM Bu.53503 is also visible with her engine running…

In addition to its movie fame, President George Herbert Walker Bush signed the fuselage access door was at some point in its career. As is widely known, President Bush flew a TBM Avenger from the USS San Jacinto during the Second World War. His aircraft was shot down while attacking the Japanese installation on Chi Chi Jima, 150 miles off the coast of Japan, on September 2, 1944. Sadly, only the future president was able to escape the aircraft before it crashed, but even his survival was a lucky fluke. George Bush spent four hours in the water before the submarine USS Finback (SS-230), which had been on patrol nearby, came to his rescue.

The TBM’s fuselage access door which, in addition to the numerous stickers, also bears the signature of the President George H.W. Bush (just above the B-36 sticker at the bottom). As readers will remember well, the late President flew Avengers in combat during WWII. (photo by Wally “Rip” Van Winkle)

Connie’s late son and namesake, “Tex”, assumed ownership of the aircraft in 1996, but with his untimely passing in a car crash during August, 2013, his wife Hillary, inherited the Avenger. With the winding down of her father-in-law’s estate in Big Springs Texas, Hillary recently made the aircraft available for sale. The Historic Aircraft Preservation Group (HAPG) acquired the TBM soon after. Following a brief period of maintenance to bring her back into airworthy condition, the FAA re-certified the former naval torpedo bomber on October 24, 2019. In a brief discussion with three HAPG members traveling with the Avenger, they noted that the aircraft will receive further inspection in Chino and she might possibly be ready for display during the Planes of Fame air show in 2020. There are currently no plans to repaint the aircraft. The aircraft made only a brief stop in Marana for fuel and pilot rest. Once her Wright R-2600 engine coughed to life on Saturday morning, “Wild Turkey” hardly sounded, or looked, like the 75 year old veteran she is. As the TBM flew off into the Sonoran Desert sunrise, she turned left and headed west to her new home in the San Bernardino/Los Angeles Basin at Chino Airport.

Many thanks indeed to Wally “Rip” Van Winkle for the story and photographs, and also to our sterling contributing editor, Stephen Chapis, for his help in presenting it here. For those interested in learning more about the legendary Connie Edwards, you might like to read the fascinating article that our publisher, Tim Savage wrote about the man in Issue #78 of Warbird Digest Magazine


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