Airfix 1/72 TBM-3 Sprayer-Tanker
KIT #: 1301
PRICE: $ Cheap
DECALS: Two options
REVIEWER: Brian Baker
NOTES: Easy conversion.  Other 1/72 kits are of TBF-1 Versio


The Grumman TBF-1 Avenger was the timely replacement for the Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, which proved its obsolescence at the Battle of Midway when VT-8 lost all of the TBD’s and other squadrons had slightly smaller losses.  Even VT-8’s four TBF-1’s that flew from Midway lost three out of four.

The TBF was produced in large numbers by the Grumman Corporation, but the emphasis on F6F Hellcat production led to the Navy assigning production contracts to General Motors Eastern Division, in Trenton, NJ, under the designation TBM-1.  In fact, the Luscombe Corporation,  in nearby West Trenton, NJ, famous for its line of  excellent “Silvaire’ lightplanes before the war, built control surfaces and other metal parts for these aircraft under subcontract. Slight improvements led to the major production version, the TBM-3, which had slightly more power with an extra scoop under the engine cowling and different cowl  flaps, the only visible differences between the TBF-1/TBM-1 and the TBM-3.  The Royal Navy used the aircraft as the Tarpon, which was later renamed the Avenger, the American name.  As the war drew down to a close, the TBM, now the major type in service, was used less and less as a torpedo bomber as the Japanese Navy worked its way into extinction, and even its role as a level bomber was somewhat usurped by the bomb carrying Corsairs and Hellcats, which carried the same bomb load, and unlike the TBM’s, became pure fighters once their bomb loads had been delivered.

 After the war, the TBM remained in the Navy’s inventory, with special  purpose  postwar variants, including the TBM-3Q TBM-3E, TBM-3R, TBM-3S, TBM-3U and TBM-3W, all differing mainly in equipment carried and cockpit configuration, serving in Naval Reserve units until the late fifties.   In the middle fifties,  the TBM was being phased out, being replaced by the AF-2 “Guardian” anti-submarine “Hunter-Killer Teams”, and the planes were stored at the Litchfield Park Naval Air Facility near Phoenix.  Many were sold as surplus to local agricultural flying organizations, where they started a second career as sprayers and fire bombers.  From the late fifties until the seventies, numerous TBM-3’s (and one lonely TBF-1) were used all over the country for large scale spraying and fire bombing, where they were known as “borate bombers”.  In the seventies, larger multi-engined aircraft became available, including B-25’s, B-26’s, B-17’s, PB4Y-2’s, and PV-2’s, and the TBM’s were retired.  Most were scrapped, but a few continue to fly as warbirds.

 As an active aircraft photographer during the fifties and later, I photographed many surplus TBM-3’s, first in storage as they were flown or towed out of NAF Litchfield Park (It was convenient that the wings folded, so they could be towed), and then when they had been  were converted into air tankers and sprayers.  Many were used locally in the Phoenix area, but they were to be seen and photographed all over the country, and even in Canada, where some flew with Canadian “CF” registrations, although the Canadian aircraft were probably surplus  ex-Royal Canadian Navy. 

 This particular TBM-3,  N9927Z, Tanker Code E-39, Bureau number 85869, was sold surplus in the late fifties, and appears on the first published US Civil register published in 1963, although it was probably registered about 1958 or 1959.   It was registered to Aircraft Specialties Inc. at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, which was an interesting place to visit during that time period, as you could see all sorts of exotic warbirds being converted to sprayers and tankers, including B-17’s, P4Y-2’s, TBM-3’s, FM-2’s, PV-2’s, and even a J2F-6 which was used as a tanker for a short time. I recall  that in 1957, the Babb Company, an aircraft broker in the Phoenix area, having a large collection of TBM’s, closely  parked,  wings folded, in a field right on the edge of Sky Harbor Airport, and they were a common sight with painted over Navy markings and a spray-can “N” number on the rear fuselage to announce its new civilian status when they were eventually licensed by the FAA.  

I photographed  N9927Z  for the first time  in May, 1966, after the company, now Desert Aviation, had moved its base to Falcon Field, the old RAF training field in Mesa, AZ, and current site of the Hughes AH-64 helicopter production facility. Later, in 1969, I photographed it several times  until  1979, after which  it disappeared.  It was a very colorful bird, with white overall coloring with orange trim and black markings. Of course, being a work airplane, it was always sort of grungy looking, with the usual grime and dirt associated with intense tanker operations. But that only gave it character.

