When it comes to adventure in far-off lands, there is an airplane that captures that description. Just looking at it is fun. Its image sparks your imagination. The aircraft’s design causes you to think of the different things it can do, and the geographic environs through which it may have flown. The craft beckons you inside, to peer out its windows at the vast ocean or land below. Or perhaps you would climb into one of the combat bubbles, ready to defend against an approaching enemy. This ship is the embodiment of adventure. And it has proven itself in combat as well as civil aviation duties. It is a legendary amphibious airplane known as the PBY Catalina.
The Catalina was designed by Isaac M. Laddon at Consolidated Aircraft in the 1930’s. Its first flight was in 1935. Once the design had been chosen by the US Navy, other manufacturers such as Vickers and Boeing were also contracted to deliver the plane. Each company had its own US Navy identifier – “Y” for Consolidated, “V” for Vickers, and “2B” for Boeing. So you may come across PBV and PB2B prototypes. But the design credit belongs to Laddon and Consolidated.
The PBY Catalina saw most of its action in World War II. Catalinas were flown in combat on both sides of the globe during that time. Yet the area of this aircraft’s history that is richest with adventure and exotica, is the Pacific Theater. This was where Allied forces, led by the United States, were at odds with Japan.
Much like the Vietnam conflict of the late 60’s – early 70’s, the Asian aspect, cultural contrast, and exotic geography associated with this skirmish, are all characteristics that can spark a Westerner’s imagination and wanderlust. In fact, If one were looking for a quick reference on The Romance of Adventure, Consolidated’s PBY Catalina, and it’s role in Pacific World War II service would prove handy.
Among war historians, the Catalina is probably best known for its utilization in spotting the Japanese early on, in the Battle of Midway Island (right). This conflict was critical in arresting Japanese advancement in the Pacific, and turning the tide of World War II in favor of the Allies. Yet the PBY’s contribution to aviation, in military and civil capacities alike, extends further.
Catalinas Were flown from Guam and Saipan to Midway, the Philippines, even the fringes of Indonesia. Some were painted black (the Black Cats) to avoid detection as they flew by and bombed Japanese ships, from high up in the dark night over the Pacific ocean.
The image of the World War II aerial gunner with the fur-collared bomber jacket and weathered leather goggles very much fits this aircraft. A Catalina’s crew typically consisted of 9 personnel. There were the Pilot and Co-Pilot, Radioman and Navigator, two Waist Gunners, A Nose Gunner, and a Tunnel Gunner (underside aft – see fig. 8). There was also a Flight Engineer on board.
One of the PBY Catalina’s distinctive features is its Parasol Wing, located on a pylon over the fuselage. This is where the Engineer sat (see fig. 8 above). Through the small side windows of the pylon, his was a unique view. Along with the engines, the Flight Engineer operated the propellers, retractable wingtip floats, and landing gear. He also visibly monitored fuel quantity via special sight gauges. With a range of over 3900 nautical miles (4200 miles), and a cruising speed of 125 knots, the PBY Catalina could stay airborne for over 18 hours with a full fuel load.
The vast flight range of the Catalina also led to a commercial role for the plane. In 1943, Qantas Airways began using it for nonstop fights over the Indian Ocean. These were from Perth, Australia to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). However, the excessive weight of the fuel required for the such a journey, limited the Catalina to only 3 passengers and 152 pounds of military and diplomatic mail. The trip took from 28 to 32 hours, and was called “The Flight of the Double Sunrise”, since passengers experienced two sunrises during their journey. These aircraft had to be flown “defenseless”, with all weaponry and armor plating removed, to minimize their weight for such a long trip. This made them vulnerable to attack. So the crew was compelled to maintain radio silence, due to to the threat of detection by the Japanese. These trips were also flown at night, using only celestial navigation, and a minimal morse code weather update en route. The Australia – Ceylon “Double Sunrise” service was a Top Secret civilian program, which ultimately made 271 crossings over the Indian Ocean during WWII. All without a single casualty. Furthermore, double sunrise still holds the record for the longest nonstop commercial flight – 32 hours and 9 minutes.
The PBY required a runway of at least 2800 feet to operate on land. This wasn’t always available, especially during wartime. So the plane often relied on it’s amphibious ability. This included the Perth to Ceylon journey mentioned above. At Sri Lanka, the Catalina would land on Koggala Lake.
The Catalina’s slow speed as a war ship however, made it no match for an encounter with Japanese fighters. So regrettably, some were shot down. Either that, or forced to ditch in the ocean after being kept on the run until their fuel tanks were empty.
The Catalina also served as a Search and Rescue plane during the war, and is credited with having rescued many a downed airman. It would then ferry them back to Allied held airbases such as Guam, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. When the Japanese took control of Singapore in February of 1942, Search and Rescue operations continued to other air bases for the rest of the war. Once World War II had ended, the PBY Catalina and its variants were rapidly decommissioned from the US Navy and other armed forces. The last U.S. military plane was retired in January of 1957. Still, smaller countries or less prevalent militaries, including that of Brazil, operated the Catalina until the early 1980’s. (below: A US Coast Guard Catalina on Guam Island – circa 1954)
The PBY Catalina also saw service in other areas that benefited society. For example, the well known marine scientist and adventurer, Jacques Cousteau’s well known airplane, The Calypso, was a Catalina. The PBY also continued to serve as a Search and Rescue and Fire Fighting platform into the 1950’s and 60’s. Another of the numerous places where Catalinas saw service after WW II, is the Bahamas.
By the 1980’s, with Brazil being the last to officially retire the aircraft from active service, the PBY Catalina’s visibility in the sky waned drastically. Now, it is the stuff of Museums and private collections. Seeing one in flight is actually a rare treat. Yet its contribution to the world of aviation lives on nostalgically. And vividly, in the minds of those who love adventure. (above: A PBY Catalina flying in the Bahamas. below: a Catalina lies deserted on a beach in Indonesia)
- article by Ken Omega