Consolidated PBY Catalina

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Consolidated PBY Catalina

Formed at East Greenwich, Rhode Island on May 29, 1923 by Major Reuben Fleet, the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation was one of the first aircraft firms established by acquiring the assets of existing companies. Fleet purchased the Gallaudet Aircraft Corporation from its founder and namesake, Edson Gallaudet, as well as the rights to Dayton-Wright designs from General Motors, the latter having left the aviation industry. During World War 1 Fleet had served as a pilot in the US Army and had gone on to help organise the Army Airmail Service in 1918. He was also a gifted salesman and was able to use his contacts within the army to help his business, resulting in more than 200 various versions of the Consolidated PT-1 and NY trainers being sold to the US Army and Navy as well as overseas. This early success came at a price for Consolidated when, in 1927, it was targeted by the US Congress for earning "excess profits" of $300,000 on trainer production. In a shrewd move, Fleet arranged for Consolidated to provide a further 50 trainers to the army at a cost of only $1.00 per aircraft. By doing this, Consolidated avoided having to refund the money and also helped the army who received the extra aircraft while any refund would have gone straight to the US Treasury.

In 1928 the company moved into the old Curtiss factory in Buffalo, New York and began work on the XPY-1 Admiral patrol-bomber in the hope of securing a US Navy contract. The navy failed to show any interest in the Admiral so the company decided to press on by itself and build the XPY-1 as a civil transport aircraft called the Commodore. An improved version of the Commodore, the P2Y-1, finally attracted the attention of the navy in 1931 and a small number were purchased for use in the patrol-bomber role.

Improvements to the design of the P2Y-1 continued, resulting in the Model 28 which was then submitted to the US Navy in response to a 1932 competition for a new flying boat. On October 28, 1933 both Consolidated and Douglas were awarded a contract for production of a single prototype for evaluation purposes. The Model 28 (c/n 9459) was given the designation XP3Y-1 flew for the first time on March 21, 1935. Although loosely based on the earlier P2Y-1, it featured many improvements. Metal was chosen as the main construction material and the twin tail layout of previous designs was replaced by a single vertical stabiliser and rudder. The parasol wing of the Commodore was retained, supported by a massive central pylon that housed the flight engineer's station. From this position, the engineer could inspect the twin 825 hp Pratt and Whitney R-1830-58 engines mounted in the wing's leading edge. Hinged outrigger floats which folded up after takeoff were fitted to the wingtips and provision was made for a 2,000 lb bomb load to be carried on under-wing racks.

Following thorough testing, the XP3Y-1 was declared the winner over the Douglas prototype, re-designated the XPBY-1, and a production contract was awarded to Consolidated. The US Navy initially ordered 60 aircraft in1936 with the Navy Patrol Squadron VP-11F receiving the first production PBY-1s late the same year. The production PBY-1 was fitted with 850 hp Pratt and Whitney R-1830-6 engines but otherwise differed little from the prototype. A further 50 aircraft were ordered shortly after the initial order. These were delivered as PBY-2s and featured slight modifications to the tail along with the ability to carry a heavier load of ordinance on the under-wing racks. Towards the end of 1936, yet another order for a further 66 aircraft was placed by the navy. Designated PBY-3 and powered by 900 hp R-1830-66 engines, they were delivered to the navy by December 1937 along with 33 PBY-4s (powered by 1,050 hp R-1830-72 engines). Several of the last PBY-4s had the sliding beam hatches replaced by distinctive Perspex blisters housing a single 0.5 in machine gun each, a feature that was retained on all subsequent versions of the aircraft.

The PBY was released for export in 1938 and 3 PBY-3s were sold to Russia along with manufacturing rights. Russia went on to construct a large number under the designation GST which were powered by the locally produced 900 - 1,000 hp Mikulin M-62 radial engines. By this stage, Consolidated engineers felt they could not improve on the PBY series and decided that it was time for an entirely new design. This idea was stopped in its tracks with the start of World War 2 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's subsequent order that the US Navy was to cover vast areas of the Atlantic Ocean with the "neutrality patrol". The navy now needed as many long range patrol aircraft as quickly as possible so an order for a further 200 aircraft was placed with Consolidated on December 20, 1939. The company responded by supplying the navy with the PBY-5 which entered service on September 18, 1940. This version had new horizontal and vertical tail surfaces and another power plant change to 1,050 hp R-1830-82 engines; later models were to receive 1,200 hp R-1830-92 engines.

