By Greg Morehead

The ninth annual “TBM Reunion and Salute to Veterans” returned to the Illinois Valley Regional Airport-Walter A. Duncan Field in Peru, Illinois on May 17-18, 2024, featuring eight TBM Avengers and the Titan Aerobatic Team among a supporting cast of warbirds.  A host of notable attractions were complimented by sun and blue skies to attract an attendance topping 20,000 spectators, which was a banner year for the feature-rich, small airport show.  Increasingly rare for aviation events, the show was once again free to the public thanks to funding provided by the City of Peru, Illinois.

Planning the event fell on the shoulders of announcer Tim Gillian and the new airport management team.  Keeping it safe was the purview of Air Boss Greg Witmer and the EAA Warbirds Flightline team.  Top-tier hospitality was provided by volunteers led by Tracy Baer, Roberta Finkler, and Jane McCarty Deckert.  Operations were supported by airport staff and volunteers including Sherry Schaefer, Shawn Timko, and Bill Ruder.

The Friday show started at 6:00 pm and led into the night show that commenced at dusk when the Titan Aerobatic Team, sponsored by Marquis Energy, performed formation loops against a canvas painted with deep orange blending to deep indigo.   Then, as the subtle remnants of light waned, seven Avengers roared to full power with blue flames jetting from the exhaust stacks of each plane. The ground shook from a combined 13,300 horsepower created by 18,200 cubic inches in 98 cylinders.  A first for the TBM Reunion was the fireworks display sponsored by the city that crowned the night and evoked “oohs and aahs” from the masses.

In the constant pursuit of improvement, each year the event gets tweaked.  Changes to the parking areas necessitated moving the reenactors’ encampment from their traditional plot.  With some grumbling the loyal reenactors broke camp and invested several additional hours to move to an area atop a hill.  There’s no doubt they were happy after a little sweat equity as they then realized they had the best view and of course, everyone knows the Army wants to hold the high ground!  As the Greatest Generation passes into history, the value of living history displays increases as an engaging method of telling the story of those no longer able to share it themselves.

While Friday’s highlight was the night show after the day show, the focus on Saturday was a Salute to Veterans, followed by an air show.  The Veteran’s Parade is unique with each branch of service walking as a group down a temporary boulevard of Old Glory, created when the public become flag bearers lining a pathway.  Applause and tears combined as veterans – young, old, and REALLY old, moved along the crowded flag-lined path.  Folded flags and service photos of those who have passed away were loaded aboard Tri-State Warbird Museum’s TBM by retired US Navy Captain John Bishop and entrusted to pilot Greg Vallero’s care as he took off with two TBMs flown by JP Mellor and Jordan Brown for a missing man pass that was timed to coincide with a 21 gun salute and the playing of taps by two buglers.

In 2016 during the first TBM Reunion, there were a relatively healthy number of WWII TBM veterans.  Such was not the case in 2024 as only a few were able to make the trip.  A TBM Radio Man, Joe Wills, had the opportunity to fly in a TBM for the first time since World War II.  Pilot Wes Atteberry, the newest TBM pilot, was excited to have Joe in the back seat of David Prescott’s TBM, Ida Red.  The young warbird pilot said, “Flying a World War II veteran was on my bucket list so it was exciting to have the opportunity.”  Charlie Cartledge, who owns an Oshkosh award winning TBM, flew his Avenger with Alvin Gould, a veteran TBM Turret Gunner, in his back seat.  The two veteran-laden TBMs formed up for a formation flight that was pure fun, partly because 80 years later nobody was shooting at them.

TBM Radio Man, Joe Wills had the opportunity to fly in a TBM for the first time since WWII.  Pilot Wes Atteberry, the newest TBM pilot, stands on his left

Attending warbirds represented history from World War II to the Cold War and included a pair of Stearman biplanes flown by mother-son team Julie and Ben Thomas from Memphis, TN.  Aircraft selling rides included the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Indiana Wing’s PT-26 Cornell, the AT-6 Texan from Flight Training Centers in Kokomo, the CAF Missouri Wing’s TBM and EAA’s B-25 BERLIN EXPRESS.  The only jet warbird in attendance was a CT-133 Mk.III (RCAF 21556) in Texas Air National Guard colors and owned by Kathryn Tyler and pilot Steven Jones.  In addition to Tri-State Warbird Museum’s Avenger, their beautiful C-45 in GTMO colors was piloted by Mike Durkee.

A show favorite, the FG-1D Corsair from Warbird Heritage Foundation, was flown by Fred Bower, a retired Air Force pilot with over 20,000 flight hours and time in the U-2, A-10, T-38, KC-135, and KC-10.  He performed an aerobatic display and offered photographers some great photo opportunities.  Also impressive was the 1952 Douglas AD-4N, Naked Fanny, owned and flown by Jim Rohlf, who not only performed both days but also flew home and sprayed agricultural fields.  Now that’s commitment!