 Of the many TBM-3’s I’ve seen, this one stood out as the one to model, even though I was tempted to do one of Hemet Valley Flying Service’s overall orange tankers, which were equally as colorful. In fact, there are quite a few TBM-3’s that one could model, and they all differ in details, notably in the bomb bay setup and the canopy.   As the turrets were removed on most TBM’s after the war, various types of window arrangements were used depending upon function, and most of these were carried over to the tanker form, although some airplanes had the rear part cut down and painted over. So to model these airplanes, you have to work from photographs to get the right cockpit and bomb bay outlines.


 The Airfix TBM-3 is an old kit, dating back into the sixties.   I realized that there have been several kits issued of this aircraft, but unfortunately, the Hasegawa,  Frog  and Academy kits represent the TBF-1, and all are smooth skinned without any rivet detail, so I decided to make do with the Airfix version, since it is the only one that had the proper cowling and cowl flaps. At first I thought riveted, so light sanding but leaving some rivet detail is acceptable.  The Airfix kit has minimal interior detail, but the pilot’s cockpit is the only part you need to worry about, as these were flown as single seaters, although there was certainly enough room to carry passengers in the back if needed. Some had windows extending back, and some did not, so again, refer to photos. Be sure to fill in the holes for the rocket mounts and the radar antennas on the undersides of the wings.


The kit goes together quickly, and not much filler is needed to fill in the seams and cracks.  The cockpit needs to be detailed first, with an instrument panel, stick, and sidewall throttle and radio equipment, and it probably should be pretty grungy, as the only one I ever recall sitting in years ago seemed to be pretty dirty, but visibility from the high cockpit was fantastic.  The only real changes would be to cut out the bomb bay and construct whatever type of tank arrangement that is required.  Some had cylindrical tanks, while others had different types of rounded fairings with doors. 

Of course, the sprayers had spray bars extending behind the trailing edges of the wings, while the tanker versions did not.  But then, some were combination sprayer-tankers, so check your references. These  spray units  can be constructed from plastic rods and strips, making sure that the number of nozzles is correct. Again, refer to photographs.  The engine detail is not too bad for this old a kit, and even the propeller looks pretty good once it is installed. The rear fuselage also needs to be rebuilt, and again, each one seems to be different, so photos are a must.   I left out the turret, and then built up the structure with plastic card, filling in the holes with putty.  It was a lot of work, but I think the effect is OK.

The landing gear is solid, but check your sources, as these were sometimes painted in the exterior color of the plane rather than the usual silver.  Also, check to see if your airplane has gear doors, as some did, and some didn’t. The tailwheel needs to be installed before the fuselage halves are joined, but this can then be rotated inside the fuselage in retracted position, only being moved out when painting is required in the final assembly stages.


 Having decided on the version I was doing, and  after all of the basic modifications were done,  I masked off the canopy and painted the entire airplane white.  Masking this off, I did the orange trim.  When dry, I removed the masking tape and coated the airplane with Testor’s Glosscote.  I used standard USAF  letter decals for the big code numbers on the cowling and tail, but made the “N9927Z” and “Restricted” markings on the computer, using the proper font.

 When this was done, I installed the spray bar bracings on the upper trailing edges of the wings, and then installed the spray bars.  I also put on the various little thingies on the top of the fuselage, which included VOR and VHF radio antennas, a rotating beacon, and a filler nozzle for the spray tank.  A small venture tube is on the right side of the fuselage by the cockpit, and this need to be added to the model, and also some kind of drain pipe under the right side of the cowling.  After the decals were dry, I resprayed the plane with Dullcote, removed the masking tape from the canopy, and used the airbrush to give the plane a coat of dirt and grime, including oil around the engine. They used to say that if there was no oil leaking out of a radial engine, there was no oil inside either. So this plane needs to be heavily weathered and oiled to look right.


 I like the old Airfix kits, and since I have quite a few in my stash, I will probably build all of them eventually, that is if I live long enough. Sure, they are a little more work than some of the more recent issues, but they are basically accurate, economical, and they give you a feeling of accomplishment when you get one right.  Try one.  You’ll enjoy it. Live a little.

Brian Baker

 April 2011

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