Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ed Wuerker: Over South Jersey, a WWII 'Turkey' flies again

 Ed Wuerker of Lower Township, N.J., at Cape May Airport with the 1945 TBM Avenger he bought for $60,000. 

As a boy during World War II, Ed Wuerker dreamed of being a pilot. He watched the torpedo dive-bombers flying over his Cape May County home, and heard the roar of their 1,900-horsepower engines. 

 "Seeing them in the air gave you a feeling of freedom," he said. "It made you think of the old war pictures, with the pilot wearing a helmet and his scarf blowing behind him."

TBM Avengers regularly flew out of Naval Air Station Wildwood in the 1940s, making practice bomb runs on dummy targets in farm fields - and sometimes crashing, with fatal results.

Wuerker was never deterred from his goal of flying one of the planes, though, and this year, his dream came true.

He bought a vintage bomber for $60,000 in Canada, where it had been used for forest firefighting duties, restored it, then took it up - without telling his wife.

"I was nervous," said Wuerker, 74, a Lower Township farmer who started flying in the 1950s. "A lot of people said: 'You don't want to do that. You need more training.' "

He had flown a nimble 800-pound plane the day before. Now, he settled into the cockpit of a 10,000-pound single-engine bomber. It was the difference between a sports car and a Mack truck.

"The last thing I said to the ground crew before I pushed the throttle forward was, 'Tell my family I love them,' " he said.

Wuerker was only 5 and 6 in 1944 and 1945, but he still remembers his parents talking about the war.

He also recalled hearing stories from a Naval Air Station crew chief who rented a room in his family's Lower Township home.

Dozens of Avengers crashed during training missions over South Jersey, because their inexperienced pilots fixated on targets too long, didn't manage fuel well, stalled their planes, or came in too slowly upon landing.

"I saw the planes in the air and thought they were flying back from the war," Wuerker said. When a crash occurred, "the crew chief took me to the site; it wasn't nice."

In the cockpit of the Avenger, Wuerker wasn't thinking about his childhood, though.

He was dealing with his first solo flight in an Avenger that came off the assembly line in 1945. He had to concentrate on the here and now.

The warplane's massive engine sounded like a souped-up hotrod without a muffler. This was not a Piper Cub.

"You feel the power and vibration," said Wuerker, who has three sons who "don't think I'm crazy for doing this. They know I am."

Wuerker's Avenger - named after his wife, Suzanne - lifted off the runway and shot up into the sky.

"It flies heavy - like a truck without power steering," he said. "It does what you want it to do, but the controls are just heavy.

Wuerker was up for only about 15 minutes. But his longtime dream had been realized.

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Rio Grande farmer, 74, buys and flies World War II-era plane