Friday, January 3, 2014

The Friday Flyby - 03 January (PBY Catalina)

The PBY Catalina produced by Consolidated Aircraft Corp was a flying boat in the 30's and 40's and later converted to an amphibious aircraft through the addition of landing gear.  The aircraft made it's maiden flight in March of 1935 as the P3Y, then transferred to the Navy for service trials.  Later that year, the two 825 hp Pratt and Whitney R-1830-54 Twin Wasp engines were swapped out for 900hp R-1830-64 engines to allow categorization of the plane as a patrol bomber and designation as the PBY-1.

PBY-1 Catalina in 1936

The engines were mounted on the leading edge of a pylon mounted parasol wing which was externally braced to the fuselage.  The wingtip floats could be retracted in flight to form a more streamlined wing, and those, with the cantilevered cruciform tail helped give the aircraft improved performance and streamlined aerodynamics over previous flying boats.

The missions undertaken by the PBY Catalina included work as a patrol bomber, night attack and naval interdiction, anti-submarine warfare, maritime mining (RAAF), air-sea rescue, and cargo delivery and resupply- missions that would make it the workhorse of maritime patrol for more than 20 years.

For the combat missions, the Catalina was armed with four .30 caliber Browning machine guns and could carry up to 2000 lbs of bombs.  Originally designated the PBY-1, the Navy quickly upgraded the aircraft from the original design to add higher power engines, acrylic glass in some, then standardized waist gun blisters, larger and self-sealing fuel tanks.  During the time of WWII, the design settled out with the introduction of hydraulically actuated tricycle landing gear (a Grumman design), improved armor, the introduction of a tail gunner position, and twin .30 caliber machine guns in a bow eyeball turret.  Those upgrades gave the aircraft the designation of PBY-5A.  The last five months of the war saw some aircraft upgraded with radar in a radome over the cockpit and the designation PBY-6A.

PBY-6A with radome

The previous picture shows the radome, but the designation of PBY-5A which was some variant before the 6A. The name "Black Cat" was given to the aircraft painted flat black which were tasked with night raids on Japanese supply convoys.  Those aircraft were also given state-of-the-art magnetic anomaly detectors. These Black Cats were highly successful in their mission, sinking 112K tons of merchant shipping, damaging 47K tons, and inflicting damage on 10 Japanese warships.  With their black color and shrouded exhausts, they were very difficult to spot at night by enemy fighter aircraft, but if spotted, nearly impossible to shoot down due to their slow speed and the adopted tactic of flying just above the waves- a challenging envelope for fighter aircraft. 

Catalina on a "Dumbo" mission- Air-Sea Rescue.
These flew with a Doctor and Pharmacy Mate aboard.
The following view shows the more basic design of the PBY-1.

PBY-1 without the landing gear and side blisters of later models.

The Catalina joined combat missions even before the US entered the war.  In May 1941, a PBY leased to the British RAF, but flown by Ensign Leonard Smith, a U.S. Navy aviator serving as an observer, located the German pocket-battleship Bismarck which led to her sinking. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a PBY made the only aerial attack against the Japanese, bombing a midget submarine. Six months later, the Catalina would help make Naval history, but first, how about some aircraft specs?
  • Crew: 10 — pilot, co-pilot, bow turret gunner, flight engineer, radio operator, navigator, radar operator, two waist gunners, ventral gunner
  • Length: 63 ft 10 7/16 in (19.46 m
  • Wingspan: 104 ft 0 in (31.70 m)
  • Width: 10 ft 2 in (Fuselage)
  • Height: 21 ft 1 in (6.15 m)
  • Empty weight: 20,910 lb (9,485 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 35,420 lb (16,066 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 Twin Wasp radial engines, 1,200 hp (895 kW each) each
  • Fuel capacity: 1,750 gals. (6620 L.)
  • Maximum speed: 196 mph (314 km/h)
  • Stall speed (floats up): 52 mph (45 kts, 84 km/h)
  • Cruise speed: 125 mph (201 km/h)
  • Range: 2,520 mi (4,030 km)
  • Service ceiling: 15,800 ft (4,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 1,000 ft/min (5.1 m/s)
  • 3× .30 cal (7.62 mm) machine guns (two in nose turret, one in ventral hatch at tail)
  • 2× .50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns (one in each waist blister)
  • 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) of bombs or depth charges; or
  • 2× Mk 13 1,927 lb (874 kg) torpedoes

