Above: Left is the real nose art from NZ2518 "Plonky" (RNZAF Official Photograph) and right is the nose art
recreated on ZK-TBM "Plonky" (Photo: Dave Homewood, April 1993)
NZ2518 was a Grumman TBF-1C model Avenger, builder's number Bu.47733. It arrived in New Zealand onboard the ship SS Schenectedy and was assembled by No.1 Aircraft Depot, at RNZAF Station Hobsonville.
The aircraft was brought on charge with the RNZAF officially on the 15th of December 1943 with Unit 36, Hobsonville. Once the flying tests were complete, NZ2518 was dispatched to No. 30 Squadron, at RNZAF Station Gisborne.
When the Avenger aircraft were being allocated to their eager crews, they were allowed permission to adorn their new personal mounts with individual nose art. A sign writer was brought in to paint on favoured emblems, most being cartoon characters from popular movies of the day.
However one of the pilots in No. 30 Squadron went against the trend of picking Disney characters. Instead, Fred Ladd devised a nose art that he felt was most appropriate. He was a teetotaler and he considered his portly plane to look a lot like a beer barrel. So he came up with the artwork seen above, "Plonky" the flying beer-barrel, which was seen drizzling beer over the enemy Japanese below him - something he thought was quite an insult.
Plonky and his crew departed from Gisborne on the long ferry flight to Espiritu Santo on the 24th of January 1944. Once into combat in the forward area, the bombers of No. 30 Squadron had their nose art removed, because higher powers considered, quite rightly, that if an aircraft crash-landed in enemy territory the artwork may have been seen by the Japanese as provocative in some cases.
NZ2518 flew to the end of No. 30 Squadron's tour in the Pacific, and when the squadron was relieved by No. 31 Squadron, this Avenger was one of those handed to them. Sadly, Plonky was hit by flak near Rapopo Airfield, New Britain at about 10:45 hours on the 5th of June 1944. The aircraft caught fire and dived into the ground and was destroyed. The crew, consisting of Flight Lieutenant Charles Prior, Flying Officer Sydney Clayton and Warrant Officer Theo Scarlett were all killed. The remains of the aircraft and crew were not discovered until some years later, but the aircraft was written off books at Bougainville shortly after the aircraft had failed to return.
In recent years some wreckage from the original NZ2518 was brought home to New Zealand for preservation.
In 1993 a Grumman Avenger returned to New Zealand skies when warbird collector Sir Tim Wallis, of Wanaka, purchased Grumman TBM Avenger Bu.91110 from Ray Hanna's UK-based Old Flying Machine Company.
The Avenger was shipped to New Zealand along with the also-purchased Zero replica (of Tora, Tora, Tora movie fame), and both made their debut airshow appearance the same week of their arrival at the Air Expo 92 airshow held at Auckland International Airport, at Mangere, for the airport's 50th Anniversary. This airshow took place over the 20th to 22nd of November 1992.
Now registered as ZK-TBM, at this time the Avenger wore the colours of an Avenger aircraft that had been flown by US President George H.W. Bush during the Second World War. But being a true kiwi, Sir Tim wanted to repaint the aircraft into RNZAF colours. What better scheme could he choose than that of "Plonky", NZ2518, which was the personal aircraft of the late legendary pilot Fred Ladd. Many New Zealanders fondly remembered Freddy Ladd for his career after the war, starting several amphibious airlines in Fiji and New Zealand, and most famously for flying under the Auckland Harbour Bridge. He had always been renowned for his cheeky high spirits and was a popular public figure right up till his death in 1989.
So the Avenger arrived at RNZAF Base Wigram, Christchurch, in April 1993 to undergo transformation from George Bush's aircraft scheme to that of Plonky. This was undertaken by the RNZAF Safety and Surface team (this being the trade that carried out all aircraft and component painting on the base at the time), on behalf of the RNZAF Museum. I was part of the paint team and I also took exclusive photographs of the transformation from day one when we rubbed back the old paintwork through to the roll-out many days later. These photos are a few of the ones I took, and have been reduced in quality greatly to appear here. They are the copyright of Dave Homewood.
