The Consolidated PBY Catalina was the U.
S. Navy's most successful patrol flying boat of the war but naval aviators
also used the PBY to attack ships at night, and to search for and rescue
people stranded at sea. Following World War II, large seaplanes and flying
boats suffered a mass extinction. The war caused a tremendous surge in
concrete runway construction around the world, and wartime research and
development pushed the range of aircraft beyond the span of the world's
oceans. Seaplanes continued for some years to serve special needs but
land-based aircraft became more efficient at delivering most goods and
services whether commercial or military.
Many aviation experts considered the PBY
Catalina obsolete when the war started but combat proved the critics
wrong. The 'Cat' had two noteworthy attributes that made the airplane
prized by American aviators and the flight crews of other Allied nations:
great range and excellent durability. By VJ Day, August 15, 1945,
Consolidated and its licensees had built 3,282 PBYs, more than any flying
boat or seaplane ever built.
Reuben Hollis Fleet founded the
Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in May 1923 at East Greenwich, Rhode
Island. Fleet had been an army aviator during World War I, served as the
first Officer-in-Charge of the U. S. Airmail after the war, and later
Contracting Officer for the U. S. Army Air Service. In 1928, the old
Curtiss works at Buffalo, New York, housed the company. That year, Fleet
started a long association with military flying boats when he began
working on the XPY-1 Admiral patrol bomber. Isaac M. Laddon, whom Fleet
hired the pervious year, became the project engineer. Consolidated could
not entice the cash-strapped Navy into buying this twin-engine,
parasol-wing, monoplane flying boat but the company pressed on to build
and operate the airplane as a civil transport called the Commodore.
In 1931, an improved version of the
Commodore, designated the P2Y-1, finally drew the Navy's attention and
procurement officers purchased a number of these aircraft to operate as
patrol bombers. Consolidated continued to refine this design and in 1933,
the Navy ordered a new prototype called the XP3Y-1. Consolidated engineers
improved this variant in several significant ways. They adopted metal as
the primary construction material for the entire flying and they fitted it
with a single vertical stabilizer and rudder rather than the twin-tail
used on earlier versions. The massive pylon that supported the
parasol-wing above the fuselage incorporated a flight engineer's station.
From this vantage point, the engineer could closely inspect the two
engines mounted on the leading edge of the wing. Engineers also suspended
outrigger floats from each wingtip, hinged to fold up after takeoff. The
XP3Y-1 had provisions for bomb racks that held 907 kg (2,000 lb) of bombs.
The new aircraft impressed Navy leaders and they ordered it into
production as the PBY-1, or Patrol Bomber, Consolidated design number 1.
The 'Cat' was off and running.
Following the first XPY3-1 flight on
March 21, 1935, the Navy ordered sixty production PBY-1s. Improved
variants followed and Consolidated also sold commercial versions. The
PBY-2 had a revised tail structure, and the PBY-3 used 1,000-horsepower
Pratt & Whitney R-1830-66 engines more powerful than the earlier
900-horsepower R-1830-64s. The airplane company built a small number of
the PBY-4 version equipped with 1,050-horsepower R-1830-72s. Several of
these flying boats had gun mounts built into Plexiglas blisters on the aft
fuselage that replaced the waist gun hatches built into previous variants.
Engineers also revised the tail structure and engine nacelles.
At this time, Fleet and Laddon believed
they could not significantly improve the PBY series, and that it was time
for an entirely fresh, new design. Hitler's invasion of Poland erased this
notion. Now the U. S. Navy needed many long-range patrol aircraft, as
quickly as it could acquire them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had
ordered the Navy to cover vast areas of the U. S. coastline "extending
several hundred miles" into the Atlantic, the 'Neutrality Patrol.' On
December 20, 1939, the U.S. Navy ordered 200 PBY-5s. This latest edition
in the PBY line incorporated the changes tested on the PBY-4s mentioned
above, plus more powerful engines. The PBY-5 could fly at a maximum speed
of about 282 kph (175 mph) at an altitude of about 2,128 m (7,000 ft). The
airplane had a service ceiling of about 4,469 m (14,700 ft) and the crew
could fly the PBY-5 a distance of about 4,097 km (2,545 miles) without
The demand for production Catalinas
became so great that Consolidated contracted with these companies to build
license versions of the PBY-5: Naval Aircraft Factory built modified '-5s
as the PBN-1 Nomad, Boeing Aircraft of Canada built the PB2B-1 and '-2,
and Canadian Vickers Ltd. built the Canso for the Royal Canadian Air
Force, and the OA-10A for the U. S. Army Air Forces. The final development
model of the PBY series was the PBY-6A, equipped with new radar, twin .50
caliber guns in a power-driven bow turret, and a new tail with a taller
vertical fin first seen on the PBN-1.
