As a boy during World War II, Ed Wuerker dreamed of being a pilot. He watched the torpedo dive-bombers flying over his Cape May County home, and heard the roar of their 1,900-horsepower engines.
"Seeing them in the air gave you a feeling of freedom," he said. "It made you think of the old war pictures, with the pilot wearing a helmet and his scarf blowing behind him."
TBM Avengers regularly flew out of Naval Air Station Wildwood in the 1940s, making practice bomb runs on dummy targets in farm fields — and sometimes crashing, with fatal results.
Wuerker was never deterred from his goal of flying one of the planes, though, and this year, his dream came true.
He bought a vintage bomber for $60,000 in Canada, where it had been used for forest firefighting duties, restored it, then took it up — without telling his wife.
"I was nervous," said Wuerker, 74, a Lower Township farmer who started flying in the 1950s. "A lot of people said: 'You don't want to do that. You need more training.' "
He had flown a nimble 800-pound plane the day before. Now, he settled into the cockpit of a 10,000-pound single-engine bomber. It was the difference between a sports car and a Mack truck.
"The last thing I said to the ground crew before I pushed the throttle forward was, 'Tell my family I love them,' " he said.
10,000 pound 'Turkey'
Wuerker was only 5 and 6 in 1944 and 1945, but he still remembers his parents talking about the war.
He also recalled hearing stories from a Naval Air Station crew chief who rented a room in his family's Lower Township home.
Dozens of Avengers crashed during training missions over South Jersey, because their inexperienced pilots fixated on targets too long, didn't manage fuel well, stalled their planes, or came in too slowly upon landing.
"They were young boys, just learning," Wuerker said. "They were coming off farms and didn't even have cars."
The Avengers carried 2,000-pound torpedoes that could sink massive warships, but they weren't quick and agile like the sleek P-51 Mustang fighters. The TBM earned the nickname "Turkey" — as in "turkey shoot" — because they were easy targets.
"I saw the planes in the air and thought they were flying back from the war," Wuerker said. When a crash occurred, "the crew chief took me to the site; it wasn't nice."
Those crashes were all too frequent.
"A friend of mine who is 78 now grew up on the south side of the airport and remembers them," Wuerker said. "We had a competition to see who could get the biggest piles of parts from the planes that crashed."
Not a Piper Cub
In the cockpit of the Avenger, Wuerker wasn't thinking about his childhood, though.
He was dealing with his first solo flight in an Avenger that came off the assembly line in 1945. He had to concentrate on the here and now.
The warplane's massive engine sounded like a souped-up hotrod without a muffler. This was not a Piper Cub.
"You feel the power and vibration," said Wuerker, who has three sons who "don't think I'm crazy for doing this. They know I am."
Two of them served in Iraq and Afghanistan and a third operates a local winery.
Wuerker's Avenger — named after his wife, Suzanne — lifted off the runway and shot up into the sky.
"It flies heavy — like a truck without power steering," he said. "It does what you want it to do, but the controls are just heavy.
"I didn't tell my wife when I took it up because I didn't want her observing if I had a mishap," he said. "She was upset when she heard the plane flying and got there to see me land."
Wuerker was up for only about 15 minutes. But his longtime dream had been realized.
"The second-greatest thrill known to man is going up in an airplane. The first is landing," he said with a laugh.
With 10 hours of flight time in the Avenger, Wuerker hopes to continue flying and making cosmetic restorations. He may add an optional gun turret he has and would like to install bomb-bay doors but needs a "philanthropist" to help with expenses.
That can come later, though. He's having too much fun simply owning and flying his dream machine.
And he loves the feedback.
Former President George H.W. Bush, who flew an Avenger in the Pacific and was shot down and rescued during World War II, sent him a note, saying, "Thanks for keeping the Turkey flying."
Another Avenger pilot in his 90s who had a difficult time walking looked over Wuerker's plane and told him it brought back memories.
"On a nice sunny day when he [Wuerker] fires it up, everybody is out there watching it," said Bruce Fournier, chief operating officer of the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum at Cape May Airport in Lower Township. "It clears out the museum. The sound is unmistakable."
The engine's roar "is the sound of freedom," said Wuerker, whose plane is hangared at a museum. "One of my friends hears the sound and says, 'You can fly over my house any time you want.'
"It makes you feel good," said the farmer-turned-pilot. "I'm preserving history and I'm part of history when I'm up there."