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PBY Catalina: By Land or By Sea

The U.S. Navy's oasis in the middle of the ocean

by Paul Koskela and Randy Wilson

Copyright 1994 by the Confederate Air Force, Paul Koskela and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 19, Number 2, Summer, 1994 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

In October of 1933, the U.S. Navy placed an order with Consolidated Aircraft for a new flying-boat for patrol service. The resulting XP3Y-1 prototype had a high-mounted single wing, compared to the previous Navy flying-boats, which were biplanes.

The prototype first flew in March 1935 and 60 were ordered in June, with the new designation PBY-1. The design's ability to carry a substantial bomb load justified the change to patrol bomber (PB). Subsequent versions, the PBY-2, PBY-3 and PBY-4, featured more powerful versions of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines.

Delivery of the new patrol planes proceeded rapidly in 1937 and 1938, with 14 squadrons being equipped with PBYs. All of these versions were true flying-boats, with no landing gear, and could only take off and land on water. When the aircraft had to be hauled out of the water, they were either lifted by using large cranes or had special wheels and "beaching gear" temporarily attached. The British also used the PBY, naming the flying-boat Catalina. Canada also produced the design, calling their version Canso.

By the end of 1941, when America entered the war, 16 squadrons were flying PBY-5s with 1,200 horsepower R-1830-92 engines, capable of carrying four 325 pound depth charges (for use against submarines), two Mark XIII torpedoes, or four 500 or 1,000 pound bombs.

At the same time, deliveries began of the first amphibious version, the PBY-5A, retractable tricycle landing gear, allowing operation from either land or water.

The final PBY-6A version had a redesigned tail and other improvements. Total production of all PBY Catalina models was 3,281.

Although the PBY was slow and clumsy-looking, it was a sea-going workhorse that was loved by its crews. It braved impossible weather conditions as it patrolled the world's oceans, and carried out search, rescue, bombing, and torpedo missions. Able to remain airborne for more than 24 hours in the days before aerial refueling, the PBY served wherever there were oceans in World War II.

On Dec. 7,1941, 77 of 78 PBYs on the ground at Oahu were destroyed. Three were out on patrol, one of which sank a Japanese submarine off Pearl Harbor an hour before the attack, making it the first U.S. aircraft to fire on the Japanese in World War II. Another engaged Japanese fighters, making it the first U.S. airborne bomber to exchange fire with the Japanese.

The "Cat's" exploits are legendary. In 1941, an RAF Catalina with an American pilot was credited with locating the German battleship Bismarck, which enabled the Royal Navy to attack and sink the enemy's most feared warship. Marine fighter pilot ace Joe Foss was rescued when a PBY taxied up onto the beach of a Japanese held island to pick him up. PBYs evacuated over 200 Australian commandos from a New Guinea jungle river as the Japanese closed in; the operation was planned to take three weeks, but was done in a few days. The famous radio message, "Many planes heading Midway," came from a PBY.

Some Patrol Squadrons in the South Pacific painted their PBYs dull black. They flew night search and attack missions and called themselves "Black Cats." Catalinas sent to rescue downed fliers were called "Dumbos," after the Walt Disney flying elephant cartoon character. When fighter pilots flew alongside to ridicule the PBY's slow flight, the crews retaliated by displaying a cup of coffee or a steak dinner to show they had some pretty good benefits. The PBY served the air force and civilian aviation of several countries for more than 30 years. It was one of the most recognized and renowned of all seaplanes — and the most resourceful.

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Please note that the members of the Confederate Air Force voted in 2001 to change the name of the organization to the Commemorative Air Force and this name change took effect on 1 January, 2002. Articles copyrights should reflect the name change. Articles reproduced on this site are with the permission of the authors and copyright holders.