Grumman TBM-1C Avenger Torpedo Bomber

Building Flight 19's Plane No. 3

Boxtop scan of Minicraft TBF Avenger model kit.

Anyone who has seen Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind probably remembers part of the opening sequence, where five World War II airplanes mysteriously appear in the desert, minus their crews, 60 years after they vanished. For many people, this was their introduction to Flight 19.

Flight 19 ... five US Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers that left the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Naval Air Station on the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1945, on what was supposed to be a routine overwater navigation training exercise - and then vanished into legend instead.

Some people insist bizarre forces in the Bermuda Triangle were at work - time warps or magnetic Boxtop scan of the previous Minicraft Avenger kit shows it in early WW II markings.anomalies or even alien abductions (a la' Close Encounters). The Navy's court of inquiry came up with a less dramatic answer - the instructor pilot was unfamiliar with the area, having only recently transferred from Miami, got disoriented, and he and the four trainee pilots and crews ran out of gas as they zig-zagged back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean, arguing about which way Fort Lauderdale was. By the time they were almost out of gas, it was dark, and they were forced to ditch in the ocean, at night, in gusty winds and high seas. Whether any survived the ditching was questionable; a massive air, sea and ground search found no trace of the ill-fated flight. Various theories, books and TV specials are still coming out to this day, more than six decades after the 14 men disappeared.

I opted for the Minicraft kit (No. 14604, previously 14414, I think it just has new decals) despite my previous experience with their Betty bomber kit, mainly because in 1/144 scale an Avenger model would be manageable size-wise. Plus, my local hobby shop had marked the kit down to $3. Odd, Squadron had marked its Betty kit down to $2 ... I know, slow learner.

First Things FirstThe radio mast, part 19, would be impossible to remove intact from the sprue,let alone clean up to useable condition, so a wire replacement had to be fabricated.

Overall this kit was like the Minicraft Betty, but with fewer parts (only 23, including the option for gear up or down):

So ... in order to turn the kit into something resembling a TBM, a little scratchbuilding was in order. Making it into a fair representation of a Flight 19 Avenger was going to take a foray into after-market decal territory.

Research showed that by December 1945, Avengers at Fort Lauderdale NAS had been painted overall glossy Dark Sea Blue, which quickly weathered to a washed-out dark blue in the harsh tropical sun, along with prominent white numbers. I decided that my Model Master Flat Sea Blue (No. 1718) was close enough.

The national markings could be salvaged by careful surgery of the kit decals, cutting the blue portions out of the insignia. Of the five aircraft in Training Flight 19, I chose Plane No. 3, a TBM-1C piloted by Ensign Joseph T. Bossi, simply because it was going to be easier to make or piece together a lot of 3's (for the record, the other plane numbers that day were 28, 36, 81 and 117).

To be correct, based on contemporary photos, there was going to have to be a small white 3 on the lower forward lip of the cowl, a slightly larger 3 on each side of the engine cowl, large letters F-T on each side of the fuselage (for Fort Lauderdale - Torpedo), a very large 3 on each side of the rudder and a huge 3 on the upper right wing. Research was mixed on whether there was a corresponding huge 3 on the lower left wing. All on top of dark blue paint. In short, there were going to be a few challenges.

The Cockpit

The Avenger has a longgggg glass canopy stretching from the front windscreen all the way to the power-driven turret (a little over 1 inch in 1/144). Just painting theView of the left side Avenger cockpit detail with an Xacto knife blade for scale, showing, from right, cockpit details, rollover pylon, radio gear, and seat and some miscellaneous gear for the radio man. inside of that area would look, well ... silly. So deciding, I set about researching on the web and pondering what could be added and what would be too ridiculously small to bother with.

I learned a little (very little) from the Betty bomber build: You really can't see much from normal viewing distance in this scale, and you can get away with suggesting things rather than replicating every little detail. This can reduce the modeler's frustration to tolerable levels.