Legendary Warbird pilot, the late Mark Hanna, taxied the TBM Avenger into Wigram on the weekend
Work began on Monday morning in No. 2 Hangar, where five of us set to with Scotchbright green pot-scourers and rubbed back the old paint, which meant that it could act as a good undercoat for the new paint and not have to be completely stripped, and the roughness allowed the new paint to stick. This was yucky, messy work
Next day we took the Avenger to No. 6 Hangar and began masking her up for the new scheme.
Now that masking was complete the new colours could be applied. Getting the colours and markings correct was a job that had been highly researched by ourselves in the painting team along with RNZAF Museum staff, Alpine Fighter Collection staff and other volunteers who had also come to assist. We were pretty confident that we got the scheme just right and extremely accurate. We had many sessions pouring over photos and drawings, and I accompanied Sgt Denis Gibbons (then my boss in the S&S team) as we clambered all over the RNZAF Museum's own TBF-1C to get measurements and details of markings.
The blue coat goes on. In the background is the Wigram Gate Guard awaiting its turn - we painted it into the 1970's international orange/grey scheme just after this Avenger was completed. It has since been repainted magnificently in the 1950's silver and orange scheme.
Markings and finishing touches being applied - left LAC Vaughn McAllister finishes a fuselage roundel, centre Cpl Steve Leach unmasks a wing roundel and right Sgt Trevor Platt works on the nose art
Sgt Trevor Platt of NATTS Maintenance Crew put his artistic skills into recreating the famous Plonky nose art. This was meticulously recreated in both size and colour, to match the original
Roll out - the Friday. This was, as usual, a glorious Wigram autumn day, and Plonky took her place beside her Alpine Fighter Collection stablemates, the P-40K Kittyhawk and Zero replica (flown here by Simon Spencer-Bower to mark the occasion)
The full painting crew were:
Sgt Denis Gibbons
Cpl Steve Leach
LAC Vaughn McAllister
LAC Dave Homewood
LAC Aaron Lyttle
AC Max Cawley
Sgt Trevor Platt (nose art)
The aircraft flew at numerous airshows around New Zealand, with its principle display pilot for the AFC being Rex Dovey. It also attended the final full reunion of No. 30 Squadron Association at Gisborne in 1993.
Due to the slow winding down of the Alpine Fighter Collection, following Sir Tim Wallis's accident in a Spitfire Mk. XVIe, in May 1999 Plonky was later sold. The Avenger left New Zealand to join the Toowoomba, Australia, based collection of warbirds owned by Randal Mcfarlane. The aircraft was repainted in US Navy colours there, becoming 309 "Georgia Peach" of VT-83 squadron which flew from USS Essex. It was registered as VH-TBM and was flown at numerous airshows in Australia, as well as doing some film work. The Avenger was sold again and moved on to the Steve Searle collection.
PLONKY Returns Again!
However Steve Searle passed away and the aircraft came up for sale. New Zealand warbird collector Brendon Deere, who has always admired the Avenger and had been keen to purchase an example, stepped in and bought TBM Bu.91110. The aircraft was prepared for another trans-Tasman crossing, and the Avenger set off from Toowoomba with Guy Stevenson as pilot and Brendon Deere in the Navigator's cockpit. They crossed the Tasman and flew down to the aircraft's new home at RNZAF Base Ohakea on Friday the 24th of February 2012. Still in the US Navy colours of 309 from VT-83 but now no longer sporting the "Georgia Peach" name, the Avenger made it's NZ airshow return at the RNZAF 75th Anniversary Airshow on Saturday 31st of March 2012.
The long road was begun to return this aircraft to RNZAF colours in the previous NZ2518 'Plonky' colours and this time it involved a complete strip back through around nine layers of paint, and then a complete repaint. This was also carried out by members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force's Safety and Surface team, at RNZAF Base Ohakea's brand new strip bay and paintshop facilities.
ANZAC Day 2013 flypasts mark the first public appearance for Plonky back in RNZAF colours, and it is planned that the aircraft will make many more public displays around New Zealand in the future.
You can follow the happenings with Brendon's Deere's Avenger 'Plonky' now on the Spitfire PV270 Facebook page