Pilots Ray Brown and Matt Throckmorton flew Jordan and Nikki Brown’s C-47 from Terre Haute, Indiana, in a unique legacy formation flight that had different generations of aircraft and also a father-son pairing.  Ray Brown led the formation in the C-47 while his father, Jordan Brown, flew on his right wing in Daniel Mosley’s TBM-3E Avenger with Jim Rohlf on the left side in the Skyraider.  The C-47 was also used as the jump platform when Skydive Chicago opened the show flying the American flag and as a photo platform to record the Titan Aerobatic Team in formation with Brad Deckert flying his TBM-3E.

The Titan Aerobatic Team provided two perfect performances, including a day show and their signature night show.  Traditionally the slot pilot, Jimmy Fordham flew the Lead position with Steve Gustafson and Bryan Regan flying the Wing positions.  The Titan team is in the early part of their first airshow season with new sponsor Titan Aviation Fuels and are proudly flying their new look that was applied in the paint shop at Hangar 360 Aircraft Services in Raymond, Mississippi.  The Titan moniker not only represents an amazing sponsor company; it also accurately describes the team pilots, who not only amaze average air show spectators but also professional pilots who understand the challenges of operating the T-6 in formation aerobatic maneuvers.

At the heart of the event were the show’s namesake, the TBM Avengers.  A few aircraft canceled due to mechanical issues, including the much-anticipated return of Edward “Tanker Ed” Wuerker in his fire bomber version.  Sherry Schaefer shared Ed’s disappointment after lengthy preparations.  Steve Sorge of East Troy, Wisconsin also had to cancel.  Of the eight Avengers that attended, a few notable mechanical issues were experienced in the group.  Daniel Mosley’s TBM developed a bad magneto but thanks to the herculean efforts of Bill Ruder, the new mag was installed in an impressive four hours.  While on an LHFE flight, a few miles from the airport, JP Mellor experienced a prop failure that resulted in losing ten gallons of oil in a short two-and-a-half minutes.  Brad Deckert also experienced serious oil consumption issues with a bad blower seal that will require the removal and disassembly of the engine.  While on their trip home, the Rocky Mountain Wing’s TBM lost a mag and was grounded however Bill Ruder is planning to head to Nebraska to rescue the crew with a ninja-like magneto repair.

Brad Deckert shared his thoughts on the learning points beyond the obvious fact that these are old airplanes that do break.  One critical message is to always take off with a full oil tank.  Never assume 25 gallons is “good enough.”  Deckert is acutely aware of the ramifications as he dead-sticked his TBM after an engine failure was caused by oil starvation when no symptoms existed.  He knows first-hand that a full tank sometimes isn’t enough.  Deckert recently developed and installed a low oil warning system that affords the pilot critical time to find a place to land before the engine quits.  Deckert hopes operators will contact him to discuss installing the system on their aircraft.  The second message derived from the mechanical issues is “inventory is your friend” and having a spare magneto might be expensive but it’s a good idea.

The Titan Aerobatic Team are definitely titans of aviation; however we hope they won’t mind sharing the label with the titan maintainers who keep these old planes flying, and the veterans for whom the TBM Reunion exists.

 

TBM Avengers in Attendance:

Aircraft                                       Owner                                                          Pilot

TBM-3E (BuNo 85632)         Brad and Jane Deckert                           Brad Deckert

TBM-3E (BuNo 91436)         Lake Erie Warbirds                                  Charlie Cartledge

TBM-3E (BuNo 53420)         Tri-State Warbird Museum                  Greg Vallero

TBM-3E (BuNo 53353)         CAF Missouri Wing                                  JP Mellor

TBM-3E (BuNo 91726)         Daniel Mosley                                           Jordan Brown

TBM-3U (BuNo 53768)        Tom Buck                                                    Tom Buck

TBM-3E (BuNo 85882)         David Prescott                                           Wes Atteberry

TBM-3E (BuNo 53503)         CAF Rocky Mountain Wing                  Bill Shepard

 

It has been nine years since TBM Avenger owners Brad and Jane Deckert decided to host a gathering of flyable Avengers.  It was not planned as an annual pilgrimage; however, this one-off event inspired the community’s patriotic support and introduced thousands to the warbird world.  It is now an annual tradition that many locals simply refer to as “the air show.” Those versed in air shows understand this is far from a typical display of aerial hardware and pilot skill.   This is essentially a warbird-only event where the rumble of radial engines and whine of jet turbines is described by announcer Tim Gillian as “the sound of freedom.” When Greg Morehead asked about the event, Brad Deckert commented, The TBM gathering/salute to veterans was a huge success by all measures. We have an increasingly uncommon situation here in Peru, Illinois where we have tremendous city, airport, and community support. I have never been associated with anything quite like this anywhere else. We couldn’t have picked a better venue to have this one-of-a-kind event. I think we can look forward to [similar events for] many years to come. I would also like to send out a special thanks to the non-TBM warbirds that show up and add so much….”