Probably the most famous patrol mission for the Catalina was in June of 1942.  "Strawberry 5" was the first patrol aircraft to report the previously unknown location of the Japanese strike group as it approached Midway Island on June 4th.  This mission is well known to Naval Historians, and is taught to all students in NROTC.  "Strawberry 5" was piloted by LT Howard P. Ady who is sitting up on the landing gear in the picture below.  He was portrayed by actor Kip Niven in the movie.  It is a very enjoyable film, despite the romantic angle between a pilot and an interred Japanese-American inserted into the plot.  It features several famous actors, but also early roles by Larry Csonka, Tom Selleck, and Erik Estrada.

Actor Kip Niven playing LT Ady in "Midway"

During the flight of Strawberry 5, LT Ady, flying with VP-23 began sending back radio reports including "Many planes heading Midway" which enabled the airfield to be cleared and making that battle the decisive turning point of WWII in the Pacific theater.

It wasn't just the U.S. Navy that flew the Catalina.  The U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Coast Guard operated PBYs during and after the war.  The aircraft was widely used by foreign Navies as well.

USAAC Catalina in Alaska
Coastie Cat
PBY-5A USCG at French Frigate Shoals 1953
U.S. Army Air Corps Catalina

UK Catalina
Royal New Zealand Catalina 

RAAF Catalina
Danish Catalina 
Royal Australian Air Force Catalina
Yes, that's a Soviet Catalina
Several other countries flew the Catalina as a military asset including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Sweden, USSR, and Uruguay, with a dozen of those flying it as a commercial aircraft.  Qantas even flew it as a commercial aircraft before the war in the Pacific was over, and China Airlines began its history with two Catalina aircraft.

A former privately owned Catalina abandoned on a beach in Saudi Arabia, years after being attacked by bedouins believing it to be Israeli spies

PBYs flew for the U.S. Navy until they were retired from service with the Naval Air Reserve in 1957.  The Coast Guard had ceased operation of the Catalina a few years earlier in 1954.  However, the versatile bird was in Military service in other Navies until the mid-1980s and some still fly today in other roles.

PBY Fire Cat

A Catalina painted to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Naval Aviation
A privately owned Catalina 

A Catalina makes a great addition to any aviation museum

The PBY Catalina, also known as the Canso (Canadian) and Nomad PBN-1 (USN, modified hull and tail), and the OA-10 (USAAC and USAF), served with distinction in various militaries for over 50 years.  Its prototype, designated the XP3Y-1, set the record for the longest distance non-stop flight at the time, flying over 3400 miles on its maiden voyage from Norfolk Virginia to the U.S. Submarine Base at Coco Solo on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal Zone.  About 3300 Catalinas were produced and several are still flying today as water bombers, flying geological surveys, carrying people, supplies, and equipment to inaccessible areas and even flying sportsmen into remote areas for hunting and fishing.  The complete history of the venerable PBY Catalina probably isn't even fully written yet, with the aircraft likely to fly well into the mid-2000's, pushing the service life to over 100 years. It's my favorite aircraft from WWII and it has an exciting and eventful history. It reminds me of the aircraft I flew for the Navy, the S-3B Viking, due to the versatility of both and some common missions.  I'd love to catch a hop in one someday.

I'll end my inaugural Friday Flyby with a couple Catalina videos- one new, one old.


  1. Thanks Tuna, I was starting to experience withdrawal symptoms and needed an airplane fix. Just Kiddin' Sarge!

  2. Very well done, Tuna... great pics and narrative.

  3. I'll add my kudos to those given above. Nicely done Tuna. Nicely done.

    I hereby nominate Tuna for "Best Wingman - Ever!"

  4. Beautiful aircraft and great post, Tuna. There's one undergoing restoration at the Alaska Aviation Museum in Anchorage but it's in rough shape. I think that Old NFO started out flying these. ;-)

  5. One of the first airplane models I ever built was a PBY.
    I thought it was a really cool plane.

  6. Nice post on a great aircraft Tuna. Really enjoyed it!

  7. Always wondered about the flight engineer station in the wing pylon.

  8. This post has been fermenting in my mind for several months. Happy to finish it and share my love of this great old airplane.


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