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PBY Catalina: The U.S. Navy’s Jack of (Nearly) All Trades of World War II

The Consolidated Model 28, better known as the PBY Catalina (U.S. Navy designation; the Royal Canadian Air Force [RCAF] named her the “Canso”) made her maiden flight on March 21, 1935,

PBY Catalina
PBY Catalina

PBY Catalina: To tourists visiting or living on the West Coast, the word “Catalina” conjures up a picturesque island off the Southern California coast. 

In the context of the historical military, the name Catalina is associated with one of the most versatile airplanes to serve in the Second World War, a jack-of-nearly-all-trades, with that lone exception being the role of fighter plane. It was the PBY Catalina flying boat.

PBY Catalina Early History and Specifications

The Consolidated Model 28, better known as the PBY Catalina (U.S. Navy designation; the Royal Canadian Air Force [RCAF] named her the “Canso”) made her maiden flight on March 21, 1935, and was officially introduced into operational service with the USN in October 1936. She was manufactured by Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, which produced the famous B-24 Liberator heavy bomber of WWII.

The company’s chief designer was Isaac Machlin (“Mac”) Laddon, who received the impetus for his design in 1933 when the Navy, wary of Imperial Japan’s growing influence in the Pacific Ocean, requested competing prototype designs for a flying boat with a range of 3,000 miles and a cruising speed of 100 mph to patrol Pacific seas in search of hostile navy forces.

As noted by the Catalina Preservation Society, “Flying boats were the dominant long-range aircraft of the day in that they did not require runway construction. Laddon was able to draw on Consolidated experience building two previous flying boats for the Navy … The result was the most aerodynamic flying boat ever designed and the most-built flying boat of World War II with a production run of about 3,305.”

Besides the U.S. and Canada, other Allied nations that made good use of the PBY were Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and the USSR. The Soviets began receiving the warbirds under the Lend-Lease Act and then started producing their own under license, renaming their planes the GST (Gidrosamolet transportnii; “seaplane transport”).

Production of the Catalina ended in 1945 with the PBY-6A variant.

Specifications included an empty weight of 21,480 pounds, a gross weight of 36,400 pounds, a fuselage length of 63 feet 10.875 inches, a wingspan of 104 feet, and a height of 21 feet 1 inch.

Max airspeed was 296 miles per hour (170 knots) with a cruise speed of 125 mph (109 knots). Armament consisted of four 50 ‘caliber machine guns and a single .30 caliber machine gun, along with a carrying capacity of either four 1,000-pound bombs, four 650-lb depth charges, or two MK-13-3 torpedoes

Catalina as Lifesaver

The mission by which the Catalina undoubtedly endeared itself most to Allied aircrews and sailors – particularly those who’d been forced to bail out over the water or abandon ship respectively – was that of air-sea-rescue. Known affectionately as “Dumbos” after the famous Disney cartoon flying elephant, the planes and their 10-man crews were responsible for retrieving thousands of downed pilots and shipwrecked seamen.

Catalina as Lifetaker

But the Catalina and her crews were every bit as good at taking Axis lives as they were at saving Allied lives. It’s well-known that PBY crews, in their long-range reconnaissance role, were the first to locate the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway; what is not as well-known is the fact that Catalina actually drew first blood in that epic battle, as early on the morning of June 4, 1942, a PBY torpedoed the fleet tanker Akebono Maru.

Later on in the Pacific Campaign, as noted by the Catalina Preservation Society: “During the Guadalcanal Campaign PBY’s painted matte black were so effective in carrying out night bombing, torpedoing, and strafing missions that they became a standard part of the U.S. Navy’s battle plan. The fourteen Black Cat squadrons flying slowly at night, dipping to ship mast height, sank or damaged thousands of tons of Japanese shipping as well as bombing and strafing land based Japanese installations.”

Meanwhile, during the Battle of the Atlantic, PBYs proved equally adept at fighting Nazi Germany’s U-boat menace. For example, the RCAF’s No. 162 (BR) Squadron was the most successful anti-submarine squadron during  WWII with five Unterseeboote destroyed, one shared sinking and one U-boat damaged. And then there’s the story of RAF officer John Alexander Cruickshank.

On July 17, 1944, then-Flying Officer (later Flight Lieutenant) Cruickshank, piloting a Mk IV PBY Catalina JV928 from the Shetland islands, came under heavy anti-aircraft fire from the U-361. Seriously wounded, Cruickshank disregarded his wounds long enough to press home his attack and sink U-361 on his second pass. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and is the last living recipient to have been awarded the VC during WWII; later this month he will celebrate his 103rd birthday.

Where Are They Now?

The U.S. Navy Reserve retired the Catalina in 1957, and the Brazilian Air Force was the last military entity to retire the plane, doing so in 1982. According to the Catalina Preservation Society, 15 of these history-making warbirds remain airworthy today.

Among them are PBY-5A No. 2459, owned by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts; PBY-6A No. 46662 at the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio, and the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) Museum in Shellharbour City, New South Wales, Australia. 

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Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. 

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).