TWENTY-SIX MILES ACROSS THE SEA, A PBY HAS TRANSPORTED ME
ACTUALLY IT WAS a bit farther, around 65 miles from the harbors of St. Thomas to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The PBY Catalina was flown by Antilles Airboat, with even its iconic side bubbles occupied by paying passengers.
Here are tidbits on the Consolidated PBY Catalina gleaned from Bill Gunston’s Classic World War II Aircraft Cutaways, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.
PBY Genesis. The design goal was long-range operation capable of locating and attacking enemy transport ships. Flying boats had the advantage of not needing runways.
The term PBY was U.S. Navy designation for Patrol Bomber, with the Y identifying Consolidated Aircraft as the manufacturer. Bill Gunston observed, “Rather unusually the U.S. Navy adopted the British name,” Catalina honoring California’s island “26 miles across the sea.” Canadian variants were called Cansos, after a Nova Scotia coastal town; their Canadian assembly was by Boeing Vancouver using U.S. components.
The first flight of a PBY came on March 21, 1935. Production aircraft entered service in the U.S. Navy in October 1936.
PBY Features. The craft’s parasol wing was carried on the fuselage’s streamlined pylon which also housed the flight engineer. In time, others of a 10-man crew included pilot, copilot, bow turret gunner, radio operator, navigator, radar operator, ventral gunner low just aft of the hull’s step, and waist gunners in the side bubbles.
Gunston notes, “An innovation was the way the tip floats retracted outwards, under electric power, to form the tips on the wings. Though the PBY typically cruised at a mere 99 kts [113 mph], on a 30-hour mission the small drag saving was probably significant.”
In describing the fine illustrations by James Clark, Gunston says, “Clark did an insert showing crew stations and equipment. The Catalina I, which he drew, corresponded to the PBY-5. This was the first version to have the enormous blisters which were marvellous observation points.”
I recall they were great for viewing the Antilles Airboats’ Puerto Rican approach: straight toward the buildings of San Juan, then sharply turning onto its harbor.
Operational History. Gunston wrote, “Total production in North America was 3290, plus an as-yet unverified number in the Soviet Union…. The ‘Cat’ served with every Allied air force or naval air force. An increasing proportion were fitted with radar, at first with external dipole antennas and finally with a gumballed-dish scanner in a streamlined nacelle carried on a pylon above the cockpit.”
Gunston continued, “U.S. Navy units in both the Atlantic and Pacific did marvelous work, usually painted white (as were RAF Coastal Command aircraft from 1942, though in the Pacific the most famous units flew black Cats by night.”
A Noteworthy Find. “Probably,” Gunston wrote, “the RAF remembers the Cat chiefly because on 26 May 1941, a Catalina of No. 209 Sqn found the Bismarck after the Royal Navy had lost contact and Cats shadowed this formidable enemy until she could be brought to battle.”
A Gunston Recollection. In conclusion, Gunston wrote, “My abiding memory of these fine aircraft was their glider-like quality, the wing being too big to need flaps and the engines seldom needing high powers, which made for modest noise levels (so unlike a Shackleton). My only disconcerting moment was in a U.S. Army OA-10 amphibian version at Northhold. Looking back from the blister, with engines idling, the tail was vibrating and rocking so wildly I was sure something would break. We took off, and from then on the tail was steady as a rock!”
I don’t recall looking back at idle in the Antilles Cat. ds