Consolidated PBY Catalina

PBY-5A Catalina BuNo 2459

The Consolidated PBY Catalina was by far the most successful flying boat of the Second World War, and played a major part in the both the war in the Pacific and the Battle of the Atlantic, serving in large numbers with the US Navy and RAF Coastal Command.

The PBY Catalina was a twin engine aircraft capable of land and / or sea landings. The system was crewed from 7 to 9 members depending on the model type and could run the gamut of missions as utilized primarily by the United States Navy. The system first flew in 1935 as a prototype in which Consolidated beat out the Douglas aircraft company in trials for the USN. Production models would begin as the PBY-1 in 1936.

From its introduction to U.S. Naval service in 1936, through its continued international military use into the 1970's, to the recent retirement of the last civilian fire-bomber, the Consolidated PBY Catalina has served a distinguished career as one of the most rugged and versatile aircraft in U.S. history. It was created in response to the U.S. Navy's 1933 request for a prototype to replace the Consolidated P2Y and the Martin P3M with a new patrol-bomber flying boat with extended range and greater load capacity.

The Catalina was created under the guidance of the brilliant aero-engineer Isaac Macklin Laddon. The new design introduced internal wing bracing, which greatly reduced the need for drag-producing struts and bracing wires. A significant improvement over its predecessors, it had a range of 2,545 miles, and a maximum take-off weight of 35,420 lbs. In 1939 the Navy considered discontinuing its use in favor of proposed replacements. The Catalina remained in production, however, because of massive orders placed by Britain, Canada, Australia, France, and the Netherlands. These countries desperately needed reliable patrol planes in their eleventh-hour preparations for WW II. Far from replacing the PBY, the Navy placed its largest single order since WW I for an aircraft.

Over the years, numerous improvements were made to the design. An amphibious version, the PBY-5A, was developed in 1939, through the addition of a retractable tricycle undercarriage. The PBY-6A featured hydrodynamic improvements designed by the Naval Aircraft Factory. The Soviet Union produced a license-built version for their Navy called the GST and powered by Mikulin M-62 radial engines. Boeing Aircraft of Canada built the PB2B-1 and PB2B-2 ("Canso"), and a derivative of the PBY-5A was built by Canadian Vickers. In US Army Air Force service, the aircraft was known as the OA-10A (PBY-5A) and OA-10B (PBY-6A). The Royal Air Force's Coastal Command flew Catalinas under the designations Catalina Mk I/II/III/IV.

A total of approximately 4000 Catalinas were built between 1936 and 1945. Because of their worldwide popularity, there was scarcely a maritime battle in WW II in which they were not involved. The PBY had its vulnerabilities: it was slow, with a maximum speed of 179 mph, and with no crew armor or self-sealing tanks, it was highly vulnerable to anti-aircraft attack. However it was these weaknesses, coincident with the development of effective radar, and Japanese reliance on night transport, which led to the development of the "Black Cat Squadrons." These crews performed nighttime search and attack missions in their black-painted PBYs. The tactics were spectacularly successful and seriously disrupted the flow of supplies and personnel to Japanese island bases.

The Catalinas also proved effective in search and rescue missions, code-named "Dumbo." Small detachments (normally of three PBYs) routinely orbited on stand-by near targeted combat areas. One detachment based in the Solomon islands rescued 161 airmen between January 1 and August 15, 1943, and successes increased steadily as equipment and tactics improved. After WW II, the PBY continued its search and rescue service in many Central and South American countries, as well as in Denmark, until the 1970's.

The Catalina has also proved useful in civilian service: in scheduled passenger flights in Alaska and the Caribbean, in geophysical survey, and mostly, in fire-bombing for the U.S. Forest Service until the recent retirement of the last PBY. Through its long and varied service, the Consolidated PBY Catalina has earned its reputation as the workhorse of naval aviation.

The PBY Catalina was a particularly elegant looking aircraft, with a simple streamlined appearance. This is largely due to the design of the cantilevered parasol wing. On the P2Y this had been connected to the fuselage by a complex system of struts, which also supported two stabiliser floats, while the engines were placed between the wing and the fuselage.