War in Europe led other Allied
combatants to ask for PBYs. Catalinas served with Britain's Royal Air
Force (RAF), patrolling far-flung reaches of the British Empire. The RAF
actually named the aircraft the Catalina, after Santa Catalina Island,
California. An RAF PBY of 209 Squadron, with American Navy Ensign Leonard
B. Smith flying as co-pilot, sighted the elusive German Battleship
"Bismarck" on May 26, 1941, and the Royal Navy promptly sank the menacing
warship the following day. PBYs also went to Australia and the Netherlands
East Indies. During the Battle of the Atlantic, PBYs sank a number of
U-boats but forced many more to remain submerged during daylight. This
forced the German submarines to recharge their batteries at night, wasting
valuable time otherwise spent attacking Allied ships. In the European
Theatre, most military operators did not put the Catalinas and their crews
directly in harm's way. Most commanders felt that the PBY lacked the
defensive armament to fend off Luftwaffe fighters and patrol aircraft such
as the Focke Wulf FW 200 Condor or the Junkers Ju 88 but several dramatic
duels with these aircraft disproved the idea that PBY crews could not
In the Pacific, the Catalina crews
purposely sought direct combat with the Japanese. At Pearl Harbor on
December 7, 1941, the Japanese destroyed most of six squadrons of U.S.
Navy PBYs. Just before the raid, a Catalina assisted in spotting and
attacking one of the Japanese midget submarines that attempted to sneak
into the harbor. Less than six months later, Navy Catalinas got their
opportunity for revenge. On June 3, 1942, PBYs of U. S. Navy Patrol
Squadron VP-44 spotted the Japanese fleet steaming at high speed toward
Midway Island. This timely sighting gave the U.S. fleet the opportunity to
surprise the enemy fleet with an attack by torpedo and dive bombers
launched from the aircraft carriers "Hornet," "Enterprise," and
"Yorktown." The ensuing battle marked the turning point in the Pacific War
after dive bombers sank four Japanese aircraft carriers.
Navy flight crews aboard PBYs also
played an important role in the Guadalcanal campaign. They spotted and
attacked many Japanese ships attempting to land reinforcements on the
island. Navy Catalinas equipped with radar and painted black also attacked
Japanese shipping at night. These "Black Cat" raids were highly effective
and usually caught the Japanese by surprise. PBY crews also dive-bombed
land targets in the Aleutian Islands. Navy PBY airmen also conducted "Dumbo"
rescue missions that saved countless airmen and sailors adrift in the
Pacific Ocean. On February 15, 1943, U. S. Navy Lt. Nathan Gordon earned
the Congressional Medal of Honor for rescuing 15 airmen in rough seas
under near-continuous enemy fire.
The PBY-5 and all earlier versions were
true flying boats without the means to land on any medium except water.
Sailors could wrestle the big Catalina ashore and park it using wheeled
beaching gear but the process was slow and difficult. Trying to repair or
maintain the airplane in the water could also be very challenging.
Consolidated first flew an improved PBY-5A with a retractable
undercarriage during November 1939. The amphibian capability breathed new
life into the design and made the Catalina ideal for the new Emergency
Rescue Squadrons (ERS) that the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) began forming
in 1943. The ERS Catalinas, designated OA-10s, provided crucial air rescue
cover for crews forced to bail out or ditch over the ocean. This ERS
became critical in the Pacific, once USAAF Boeing B-29 Superfortresses
(see NASM collection) began operations against the Japanese home islands.
The bombers often flew at the limit of their range, and even relatively
minor damage could force the aircrews to ditch.
After the war, many PBYs continued to
fly for commercial operators. Civil Cat' crews carried passengers and
freight in far-flung areas of the world that lacked suitable airfields.
Many post war PBYs became fire bombers. The crew of a Catalina fire bomber
could land on a lake and scoop four tons of water in fourteen seconds. The
crews of land-based aircraft had to waste valuable time returning to an
airfield to refill their tanks.
||U.S. Navy / Marines
||1,400.0 sq ft
||130.0 sq m
No. of Engines:
||Pratt & Whitney