Former Royal Canadian Navy Grumman Avenger spotlighted

Commemorative Air Force Rocky Mountain Wing Avenger in 2005. Photo: CAF Rocky Mountain Wing.

14 October 2018 (Content added 30 November 2018)| Lakewood, Colorado, USA. It was a sunny autumn day in the Denver area. Not only was there bright sunshine outside the Lakewood Country Club banquet hall, but on 13 October 2018 inside the facility a former Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) possession, a Grumman TBM-3 Avenger (Bureau Number 53503) which saw service as an “AS Mk 3” with VS 881 and VC 920, was spotlighted at one point during the 2018 Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame Banquet and Induction Ceremony.

Just prior to the posthumous induction of Coloradan Ralph Morris Hendricks, who had enlisted with his twin brother Ralph in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941, the venerable Avenger became the subject of discussion. Avengers were often referred to as “turkeys” by naval aviators. The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) and its Rocky Mountain Wing (RMW), the current owners, have the plane in VT-84 colours, a torpedo bomber squadron which saw combat in 1945 while flying from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill.

Robert (L) and Ralph Hendricks (R) in RCAF uniforms – 1941. Photo: Hendricks family.

Deceased VT-84 TBM pilot and 2018 inductee Ralph Morris Hendricks was assigned to VT-84 when he died in the aftermath of a kamikaze attack on the American warship in May of 1945.

RCN Grumman AS3M Avenger. Public Domain image via Wikipedia.

Amongst the large number of attendees were a U.S. Air Force general, U.S. Air Force Reserve major-general, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary colonel, a member of Claire Chenault’s WW2 American Volunteer Group (aka the “Flying Tigers”), and several of Ralph Hendricks’ family members.

Also in the audience were members of The Royal Canadian Legion, The Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Air Force Association, Royal Air Force Association, Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, and Honourable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

Consul General of Canada in Denver Stéphane Lessard and RCAF Colonel Paul at CAHF Banquet 13 Oct 2018. Photo: Military Aviation Chronicles.

After the catered meal Consul General of Canada in Denver Stéphane Lessard spoke of Canada-Colorado ties. Subsequently and prior to introducing RCAF Colonel Kyle Paul, who was attending on behalf of RCAF Lieutenant-General Christopher Coates of NORAD, a representative of Bomber Command Museum of Canada introduced Keith Swinehart.

Keith Swinehart. Photo by Dave Kempa/Colorado Aviation Historical Society.

Mr. Swinehart was representing the CAF. He spoke about the RMW’s Avenger. The Wing, explained Keith, maintains and operates the Grumman Avenger as a flying symbol and tribute.

The Avenger is powered by a Wright R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone 14-cylinder radial engine capable of producing 1,420 kilowatts (1,900 horsepower) of output. The aeroplane was originally accepted by the USN as a TBM-3 on 1 June 1945, and at the time the Avenger weighed some 18,000 pounds empty. In 1950 the flying machine was transferred to the RCN.

RCN Avenger 85861 from HMCS Magnificent circa 1950-1952. Photo DND RCN Wikimedia Commons.

The RCN obtained and operated three versions, one being the “AS 3” modification, of TBM-3S Avengers. Ninety-eight TBM-3 Avengers were modified by Fairey Aviation of Canada Ltd for anti-submarine duty and were designated “AS Mk 3” or “AS 3” aircraft. The AS3 models or “marks” were designed for relatively low-level flights and therefore the oxygen system was eliminated.

Also the upper ball turret, which had housed a .50-calibre machine gun and air gunner, was removed and replaced with a sloping canopy that permitted better visibility during visual scanning of the ocean surface. Internally, this area was reconfigured for occupation by an AN/APS-4 radar operator/navigator (Observer) and another crewmember (Observer’s Mate).

Additionally, a searchlight mount was installed under the port wing and AN/SSQ-2 sonobuoy launch tubes were placed at the rear of the Observer’s station and buoy signal receivers positioned inside the aircraft. Furthermore, a data-link system was incorporated that resulted in an antenna being fixed atop the rudder. The armament package consisted of depth bombs and acoustic homing torpedoes, carried in the bomb bay, and Mk 5 zero-length air-to-ground rocket attachment points, which were installed under both wings.

HMCS Magnificent CVL 21 underway circa 1950. US Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.488.037.040.

Upon modification, 53503 became an AS Mk 3. The machine was posted to 881 Squadron and embarked aboard HMCS Magnificent. One highlight of the Avenger’s RCN career was when it flew as the RCN’s lead aircraft in the 15 June 1953 Coronation Fleet Review of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Spithead, which was viewed by the Sovereign shortly after her coronation. Avenger 53503 was “Struck Off Charge” by the RCN on 1 January 1958.

This plane’s other claims to fame are that it is the only one ever to be placed on the Colorado Register of Historic Properties and only the seventh aircraft to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Furthermore, Avenger 53503 is featured in a memorable scene within Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


The author (John T. Stemple) thanks the Colorado Aviation Historical Society, Commemorative Air Force Rocky Mountain Wing, and the Hendricks family for their assistance during the preparation of this article. Note: Former President of the United States George Herbert Walker Bush was also a U.S. Navy Reserve Avenger pilot during the Second World War. Upon his passing on 30th November 2018, Military Aviation Chronicles salutes him and his decades of service to the United States of America.

Future President of the United States George H. W. Bush in the cockpit of an Avenger aboard USS San Jacinto circa 1944. Photo: USN via Wikipedia.

Suggested Viewings

Royal Naval Review (1953)

Sources and Suggested Readings

881 Squadron

C920 RCN Reserve Squadron

CAF Rocky Mountain Wing Museum

CAF Rocky Mountain Wing Grumman Avenger

Canadian Avenger AS3 A/S Aircraft

Canadian Military Aircraft Serial Numbers Royal Canadian Navy 1945 to 1968

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Coronation Fleet Review of HM Queen Elizabeth II

Coronation Review of the Fleet

Click to access 07.-Jul-Spithead-Review-1953.pdf

Grumman Avenger

Grumman TBF Avenger

HMCS Magnificent (CVL 21)

Military Origins: US and Canadian Navy Avengers

Online Fundraising For The CAF’s Damaged TBM Avenger

Scrivner, Charles l. TBM/TBF Avenger in Action. Aircraft Number 82. Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publicatrions, 1987.

TBM Avengers & Forest Protection Limited – New Brunswick, Canada [N6583D / 53503]

U.S. Plains, Eastern and Southern Mountain States

Wright R-2600 Twin Cyclone