On the Catalina most of the struts were swept away, or were hidden when the aircraft was in flight. The wing was connected to the fuselage by a single large pylon, which also contained the engineer's station, with only one pair of struts on each side, running from the side of the hull to a position just outside the engines. The two engine nacelles were mounted close together on the front of the wing.

The design of the stabiliser floats was particularly clever. Instead of having fixed permanent floats, the Catalina floats folded up into the wing. The stabiliser struts thus disappeared completely, while the floats themselves became the wing tips.

The main fuselage was also simple in design. The top part, containing the crew compartments, was simply the top half of a tube, with a circular roof. The width remained constant from the pilot's compartment to the start of the waist gunner's compartment and then began to taper off towards the tail. The top of the fuselage was level all the way from the cockpit to the start of the tail.

The bottom of the fuselage was shaped like the hull of a boat, which of course it was. This gave all flying boats a distinctive shape, emphasised on the Catalina by the regularity of the upper fuselage.

The tail was mounted far higher than would be the case on a land plane, to take account of the angle at which the aircraft would take off or land. The P2Y had a complex tail structure, with two rudders mounted on top of the horizontal stabiliser, which was itself mounted on top of a tail pylon. In contrast the Catalina had a single vertical tail, with the horizontal stabiliser mounted half way up.

The PBY Catalina was split into seven distinct sections. The Bombardier's compartment was in the nose, with the forward gun turret at the top and the bomb aiming window in the lower front. This window was providing with a sliding cover to protect it when landing or taking off on the water. Looking back through the cockpit of a Catalina Looking back through the cockpit of a Catalina.

The Pilot's compartment was next, in the upper half of the fuselage. Below them was the anchor, and on the later amphibians part of the nose wheel mechanism. The two pilots sat side by side, with the door into the bombardier's compartment between them.

Behind the pilots was the Navigator's, Radio operator's and Radar operator's compartment, normally pictured with the radio operator on the right and the navigator on the left.

Next was the tall mechanic's compartment, which stretched up into the pylon supporting the wing. The mechanic's seat was in the roof of this compartment, accessed up three steps. Small windows in the side of the pylon allowed the engineer to see the engines from inside the aircraft. The base of his seat was cushioned to protect crew members walking underneath! The bottom half of the compartment carried some of the engineering equipment, but also contained a two ring electric cooker, with water tanks. Consolidated Catalina: Rear (tunnel) gunner.

Behind the engineer were the living quarters, complete with bunk beds, an essential feature in an aircraft that might be required to operate in very remote areas, at quite a distance from the nearest base.

Behind the living quarters was the waist gunner's compartment. In the PBY-1 to PBY-4 the guns were mounted behind sliding windows, which opened out and forward. On the PBY-5 these sliding windows were replaced with the famous gun blisters. This compartment also contained a chemical toilet and the life raft.

Finally, at the rear of the fuselage, came the tunnel gunner's position. A single rear firing machine gun was mounted in the floor of this compartment, protected by a hatch when not in use. The gunner fired his gun while in a kneeling position. Late in the production of the PBY-5 ball mountings were added in the side of this compartment, and the single gun could easily be moved between the three firing positions.

Roles in World War II
The final PBY construction figure is estimated at around 4,000 aircraft, and these were deployed in practically all of the operational theatres of World War II. The PBY served with distinction and played a prominent and invaluable role in the war against the Japanese. This was especially true during the first year of the war in the Pacific, because the PBY and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress were the only two available aircraft with the range necessary. As a result, they were used in almost every possible military role until a new generation of aircraft became available.

Anti-submarine warfare
PBYs were the most extensively used ASW aircraft in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of the Second World War, and were also used in the Indian Ocean, flying from the Seychelles and from Ceylon. Their duties included escorting convoys to Murmansk.

Maritime patrol
A PBY-5A of VP-61 over the Aleutian Islands in 1943. In their role as patrol aircraft, Catalinas participated in some of the most notable engagements of World War II. The aircraft's parasol wing and large waist blisters allowed for a great deal of visibility and combined with its long range and endurance, made it well suited for the task.

A Coastal Command Catalina located the German battleship Bismarck on 26 May 1941 while she tried to evade Royal Navy forces.