The most prominent cockpit feature is the large humped roll-over crash pylon behind the pilot's seat. It is always clearly visible inClose-up of the cockpit and radio compartment of the Avenger, showing details added with bits of styrene. photos of Avengers, especially since pilots habitually flew with both of their side canopies open. A piece of styrene of suitable thickness was cut to the right height and then sanded to get the rather odd bell-shaped appearance of the pylon. And no, it's not symmetrical on each side. So sue me! My Waldron punch-and-die set produced a styrene disk for the pilot's headrest, and various bits of square stock and sheet styrene filled out the pilot's office, along with a couple of bits of stretched sprue with superglue knobs for the throttle quadrant. The 15/0 paintbrush and a steady hand with gloss white and red paint added various dots of color to simulate switches and knobs.Close-up of the right side Avenger cockpit detail, showing the instrument panel and gauges, and righthand console, with an Xacto knife handle for scale.

The instrument panel was again made with the Waldron set, this time from styrene sheet painted gloss black. Details were painted with gloss white paint and the 15/0 brush before the instrument faces were attached to the flat black panel with white glue. This was my first attempt at hand-painting instrument faces at any scale, and I hoped the effect would be good once everything was closed up and the canopy installed.    

The radio section between the pilot and gunner  was created by adding a styrene shelf to the thick turret mount, then gluing on various square bits of styrene painted flat black (for the top row) and rubber (for the bottom row) to represent radio gizmos, adding a rounded-off bit of rod painted yellow for an oxygen tank and a smaller bit of rod painted red for a fire extinguisher.

The radio operator's compartment was enhanced with a simple seat, another oxygen bottle and an angled bit of round tube for the flare discharge chute. Even though I sawed out the crew entry door on the right side of the fuselage so I could pose it open, you were not going to be able to see much inside, so I skipped details like fuselage stringers, radio and bombing instruments, etc. I did decide to wall in the bomb bay, though, since the Avenger had a rather unique arrangement for dropping bombs - the radioman/bomb aimer sighted the target through the bombsight that was mounted on a small window in the rear wall of the bomb bay.  The bomb aimer's window and all the other windows were made with Testor's Clear Parts Cement.

As an added bonus, Flight 19 was going to engage in bombing practice as part of its training routine, so each Avenger would be packing four 100-pound M-38 practice bombs - and they were painted baby blue! Cool. But that meant removing the bomb bay doors (not hard) and sawing each one in half lengthwise down the center (hard) to replicate the accordion-fold look the doors assume in the open position - I wanted viewers to be able to see those blue bombs (they were painted blue to indicate they were inert).

Decals

I gave up on the idea of trying to piece together what I needed from the kit decals - suffice it to say that there's only so much you can do with itty-bitty decals and surgical scissors. I also gave up on the idea of cutting out the dark blue portion of the national insignia after the first less-than-successful attempt (thankfully hidden under the wing) and just used them as is. You can't really tell the difference unless you put your nose right up to the model.

To get all the numbers and letters, I ended up buying a set of US white letters and numbers in 1/48 scale by AeroMaster (No. AN48803) from Squadron that I hoped would work. It didn't. The numbers worked great, but it didn't have the smaller letters. Rats. Back to Squadron, for Xtradecal set No. X32-022, 1/32 scale RAF letters and numbers. They were a tad thin, but I'm not overly picky. You know the old handyman's saying: Measure twice, cut once, beat into place. For the 3's on the cowling, I scavenged from some sheets of 1/700 ship decals. Kit decals went on the rudder, for aircraft type designation and bureau number.

There Are Limits

By that I mean there's only so much you (or at least I) can do with scratchbuilding, depending on skill level, eyesight, dexterity, etc. The smaller the scale, the more demanding the scratchbuilding tasks get. With my 1/700 ships, the scratchbuilding is very basic indeed - if I can't replicate it with a simple, off-the-shelf styrene shape, it usually won't get added. Aircraft are easier because they're bigger. But - 1/144 is pushing things, for me, at my age and with my lousy eyesight.My scratchbuilt bomb efforts, showing from top to bottom, 1) first effort, 2) second effort, 3) OzMods bomb, 4) modified OzMods bomb.

I wanted to show plane No. 3 doing its final run-up before taking off on its fateful patrol, mainly to take advantage of the cool-looking new 1/144 scale photoetch propellers-in-motion that had just come out from the good folks at PropBlurs. That got me to thinking about what else might be around to liven up the scene on the ground. And that got me to thinking about those blue practice bombs ... so in short order I was researching US Navy bomb carts and deciding that yeah, I could make a couple of them with styrene strip and my Waldron punch-and-die set. They were basically flat rectangles with some cross members. The tires are several appropriate diameters and thicknesses of styrene.

