CONSOLIDATED PBY-5A CATALINA
The 'Cat' is a big graceful aeroplane but it is more than that, it is an aviation legend, the most successful flying boat of any nation in the last war and the most extensively built flying boat in the world. The design originated from a US Navy request in 1933 and the first prototype took to the air in 1935.
At a time when other aeroplanes positively bristled with struts, spars and rigging wires, the Catalina, with its virtually unsupported parasol wing and retractable wingtip stabilising floats, presented a clean and elegant appearance; this contributed to a performance well in excess of any would-be competitors. The US Navy realised the potential of this outstanding aeroplane and the first PBY-1s began to enter service in 1937.
Export orders quickly followed, notably to Russia, where it subsequently went into large-scale production. The RAF evaluated one example and immediately ordered 50 more to serve with Coastal Command and it was these that first carried the name ‘Catalina’, later to be almost universally applied. They also served in Canada (as ‘Canso’), Australia and New Zealand and ultimately in more than a dozen navies worldwide. Demands were such that they were built under licence in Canada and by other US manufacturers, together with an unknown number being built in the USSR.
The models PBY-1 to PBY-4 were ‘pure’ flying boats but the conversion to PBY-5A featured the retractable landing gear that from then on became standard. It is this, the amphibious version, that is the most widely known and still continues today as a charter aircraft, survey ship, SAR and fire bomber; not bad for a mid-thirties design!
There are scores of stories about the ‘Cats’ and their crews; they served in every theatre of WWII and their peacetime efforts helped to open up some of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the world.
During the war, civilian Catalinas operated by QANTAS successfully maintained the vital air link between Australia and Ceylon; they made 271 crossings between July 1943 and July 1945, each one of 3,500 miles, completed in total radio silence with minimal navigation aids. The relief of the exhausted crew on making the eventual landfall can only be imagined. The courage of the wartime Catalina crews is epitomised by the award of VCs to two of their pilots, Flt. Lt. David Hornell of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Flying Officer J. Cruikshank RAF.