A flight of Catalinas spotted the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Island, beginning the Battle of Midway. A RCAF Canso flown by Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall foiled Japanese plans to destroy the Royal Navy's Indian Ocean fleet on 4 April 1942 when it detected the Japanese carrier fleet approaching Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Night attack and naval interdiction Several squadrons of PBY-5As and -6As in the Pacific theater were specially modified to operate as night convoy raiders. Outfitted with state-of-the-art magnetic anomaly detection gear and painted flat black, these "Black Cats" attacked Japanese supply convoys at night. Catalinas were surprisingly successful in this highly unorthodox role. Between August 1943 and January 1944, Black Cat squadrons had sunk 112,700 tons of merchant shipping, damaged 47,000 tons, and damaged 10 Japanese warships.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also operated Catalinas as night raiders, with four squadrons Nos. 11, 20, 42, and 43 mounting mine-laying operations from 23 April 1943 until July 1945 in the southwest Pacific deep into Japanese-held waters, that bottled up ports and shipping routes and kept ships in the deeper waters to become targets for US submarines; they tied up the major strategic ports such as Balikpapan that shipped 80% of Japanese oil supplies. In late 1944, their precision mining sometimes exceeded 20 hours in duration from as low as 200 feet in the hours of darkness. One included the bottling up the Japanese fleet in Manila Bay planned to assist General MacArthur's landing at Mindoro in the Philippines. They also operated out of Jinamoc in Leyte Gulf, and mined ports on the Chinese coast from Hong Kong as far north as Wenchow. They were the only non-American heavy bombers squadrons operating north of Morotai in 1945. The RAAF Catalinas regularly mounted nuisance night bombing raids on Japanese bases, they earned the motto of "The First and the Furthest" as a testimony to their design and endurance. These raids included the major base at Rabaul. RAAF aircrews, like their US Navy counterparts, developed 'terror bombs', ranging from mere machine gunned scrap metal and rocks to empty beer bottles with razor blades inserted into the necks, to produce high pitched screams as they fell, keeping Japanese soldiers awake and scrambling for cover.

Search and rescue
PBYs were employed by every branch of the US military as rescue aircraft. A PBY piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Adrian Marks (USN) rescued 56 sailors from the USS Indianapolis after the ship was sunk during World War II. PBYs continued to function in this capacity for decades after the end of the war.

Early commercial
PBYs were also used for commercial air travel. The longest commercial flights (in terms of time aloft) ever made in aviation history were the Qantas flights flown weekly from 29 June 1943 through July 1945 over the Indian Ocean. Qantas offered non-stop service between Perth and Colombo, a distance of 3,592 nm (5,652 km). As the PBY typically cruised at 110 knots, this took from 28–32 hours and was called the "flight of the double sunrise", since the passengers saw two sunrises during their non-stop journey. The flight was made with radio silence (because of the possibility of Japanese attack) and had a maximum payload of 1000 lbs or three passengers plus 65 kg of armed forces and diplomatic mail.

Post-World War II employment
An Australian PBY made the first trans-Pacific flight across the South Pacific between Australia and Chile in 1946, making numerous stops at islands along the way for refueling, meals, and overnight sleep of its crew.

With the end of the war, all of the flying boat versions of the Catalina were quickly retired from the U.S. Navy, but the amphibious ones remained in service for some years. The last Catalina in U.S. service was a PBY-6A operating with a Naval Reserve squadron, which was retired from use on 3 January 1957. The PBY subsequently equipped the world's smaller armed services, in fairly substantial numbers, into the late 1960s.

The U.S. Air Force's Strategic Air Command had PBYs (designated OA-10s) in service as scouting aircraft from 1946 through 1947.

