On the anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day, a massive flyover of WWII-era trainers, fighters, heavy bombers, and more flew over Washington, D.C. to celebrate the men and women who contributed to the war effort. Their service, both at home and abroad, directly boosted the United States and its Allies to achieve victory in Europe.
The Arsenal of Democracy flyover was a unique event which brought warbirds together from all over the country, but also thousands of onlookers, aviation enthusiasts, and military vets alike. Fifteen different formations passed over crowds gathered at various monuments and parks to bear witness to these rare aircraft, which included a Grumman TBM Avenger from the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
We’ve talked about the Grumman Avenger here on FighterSweep, and the role it played in WWII history. Former President George H. W. Bush flew the mighty Avenger off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS San Jacinto in the Pacific.
While attacking a radio installation on the Japanese island Chichi Jima his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, filling the cockpit with smoke. Also onboard were a radio operator Jack Delaney and gunner Ted White, both of whom unfortunately perished in the forced bail-out. A matter of hours after safely landing in the ocean, Bush was rescued by a US submarine and spared an unbearable fate at the hands of the Japanese forces on Chichi Jima.

The Military Aviation Museum's Avenger returning to Culpeper following the emergency landing at KDCA
The Military Aviation Museum’s Avenger returning to Culpeper following the emergency landing at KDCA

Although no flak was exploding in the sky over Washington, D.C. earlier this month, it can still be a harrowing experience flying a 1945-vintage aircraft even when you’re not getting shot at. This video takes us into the cockpit of the Military Aviation Museum’s Grumman Avenger taking part in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover, flying in formation with both another Avenger and Curtiss Helldiver.
As the 3-ship was making the final turn to align with Independence Avenue, the cockpit of the Avenger begins to fill with smoke. Regardless of the source, smoke on an airplane is a nightmare scenario for any aviator, not to mention a crew operating an exceedingly rare warbird in a high-profile flyover of Washington, D.C. It seems that this couldn’t have happened at a worse time, after a monumental (pun intended) effort with literally tens of thousands of eyes watching the formation approach for their turn flying right over the National Mall.
Though I hesitate to say there’s any good time to have an emergency, there are times and places that are definitely better than others. Losing all engine oil pressure on the takeoff roll just prior to Vinstead of after VRor experiencing severe prop vibration on the initial climb as opposed to cruise flight, just to name a few of the situations I’ve encountered. Any of those could have been much different, had they occurred at, shall we say, more inconvenient times.
At the time the smoke filled the cockpit, the Avenger was ideally located for an emergency landing at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, located just a stone’s throw away from the heart of our nation’s capital. The airport is so close to the District that it has one of the best most fun visual approaches in the US, whereby aircraft landing to the south at DCA follow the Potomac River to stay out of the Prohibited Area known as P-56 lurking over the White House, resulting in a last-minute right turn to align the aircraft with the runway.
A jetBlue Embraer 190 in the right turn to final at KDCA
A jetBlue Embraer 190 in the right turn to final at KDCA

The Avenger was positioned, both within the formation and over DC, to break hard right and line up for the runway at Reagan. In 75 heart-pounding seconds after smoke began filling the cockpit, the Avenger was over the piano keys for runway 19 and came to a stop soon after. An evacuation followed immediately after coming to a stop, since it was presumed the aircraft was on fire. The pilot of the Avenger goes into more detail in the video regarding lessons learned, which is definitely interesting in and of itself. We commend him for his quick thinking and decisive action in getting the airplane and his passengers on the ground in an expedient manner despite some pretty high pucker factor.
The Avenger was back up and running later that afternoon, and we were on hand to welcome the massive torpedo bomber back to Culpeper, Virginia.