Valiant Air Command TBM Avenger Sustained Damage, But Could Have Been Much Worse.
Video of the Valiant Air Command’s Grumman TBM Avenger ditching at the Cocoa Beach Air Show in Florida on Saturday, April 17, 2021 has gone viral around the world. And now, questions about the future of the aircraft and the identity of the pilot who skillfully landed the plane in the water without hitting spectators are circulating.
While an official investigation will likely determine the cause(s) of the incident, it appears that an engine problem may be a contributing factor. Cocoa Beach Airshow spokesperson Chris Dorato told CNN that, “The only person on board the plane was the pilot. When he realized the plane was having engine problems, he initially tried to make it to the nearby Patrick Space Force Base where the air show was being held. Ultimately, the pilot changed his mind and decided to make a water landing to avoid going over buildings and Florida State Road A1A.”
The pilot of the TBM Avenger was taken to a local hospital where he was released without serious injuries according to reports. Many social media posts, especially within the aviation community, praised the pilot’s airmanship during the incident and remarked about his ability to precisely ditch the aircraft without hitting spectators.
Some people say the pilot performed the ditching too close to the beach barely missing two swimmers. Possibly true, but too easy to comment when you’re watching a video multiple times. Not the same when you need a split second decision, inside the cockpit and risking your life! https://t.co/ehGSffstLZ
— David Cenciotti (@cencio4) April 18, 2021
But now, the question for airshow fans, warbird lovers and the owners of the Grumman TBM Avenger is, will she ever fly again? The best answer is: hopefully.
Photos of the aircraft being pulled up onto the beach show damage that includes bent propeller blades, missing fuselage panels and damage to the wings and flight control surfaces.
What may be less conspicuous, but potentially more significant, is any internal, structural damage to the airframe. Collisions with water can often produce a surprising amount of force, and structural damage. However, The Grumman TBM Avenger is an exceptionally rugged aircraft, evidence of which can be found with the number of the aircraft that remain flying today and the service life of the planes after their retirement from military service.
During WWII, the TBM Avenger earned a reputation for being able to withstand significant battle damage and bring its crews back to their aircraft carrier safely. Whether the TBM can stand up as well to FAA accident investigators and airframe inspectors could be another story.
But the factor that could ultimately decide the future of the plane originally built in 1945 by the Eastern Aircraft Division of General Motors Corporation and flown by the U.S. Navy as Bureau Number 91188 is – money.
If the costs of returning the aircraft to flying status exceed what its operators, the Valiant Air Command, feel is appropriate, it’s possible the plane may only be restored to static display condition. That determination will likely be made once a detailed survey of the damage sustained in Saturday’s incident is completed.
In the meantime, photographer Matt Williams was kind enough to send these photos of the TBM Avenger after being pulled from the sea. Interestingly, the rugged wing-folding apparatus of the aircraft still enabled the wings to be swung back against her fuselage to make transporting her easier, potentially a good sign.
Popular YouTube contributor and aviation expert Mr. Juan Browne published a video on his channel, blancolirio, where he tells viewers that early salvage plans were to float the aircraft out to sea and tow it to another location to lift it out of the water. Local officials, according to Browne’s video report, required that the aircraft be removed from the ocean where it crashed, potentially for environmental reasons, the size of local waterways or some combination of these and more factors. This salvage operation required the plane to be dragged up the beach, since the soft sand close to the waterline would not support the weight of a large recovery crane.
Following the ditching accident off Cocoa Beach, several posts on social media mentioned fundraising to get the aircraft back in the air. It’s noteworthy that the first restoration of this TBM Avenger took a significant thirteen years to complete before she returned to flying status just over a year ago on January 11, 2020.
For now, pending the outcome of the investigation and inspection of the damage to this proud, old warbird, her future remains in question.