Today, satellites are the battle fleet's keenest eyes. But during World War II, crews aboard lumbering flying boats provided distant, early warning of enemy ships and aircraft at sea. 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 after the war to serve special needs but land-based aircraft rapidly 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.
Today, satellites are the battle fleet's keenest eyes but during World War II, crews aboard lumbering flying boats provided distant, early warning of enemy ships and aircraft at sea. 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 after the war to serve special needs but land-based aircraft rapidly 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 refueling.
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 Theater, 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 defend themselves.
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.
In the early 1960s, the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum acquired the last surviving PBY-5 (although a number of PBY-5As still survive). The U.S. Navy had accepted this Catalina on February 28, 1943, and navy crews flew patrols in this airplane from Pensacola, Florida. The flying boat now resides on loan at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida.