By Stewart Bailey Museum Curator
It is a well known axiom that war is endless periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Nowhere else is it more true than for those aircrews who fly long-range patrol aircraft. During World War II, in the days before radar warning systems covered the globe, it was patrol planes and their crews that would fly interminably long missions looking for any threats in the air or on the sea. Often flying over long, lonely stretches of open water with only their eyes or primitive radar to look for the enemy, the men who flew patrol missions were unsung heroes of the war.
Of all the aircraft that flew patrol missions in World War II, probably the most outstanding was the Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat. First flown in March 1935, the PBY would become the most widely used patrol plane, and would see combat in every theater of the war, from the cold of Alaska to the jungles of the South Pacific and the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. Nicknamed the “Cat,” or “P-boat,” or the “Canso” in Canada, it was more commonly called “Dumbo” in reference to Disney’s animated flying elephant. It was called that with great affection by those thousands of ship-wrecked sailors and downed airmen who were rescued by the big plane.
The development of the Catalina began in the 1930s when the US Navy was looking at the possibility of a war in the Pacific, where there were wide stretches of ocean and few available airfields. A flying boat-type aircraft solved these problems, as it could operate from sheltered harbors or aboard specially designed seaplane-tending ships. So the Navy commissioned Consolidated and Douglas to design a new flying boat to meet its needs for a patrol plane. Although the Douglas design was good, Consolidated’s XP3Y-1 proposal offered many revolutionary design features including a cantilevered parasol wing and retractable outrigger floats that reduced drag. Plus, it was cheaper! In early 1936, the Navy ordered 60 examples under the designation PBY-1, and was so impressed with the design that they ordered 50 more before the first PBY-1 had been delivered.
Consolidated had finished all of its deliveries to the Navy and it was looking like PBY production had come to an end after 213 examples had been built when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Suddenly, orders flooded in from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands East Indies, the US Coast Guard and even the US Navy who needed an extra 200 PBYs to patrol the Atlantic to enforce American neutrality in the European conflict. All of these orders were for the new version of the PBY; the PBY-5, which featured more powerful engines, and the bulbous “blister” turret on the sides that gave gunners better visibility and protection from the wind. The British gave the aircraft its name “Catalina” which the US Navy adopted in 1941.
When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the PBY Catalina was right in the thick of it and many were destroyed during the attack. Those that were still flyable got into the air that day in a vain attempt to locate the Japanese fleet. From that day forward, the PBY would serve in every major sea battle of the Second World War, including the campaigns for Midway, Guadalcanal, the Aleutians, and the struggle against the German submarines in the Battle of the Atlantic. Its ability to stay airborne for hours at a time and its 2500+ mile range meant that it could serve as the eyes of the fleet, spotting enemy ships and following them, until friendly forces could be marshaled to attack. During the epic chase of the German battleship Bismarck, a British Catalina was able to shadow the ship and helped the Royal Navy’s surface ships to intercept and sink the powerful intruder. Then, during the Battle of Midway, US Navy PBYs similarly found the Japanese fleet sailing to invade the island, and helped the American aircraft carriers to set a trap, which destroyed the Japanese and turned the tide of the war.
But the PBY was not destined only to observe the war, for the “Cat” had claws. Armed with bombs, depth charges and torpedoes, PBY crews took the war to the enemy, in places like the islands of the South Pacific, where black-painted PBY’s called “Black Cats” participated in highly successful night time raids against Japanese ships, using radar to target their prey. In the Atlantic, PBY Catalinas were invaluable in the war against the German U-boats, sinking over 40 enemy submarines. But probably its most remembered role is that of a search and rescue (SAR) aircraft, that could land in the water to pick up survivors of sunken ships or pilots shot down in combat. No one knows how many thousands of lives were saved by PBYs, but their usefulness in the SAR role kept them in service well into the 1980s.
In the end, over 4000 PBY Catalinas were built and they would serve in 29 air forces and navies around the world. And, after the war, the PBY would find new fame fighting a new enemy, as a flying fire fighter. Modified to scoop up water from lakes “on the fly” and dump it precisely on target, the Catalina was in great demand as a fire fighter and most of today’s surviving Catalinas owe their survival to their usefulness in that role. Although never receiving the glory of the fighters and the bombers of World War II, the PBYs and their crews served all over the globe waiting for those “moments of sheer terror” when they would make history.
* * *
On August 6, 2011, the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum was pleased to add a PBY Catalina to its collection when Canadian built Canso-A (identical to a US built PBY-5a) #249 touched down at the McMinnville Airport on the end of a two and a half hour ferry flight from Nanaimo, British Columbia. Acquired by the Captain Michael King Smith Foundation in July 2010, it had taken a year to get the aircraft airworthy after a decade or more of neglect, sitting out in the Vancouver weather.
Originally built for the Royal Canadian Air Force at the Canadian Vickers plant in St. Hubert, Quebec, the aircraft was delivered on June 2, 1943 and would serve with the RCAF Eastern Air Command before going on to 13 Squadron at RCAF Rockliffe near Ottawa. After retirement from military service in 1955, it was purchased by Kenting Aviation Ltd. of Toronto, who converted it to a fire bomber. From 1963 through 1968 it fought fires in France before returning to Canada were it was sold to Norcanair Ltd. in Saskatchewan. It would remain there for 17 years; acquiring its gaudy red, yellow and green paint job in 1981. In 2002 it was purchased by Aero Service Ltd. in Nanaimo and modified for an eco-tourism project in Indonesia, but that deal fell through and the airplane was left to sit and deteriorate.
After its purchase by the Michael King Smith Foundation, the Catalina, now registered N249SB, was made flyable by Victoria Air Maintenance (VAM) for its final flight to its new home. As part of the process the engines, which were in very bad condition, were replaced with engines borrowed from VAM. Then, on Saturday August 6th, the flight crew of Lynn Hunt and Bob Dyck took the big bird back into the air for the final time and flew it to its new home.
Since its arrival, the Canso/Catalina has been receiving constant attention from the Evergreen restoration and paint crews, and is getting a new lease on life. The borrowed engines were returned to VAM and the old engines and props re-installed; a new set of blister turrets acquired through the Pima Air & Space Museum were refurbished by the restoration team in Marana, AZ and the aircraft has received a new coat of paint. Gone are its fire-fighting markings; the eye-popping yellow scheme replaced with the blue and grey scheme of a US Navy PBY-5a from Patrol Squadron VP-44. It depicts the aircraft that Ens. Jack Reid and his crew flew on the morning of June 3, 1942 when they spotted the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Island, opening a battle which would seal the fate of the Japanese Empire. When completed, the Catalina will be placed on display in the museum as lasting tribute to the men and machines of patrol aviation, which served the Allies so well in World War II.