Then it came to what to put on the carts - bombs, right? For the bombs inside the Avenger, I used the Cooper bombs that came with the WW I Sopwith Camel kit I'd recently finished. They were about the right size and you couldn't really seem them clearly, tucked up there in the bomb bay. But they looked nothing like WW II bombs, especially WW II practice bombs. How hard could these be to make? A bomb is just a cylinder, rounded on one end and with some fins on the other end, right?

It turned out, in 1/144, to be pretty frickin' hard. I found a piece of sprue that was about the right diameter, rounded it out lengthwise, then gave the tip a round end. Trying to give the other end where the fins would go a tapered end, then adding fins, did not go well. The bomb, in this scale, is half an inch long. And the fins are not a simple four-vaned affair. There are four fins arranged around a box that is fixed to the rear of the bomb. My first effort, ummmm, sucked. So I started over. And got frustrated. And finally remembered that OzMods has WW II ordnance in addition to exquisite little figures. Problem solved!

In the photo at right, 1) is my first effort; 2) is my start at a second effort before I decided it was getting silly; 3) is one of the OzMods 500-pound bombs, and 4) is an OzMods bomb slimmed down to more approximate an M-38 practice bomb and painted blue. Notice the difference between 1 (crap) and 4 (pretty darn nice!).

The Base

I've always thought that a bad base can ruin even an outstanding model (which none of mine are), since it is the 'frame' that displays your work. Especially with a diorama, where you are trying to tell a story, the base is an integral part of the whole scene. In this case is was going to be another first for me, trying to replicate concrete in 1/144 scale and have it look new, but not too new, and also well-used, at the same time. Fort Lauderdale NAS was opened in 1942 at an existing civilian airport, and rapidly expanded to train hundreds of torpedo bomber pilots, crew, and maintenance men over the next three years - hence the need for new/well-used concrete.

Researching on the web, I settled on concrete 'squares' that would be 25 scale feet across, or 2- 1/8-inches. I laid out a grid on a piece of cardboard and then rotated it around on the display case base until I got an angle that looked good to me . Never make your lines parallel with the base - they make the wholeThe runway display base after painting and weathering with acrylic paints and various pastel chalks. thing look, well, weird. Then it was a matter of cutting out a piece of 0.015 Evergreen sheet styrene to fit inside the base of the Trumpeter display case (No. 09812) and carefully transferring the grid onto the styrene with pencil and right-angle triangle. 

I then scored the lines with a single pass of my X-Acto knife and a No. 11 blade, then flipped the knife upside down and made several more passes over each line to make a nice groove, using a straight edge to keep the tip from wandering. Be careful if you try this - the object is to make a groove, not cut through the plastic! 

Then it was on to the painting. I suck at mixing colors. I admit it. Which is why I have a vast collection of grays, greens, browns and tans. I did have Polly Scale Concrete, No. F41317 (acrylic), but it was wayyyy too dark for "new" concrete, to my eye, as the initial coat on the plastic concrete squares proved. Out came a spare paint bottle and the Tamiya White, No. X-2 (also acrylic). Into the bottle went enough (I hoped) Concrete, and then the mixing commenced ... 10-15 drops of white at a time ... for what seemed like hours ... brushing on a test strip every now and then ... Crap, still too dark ... drip, drip, drip some more ... another test strip ... wait for it to dry a bit ... drip, drip, drip some more ... finally getting to a color I thought looked OK. Not perfect, but you have to know when to quit. I thinned the paint just a little with water and then brushed it on in one sitting, using a No. 3 round sable brush and painting from the wet edge to keep streaks to a minimum, then put it away to dry and prayed to the Gods of Modeling to have mercy on me.

They did. Whew. I used two-part epoxy to glue the styrene inside the display case base, and I was about a third of the way there! Painting the expansion joints was done with a 50-50 mix of flat and gloss black paint and my 15/0 brush, which kind of looked like tar after it dried. Things were way too plain, though. Back to studying pictures. Nothing like a few cracks to give the hastily-built wartime concrete the suggestion of age, right? Those were carefully added with the X-Acto knife and then filled in with 'tar'.

