Simanaitis Says

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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. 

Classic World War II Aircraft Cutaways, by Bill Gunston, in association with The Aeroplane and Flight, Osprey Aerospace, 1997.  

 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.

Image from Wikipedia..

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. 

One of the first foreign operators was the Dutch Air Force, which used PBYs in the East Indies. Image from Classic World War II Aircraft Cutaways.

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.

This and the following image by James Clark in Classic World War II Aircraft Cutaways.

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.”

Note the radar nacelle. Image by CDR John Redfield, USCGR, at the National Museum of Naval Aircraft.

 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 Cat delivers the mail and other supplies to Amchitka, the Aleutians, June 1943. Image from Classic World War II Aircraft Cutaways.

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

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021   


  1. Bob
    September 4, 2021

    You’ve mentioned Antilles Airboats at least twice with the PBY Catalina and the JRF-5 Goose, but have you dealt with the fantastic life of its founder, Chuck Blair. Chuck had an abiding love of passenger seaplanes,
    His ultimate flying boat was two four engine Shorts Sandringhams which were brought the transoceanic clipper capability to his airline.
    Besides other duties in WWII, Blair served as a test pilot for Grumman Aircraft, testing the Grumman F6F Hellcat, Grumman F7F Tigercat, Grumman F8F Bearcat and the ultimate flying boat, the six engine Martin Mars.
    With a modified surplus single engine, single seat P-51C, in 1951 Blair flew non stop from New York to London to test the jet stream, 3,478 miles at an average speed of 446 miles per hour setting a record for a piston engine plane. Then he flew the same plane, without navigator, compass or electronic homing 7500 miles from Norway to Alaska over the North Pole where a magnetic compass is useless, proving the viability of the fuel and time saving polar route that airliners use ever since.
    To cap that off, he proceeded to complete the circuit from Alaska to New York, and was awarded the prestigious Harmon trophy.
    Driven by achievement rather than publicity, he’s almost unknown while Howard Hughes, Paul Mantz and Amelia Earhart are widely recognized for lesser feats.

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