Previously, in April 1939 a single PBY-4 (c/n 1245) was returned to Consolidated for conversion to amphibious configuration. Tricycle landing gear was fitted, the main wheels retracting into wells in the side of the fuselage and the nose wheel retracting to be covered by automatically operated hatches. Once the conversion had been completed and tested, the aircraft was designated XPBY-5A and offered to the navy for evaluation. After further testing, the navy ordered that all PBY-5s still on the production line be converted to PBY-5A standard and placed an order for an additional 134.

As the war progressed demand for the aircraft increased. In 1941 and 1942 contracts for 586 PBY-5s, 627 PBY-5As and 225 PBY-5Bs was placed by the Royal Air Force under the lend-lease scheme. The RAF named the aircraft the Catalina after Santa Catalina Island in California, a name which was to eventually be adopted by other users. In order to keep up with demand, Consolidated contracted several companies to license build versions of the PBY-5 and 5A. Boeing Aircraft of Canada built 362 as the PB2B-1 and PB2B-2, the latter being non-amphibious. Canadian Vickers also built 379 PBY-5As as PBV-1As with 149 being delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force as the Canso and the remainder ending up with the US Army Air Force as OA-10As. The USAAF aircraft supplemented the 56 PBY-5As that had already been transferred from the US Navy as OA-10s and were mainly used for search and rescue missions. In this role, the Catalina earned the nickname "Dumbo" due to its resemblance to the well known Walt Disney cartoon character. The name was soon applied to any rescue aircraft regardless of it type.

The final production version of the Catalina was the PBY-6A, based on a slightly revised version built by the Naval Aircraft Factory at Philadelphia as the PBN-1 Nomad. The PBY-6A featured a sharper bow, a 20-degree taper step amidships, 26 inches added to the height of the vertical stabilizer and rudder and a radome mounted above the cockpit. The US Navy ordered 900 of this variant early in 1945 but the end of World War 2 saw only 175 completed. By the time the final PBY-6A rolled off the Consolidated Vultee (the 2 companies having merged in March 1943) production line in April 1945 approximately 4,000 had been built (the exact number built in Russia is uncertain), the largest production run of any flying boat design.

In addition to those serving with the US Navy, USAAF, RAF and RCAF the Catalina saw service with the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal New Zealand Air Force. The RNZAF operated a total of 56 aircraft between 1943 and 1953, these being a combination of 22 PBY-5s and 34 PB2B-1s. The PBY-5s arrived between April and October of 1943 and were initially based at Lauthala Bay, Fiji with No.6 Squadron and then No.3 (Flying Boat) Operational Training Unit. The PB2B-1s were delivered during 1944 and also went to Lauthala Bay to re-equip the Flying Boat OTU and form No. 5 Squadron. The RNZAF aircraft later saw service in various locations throughout the Pacific theatre before returning to New Zealand following the war. The majority of the surviving Catalina's were stored at Hobsonville as reserves with only 6 to 8 being used in post-war service until the arrival of the first of 16 ex-RAF Sunderland Mk.5s in 1953. These eventually replaced the Catalinas which then went the way of so many wartime aircraft and were sold for scrap. Two aircraft were loaned to TEAL, the forerunner of Air New Zealand, as a crew trainer (NZ4035, ZK-AMU) and to survey a flying boat route to Tahiti (NZ4038, ZK-AMP).

Following their retirement from US service shortly after the war, many Catalinas continued to be used by commercial operators carrying passengers and freight to parts of the world that lacked suitable airfields. Large numbers were also used as fire bombers. A Catalina fire bomber could land on a lake and take on four tons of water in 14 seconds while land-based aircraft had to waste valuable time returning to an airfield to refill their tanks. Catalinas also went on to equip many of the world's smaller armed services with several countries using them until the late 1970s. New Zealand's only airworthy Catalina, ZK-PBY, is owned and operated by the Catalina Group of New Zealand and is a Canadian Vickers built "Canso". The aircraft was purchased by the group in 1994 and has been painted as NZ4017 (XX-T) of No.6 squadron, RNZAF. It is one of the few remaining airworthy Catalinas in the world. A second Catalina is held by the RNZAF Museum awaiting restoration. This aircraft was imported from New Guinea by the Museum of Transport and Technology in 1979 after lying abandoned and vandalised for several years. 

Text © 2002 Stuart Russell. 


Engine: Two 894kW (1,200hp) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 radial 

Wingspan: 31.7m (104ft) 

Length: 19.46m (63ft 10in) 

Max T-O weight: 16,066kg (35,420lb) 

Max speed: 282km/h (175mph) 

Range: 3,782km (2,350miles)


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