Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Avenger torpedo bomber takes flight: After years of work, public can view restored World War II plane

 When retired airline pilot Charlie Cartledge bought his World War II vintage TBF Avenger torpedo bomber in 1999, it was missing a few important parts, namely an engine and cockpit instruments. The wings needed to be rebuilt, too, and attached to the fuselage.

It took 14 years of work, but the plane finally became flyable a few weeks ago. On Aug. 14, Cartledge took to the air with his plane for the first time, in Wadsworth.

He hoped the plane would be fine after all that work.

“Yeah, that first takeoff is pretty exciting,” he said.

The legendary torpedo bomber is now at Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport, near Port Clinton. When Liberty Aviation Museum’s star attraction, a B-25 bomber, is away, the museum rolls Cartledge’s bomber into the museum hangar to take its place, so that visitors will still have a World War II plane to look at. The Avenger was at the museum Friday.

Cartledge, 54, who lives in Orrville and Middle Bass Island, remembers confidently telling people that his torpedo bomber would be airborne in five to six years. “I still get kidded about that,” he said.

The Grumman TBF Avenger is a single-engine plane, but if you saw it in a picture, you’d likely not realize how big it is. It has a wingspan of about 54 feet and is about 40 feet long, dwarfing most single-engine planes.

People who stand next to the plane are surprised how large it is, Cartledge said.    “It was the largest carrierbased aircraft of World War II,” he said. “It handles like it looks — like a big truck.”

Cartledge’s bomber was built in New Jersey. The Navy accepted it in July 1945, shortly before the war ended. It was retrofitted to spray pesticides on farm fields and then passed through various hands before Cartledge bought it for $100,000.

He picked a bomber, rather than a fighter, because it was what he could afford.

“Basically, it came down to finances,” he said.

A working fighter plane cost $1.5 million. A working Avenger cost $150,000, although Cartledge paid less for a “needs work” model.

With help from friends, he had to retrieve parts for the Avenger from all over North America. The engine, for example, was purchased at an auction in Oregon and shipped to Oklahoma City for an overhaul before finally traveling to Ohio.

“I had to fabricate all the hydraulic lines,” Cartledge said.

“I just think it’s amazing and fantastic,” said Ed Pickard, a Liberty Aviation volunteer who’s been working to restore one of the museum’s PT boats. “The job he did on this plane is just incredible.”

Cartledge owns three planes: the Avenger, an AT-6 Harvard training plane — also used in World War II, and on display at Liberty Aviation Museum — and a Cessna.

The Cessna is the practical plane, the one he uses to take a quick trip to Middle Bass Island. A Cessna can be ready to go in 10 minutes.

But when Cartledge wants to fly his Avenger, he starts work at about 8 a.m., checking oil levels, seeing if any of the hydraulic fluids are leaking and doing other service tasks.

The wings fold back for easy storage on top of an aircraft carrier, so he has to make sure they’re fully extended and locked into place. If all goes well, his plane is ready to fly three hours later, at 11 a.m.

World War II pilots had a ground crew, but Cartledge is his own ground crew.

Pickard said Cartledge deserves credit for his dogged persistence in restoring the plane. Many aviation buffs buy an old plane, work on it for years and wear out, leaving the incomplete bird sitting in a hangar somewhere.

“He really is to be commended,” Pickard said.

Story and Photo Gallery:    http://www.sanduskyregister.com

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