The Catalina: A Cat That Likes Water!

The very impressive amphibious ‘Catalina’ served in every maritime theatre of World War II and performed in several different roles including reconnaissance, search-and-rescue (SAR), submarine hunting and anti-shipping, and moving personnel and freight. And it showed up to save the day time and time again.

AvBuyer  |  04th January 2023
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Catalina in-flight

Amid the hunt for the infamous Bismarck, it was an RAF Catalina that first spotted the battleship west of Brest on the 26th of May, 1941. The aircraft was piloted by Ensign Leonard B. “Tuck” Smith of theU.S. Navy who had been stationed with the RAF to help train British pilots. The sighting directly resulted in the Royal Navy locating and sinking the Bismarck the following day.

And on the 15th of February, 1943, U. S. Navy Lt.Nathan Gordon earned the Congressional Medal of honour for rescuing 15 men in some very rough waters at the Bismarck Sea (near Papua New Guinea) under near-continuous enemy fire. So how did this ‘Top Cat’ come to pass? Let’s find out...

During the early 1930's, the US Navy wanted to increase its military presence and offshore ability to patrol strategic areas of the Pacific Ocean. And that's a big ocean! So as ever, coffee was consumed, heads were scratched, and committees were formed. Consolidated Aircraft Corporation came up with the winning formula over their competitor Douglas Aircraft Company; their prototype was the XP3Y-1. This giant of a flying boat included a 'parasol wing' which is a wing not directly attached to the fuselage but fixed in place overhead by a pylon and struts. The massive pylon that supported the parasol-wing incorporated a flight engineer's station. From this unique vantage point, the engineer could closely inspect the two engines mounted either side. The huge wing (some 32 metres in span!) was also home to some remarkable retractable wing floats which ingeniously retracted up into the wing tips, this hugely reduced drag in the cruise compared to other flying boats. But perhaps the most visually notable feature was the two bug eye looking gun blisters fixed in place either side. These had a dual purpose; firstly, they provided an excellent observation point and second, if armed, an additional side defence point as well.

Everyone was very impressed with the work Consolidated had accomplished and the prototype first flew on the 28th of March 1935. The US Navy went on to conduct further testing directly and returned the aircraft back to the manufacturer with some requested upgrades. These includes bigger engines and a change of design to the tail as the first one occasionally went 'submariner' during takeoff! "Good idea!" they said. 

The aircraft needed an operational crew of 10 airmen, namely; a pilot and co-pilot, a bow turret gunner, a flight engineer, a radio operator, a navigator, a radar operator, two waist gunners and a ventral gunner. One of the waist gunners was often also a mechanic who could assist the flight engineer. Satisfied with the results, the US Navy placed an initial order for 60 aircraft, these were designated the 'PBY-1'. Everything was straightforward it seemed, except for the name... 

Naming the Cat!

'PBY' seems an unusual name for any aircraft but it did have appropriate meaning; the 'PB' is short for 'Patrol Boat' and the 'Y' was the code given to the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation; put those together and voila! But, when the aircraft was built under licence by different constructors, who in turn had a different manufacturers code, the designated name was different. This all seemed a bit unnecessary to us Brits, so we simplified the thinking by just calling it the 'Catalina', and the US followed suit in 1942 adopting the same name. The name 'Catalina' is believed to be after a small island in the Pacific, just south of Los Angeles. Interestingly the British liked to name their flying boats after coastal towns or places. 

A Cat with Long Legs!

The Catalina was one of the most massed produced flying boats ever built with over 3,300 aircraft having rolled off (or is it 'floated off') the various production lines. The first deliveries went to a US Naval Base in San Diego, California. When the squadron moved to Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, they flew 12 of the aircraft over in a ‘nonstop’ formation toward the golden beaches of Honolulu.

And the impressive long distance milestones kept coming; down in Panama at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, a Catalina departed and flew a record 3,387 miles non-stop arriving at San Francisco, California having clocked some 34 hours 51 minutes airborne and setting a new record for the longest distance flown by a seaplane in its class. In later years the Catalina also achieved several other notable firsts; the first flight across Australia by a seaplane, the first flight across equatorial Africa by a seaplane and the first flight across the Indian Ocean by any airplane!

As the events of WWII unfolded, the US Navy ordered a further 200 aircraft, these were specified to come with the upgraded 1,050 hp Pratt & Whitney engines (later variants were upgraded again to 1,200 hp engines). Some were also amphibious with the addition of a retractable undercarriage, this design modification was a key feature in the aircraft's commercial future when it's miliary service came to a conclusion.

A Flying Yacht!

The amphibious Catalina found many happy landings (on water and dry land!) in its next lease of life post WWII working on civvy street. Such roles included flying as a passenger aircraft, a freight aircraft and the occasional flying yacht for the discerning sea fairer who wanted to experience the true meaning of the 'high life!’

The utility market took an interest in the type too, for it was a very capable aerial fire fighter and found many years in service in this role. The crew of a Catalina fire bomber could bypass a flight back to base to refill with water if a nearby lake was available, they could land directly on the water and scoop up four tons of water in fourteen seconds! Not so much a ‘touch and go’ but a ‘splash and dash!’.

A truly remarkable aircraft from the day it first got wet! It was aircraft that delivered on its promise to patrol and defend the oceans and in later years to protect persons, property and wildlife against advancing fires.

There’s still quite a few Catalinas in museums around the word and in service and yes… in theory you can own one! Although you probably need to live by the sea if you are interested (or at least near a good size lake!)

Type: “Catalina” (PBY-5A)

Wingspan: 31.7 m

MGW: 16,066 kg

Powerplant: 1,200 hp (x2)

VNE: 196 mph

Cruise speed: 120 mph

Service ceiling: 15,800 ft

For more info on historic aircraft please visit:

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