The Brazilian Air Force flew Catalinas in naval air patrol missions against German submarines starting in 1943. The flying boats also carried out air mail deliveries. In 1948, a transport squadron was formed and equipped with PBY-5As converted to the role of amphibious transports. The 1st Air Transport Squadron (ETA-1) was based in the port city of Belem and flew Catalinas and C-47s in well-maintained condition until 1982. Catalinas were convenient for supplying military detachments scattered among the Amazon waterways. They reached places where only long-range transport helicopters would dare to go. ETA-1 insignia was a winged turtle with the motto "Though slowly, I always get there". Today, the last Brazilian Catalina (a former RCAF one) is displayed at the Airspace Museum (MUSAL), in Rio de Janeiro.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau used a PBY-6A (N101CS) as part of his diving expeditions. His second son, Philippe, was killed while attempting a water landing in the Tagus river near Lisbon, Portugal, 28 June 1979. His PBY had just been repaired when he took it out for a flight. As he landed, one of the aircraft's propellers separated, cut through the cockpit and killed the younger Cousteau.

Paul Mantz converted an unknown number of surplus PBYs to flying yachts at his Orange County California hangar in the late 40's/early50's.

Chilean navy captain Roberto Parragué in his PBY Catalina "Manu-Tara" undertook the first flight between Easter Island and the continent (from Chile) and the first flight to Tahiti; making him a national hero of France as well of Chile. The flight wasn't authorized by authorities.

Of the few dozen remaining airworthy Catalinas, the majority of them are in use today as aerial firefighting planes.

  • Model 28 - Base Prototype Model Designation
  • XP3Y-1 - Prototype Model Designation
  • PBY-1 - Initial Production Model featuring improved and more powerful R-1830-64 900hp engines; 60 produced.
  • PBY-2 - Modified United States Navy Model of which 50 were produced.
  • PBY-3 - Fitted with R-1830-66 1,000hp engines of which 66 were produced.
  • PBY-4 - Integrated the recognizable fuselage "blister" gun positions; name "Catalina" is utilized for the series; fitted with R-1830-72 1,050hp radial engines of which 33 produced.
  • PBY-5 - R-1830-82 or R-1830-92 radial engines capable of 1,200hp; export version for UK, Dutch East Indies, Australia and Canada; Tricycle landing gear testing implemented and integrated to final PBY-5 production models making the system completely amphibious; general improvements throughout.
  • PBY-5A - Full Amphibious Variant of which 761 were produced.
  • PBY-5B - Improved Amphibious Model
  • Mk I - RAF Coastal Command Designation of the PBY-5 model series.
  • Canso - Canadian designation of the PBY-5 model series as produced by Canadian Vickers and Boeing of Canada.
  • PBN-1 "Nomad" - Naval Aircraft Factory production model with taller fin and rudder systems; model supplied to the USSR; aerodynamic and hydrodynamic improvements to airframe.
  • PBY-6A - "Amphibians" with search radar installed. OA-10B - United States Air Force Designation of the PBY-6A Catalina amphibians.
  • GST - Model Designation of PBY series as produced by the USSR; unknown production numbers.

Specifications (PBY-5A):

General characteristics

  • Crew: 8 — pilot, co-pilot, bow turret gunner, flight mechanic, radioman, navigator and two waist gunners
  • Length: 63 ft 10 7/16 in (19.46 m)
  • Wingspan: 104 ft 0 in (31.70 m)
  • Height: 21 ft 1 in (6.15 m)
  • Wing area: 1,400 ft² (130 m²)
  • Empty weight: 20,910 lb (9,485 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 35,420 lb (16,066 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2× Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 Twin Wasp radial engines, 1,200 hp (895 kW each) each
  • Zero-lift drag coefficient: 0.0309
  • Drag area: 43.26 ft² (4.02 m²)
  • Aspect ratio: 7.73


  • Maximum speed: 196 mph (314 km/h)
  • Cruise speed: 125 mph (201 km/h)
  • Range: 2,520 mi (4,030 km)
  • Service ceiling: 15,800 ft (4,000 m)
  • Rate of climb: 1,000 ft/min (5.1 m/s)
  • Wing loading: 25.3 lb/ft² (123.6 kg/m²)
  • Power/mass: 0.034 hp/lb (0.056 kW/kg)
  • Lift-to-drag ratio: 11.9


  • 3× .30 cal (7.62 mm) machine guns (two in nose turret, one in ventral hatch at tail)
  • 2× .50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns (one in each waist blister)
  • 4,000 lb (1,814 kg) of bombs or depth charges, torpedo racks were also available


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