Still too plain, though. What was missing? Stains! Oil stains, fuel stains, coolant stains, hydraulic stains - airplanes leak, some of them quite a bit. The challenge was going to be to not go overboard. Out came the Tamiya Black, No. X-1, and Polly Scale Grimy Black, No. F505204, for a little artful spotting, smudging and staining using various dilutions and brush techniques. Getting there. Still not quite satisfied, I got out my pastel chalks - rust, gray, brown and black - and colored on a piece of paper until I had a small pile of each. The rust was used in a few spots for fuel stains; brown and black were mixed to replicate the moldy concrete look I had seen in the corners of squares at other airfields, and Fort Lauderdale gets a lot of rain. 

Done. I let it dry overnight and then gave it a coat of flat clear from a spray can to seal in the pastel chalks. The final touch was to add some standing puddles of 'water' using acrylic gloss gel medium in a few places, again because it was Florida. Then it was just a matter of setting the stage, so to speak, with the bomb carts, bombs, and some figures from OzMods (for the pilot and standing crewman) and Preiser (for the ground crew, from the German NATO Air Force set, No. 77100. With a little scraping to get rid of things like ear muffs, and painting them in US Navy colors, who's going to know?). Here are a few photos of the finished aircraft:

 
Left front three-quarters view of the Avengers shows the PropBlur at full rotation and the stabilizers that were repositioned.

 

  Right rear three-quarters view of the Avenger highlights the prominent white aircraft ID numerals.

 

Left front three-quarters view of the Avenger shows the PropBlur at full rotation and the stabilizers that were repositioned.   Right rear three-quarters view of the Avenger highlights the prominent white aircraft ID numerals.
Left side view of the TBM shows off its squat lines.

 

  Left three-quarters view of the Avenger shows the long 'greenhouse' canopy that had to be hand-painted due to the almost total lack of canopy lines. All other windows were made with Testor's Clear Parts Cement instead of using the kit-supplied clear parts.

 

Left side view of the TBM shows off its squat, powerful, but extremely purposeful lines.   Left three-quarters view of the Avenger shows the long 'greenhouse' canopy that had to be hand-painted due to the almost total lack of canopy lines. All other windows were made with Testor's Clear Parts Cement instead of using the kit-supplied clear parts.
Right three-quarters view shows the opened crew door, which I detailed on the inside with a bit of plastic sheet with punched-out holes, and a little handle. Detailing inside that part of the fuselage was kept to a minimum because, frankly, you wouldn't be able to see much of it!

 

  Front view of the Avenger shows the engine detail added with bits of styrene rod for the cylinder heads and the propeller governor, topped off with the 1/144 scale PropBlur and scratchbuilt propeller hub. I also opened the cowl flaps.

 

Right three-quarters view shows the opened crew door, which I detailed on the inside with a bit of plastic sheet with punched-out holes, and a little handle. Detailing inside that part of the fuselage was kept to a minimum because, frankly, you wouldn't be able to see much of it!   Front view of the Avenger shows the engine detail added with bits of styrene rod for the cylinder heads and the propeller governor, topped off with the 1/144 scale PropBlur and scratchbuilt propeller hub (in hindsight I could have done a much better. i.e., subtler, job of painting that prop, but the size and masking of the curved warning stripe area was very frustrating) . I also opened the cowl flaps.
OK, so you really can't see this on the finished model - the baby blue practice bombs in the bomb bay. Note the bomb aimer's window in the rear wall of the bomb bay and the retractable landing light added to the port wing.   To give you an idea of the scale of 1/144, here is the completed model next to a US penny. The real-life Avenger had a 54-foot wingspan and weighed more than 5 tons - empty.
OK, so you really can't see this on the finished model - the baby blue practice bombs in the bomb bay. Note the bomb aimer's window in the rear wall of the bomb bay and the retractable landing light added to the port wing.   To give you an idea of the scale of 1/144, here is the completed model next to a US penny. The real-life Avenger had a 54-foot wingspan and weighed more than 5 tons - empty.

At long last, here it is, what I call 'The Final Run-Up':

 
This head-on shot shows Plane No. 3 getting ready to taxi out for its final flight, with ground crew in attendance and some in the background just shooting the bull.

 

  This overhead left side view shows the scratchbuilt bomb carts loaded with a few of the blue practice bombs. The yellow things are aircraft wheel chocks.

 

This head-on shot shows Plane No. 3 getting ready to taxi out for its final flight, with ground crew in attendance and some in the background just shooting the bull.   This overhead left side view shows the scratchbuilt bomb carts loaded with a few of the blue practice bombs. The yellow things are aircraft wheel chocks.
Right side view shows either the radioman or the gunner getting ready to don his parachute prior to entering the aft compartment.

 

  This overhead flash shot shows the diorama in a different light and gives a good view of the total 'scene.'

 

Right side view shows either the radioman or the gunner getting ready to don his parachute prior to entering the aft compartment.   This overhead flash shot shows the diorama in a different light and gives a good view of the total 'scene.'
Right front view shows the pilot in the cockpit with the side panels open, which is how Avengers were habitually flown on all but the longest missions.   This right side view shows a crewman donning his parachute. Standing crew figure and parachute pack are from OzMods. Parachute straps are cigarette rolling paper cut into thin strips.
Right front view shows the pilot in the cockpit with the side panels open, which is how Avengers were habitually flown on all but the longest missions.   This right side view shows a crewman donning his parachute. Standing crew figure and parachute pack are from OzMods. Parachute straps are cigarette rolling paper cut into thin strips.
This overhead shot gives you some idea of the amount of framing on the long 'greenhouse' canopy, all of which had to be hand-painted due to the almost complete absence of canopy lines. Same thing for the turret. The radio mast was replaced with 26-ga. wire, flattened and filed into shape.   Close-up of the bomb carts. Note that some of the fins are different colors; they were kept separate from the bombs and only added on the flight line. Figures are from Preiser.
This overhead shot gives you some idea of the amount of framing on the long 'greenhouse' canopy, all of which had to be hand-painted due to the almost complete absence of canopy lines. Same thing for the turret. The radio mast was replaced with 26-ga. wire, flattened and filed into shape.   Close-up of the bomb carts. Note that some of the fins are different colors; they were kept separate from the bombs and only added on the flight line. Figures are from Preiser.
A Preiser figure stands fireguard with a scratchbuilt CO2 fire extinguisher. The white sailor hats were made with small strips of cigarette rolling paper, glued on and then painted flat white.   The pilot gets a thumbs-up from his crew chief, meaning the big TBM is almost ready to rumble off into its place in the mystery books.
A Preiser figure stands fireguard with a scratchbuilt CO2 fire extinguisher. The white sailor hats were made with small strips of cigarette rolling paper, glued on and then painted flat white.   The pilot gets a thumbs-up from his crew chief, meaning the big TBM is almost ready to rumble off into its place in the mystery books.

And finally, just to pick a few nits with Spielberg's Avengers:

  • All are painted in an incorrect mid-war two-tone scheme;

  • None of the aircraft numbers you can see are ones from the actual Flight 19;

  • All of the Avengers in the film are TBM-3s, an up-engined version of the -1C (the exposed arresting hook in the rear is one clue, the twin intakes on the engine cowling is another). In Flight 19, only the instructor was flying a -3. To be fair to Spielberg, though, -3s were all he could find by 1976 when Close Encounters was being filmed;

  • When one of the team researchers pulls a calendar out of an Avenger's cockpit, it is for May 1945, from the Trade Wind Bar in Pensacola, Florida (Gulf Coast). Flight 19 disappeared in December 1945, from Fort Lauderdale (East Coast).

  • No Avenger pilot would have just stuck photos loosely in the instrument panel (or had all of that other stuff hanging from the cockpit framing); the wind whipping through the open side panels would have removed them in seconds as soon as the engine was fired up.

For sharply differing viewpoints on what happened to the men of Flight 19, three books on the subject are worth pursuing:

All were available through either Barnes and Noble or Amazon the last time I checked. Readers can judge for themselves which scenario is the most credible.

 Whatever their fate, they died in the service of their country. RIP.         

Addition: This model received a First Place medal in the Diorama - Military category and a plaque for the Best Naval Aircraft at the 2013 KVSM contest.


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This page was last updated March 23, 2013.