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The Consolidated Catalina And Variants

A brief type history by David Legg

The PBY Catalina series of flying boats was originally conceived to meet a military requirement and its development built on Consolidated’s experience with earlier flying boat designs. These earlier types had included the commercial Model 16 Commodore and the military Model 22 Ranger/P2Y series.

The Commodore was itself a development of the Model 9 Admiral, or XPY-1 to give it its US Navy designation. The XPY-1 was designed as a US Navy flying boat with the capability of linking the United States West Coast with Hawaii. It was a metal twin-engined monoplane – the first US Navy monoplane seaplane – with a crew of five, the two pilots being in an exposed cockpit, the navigator in the bow, the radio operator in the centre section and the engineer aft. Armament consisted of one 0.30 in machine gun forward of the cockpit and two further 0.30 in guns in an open area further back along the upper hull. Power came from two 450 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1340-38 Wasp engines, although, later, a third engine was installed above the wing. The XPY-1 first flew on 10th January 1929, from Anacostia in Maryland, but it was destined to be a limited edition of one, the Navy ordering the cheaper Martin XP2M and P3M flying boat instead. The solitary Admiral was given the military
serial A-8011.

The start of the line – the Model 9 Admiral or XPY-1 Photo: David Legg Collection

Although the Admiral was not a success in terms of military orders, it did give rise to interest from the commercial sector, and this led to the Consolidated Model 16, or Commodore. Design changes included more powerful engines in the shape of two Pratt & Whitney R-1860 Hornets Bs of 575 hp each and a hull that could accommodate up to 32 passengers in some luxury. Initially, it had been hoped that the new type would be sold to the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, which had plans to use the Commodore between destinations around Lake Erie, and to Pan American Airways, but in the event no orders materialised. However, orders did come from Tri-Motor Safety Airways, which wanted to use the type to link North and South America. The prototype first flew on 28th September 1929, and in due course fourteen were built at the Consolidated factory at Buffalo, New York. All those built operated with the launch customer, which, by the time of the first delivery, had been renamed New York, Rio & Buenos Aires Line, or NYRBA, only to be merged with Pan American in September 1930. Production of the Commodore ceased in the following November.

Although the fact that Consolidated’s founder Reuben Fleet was directly involved in the management of NYRBA clearly enabled his company to produce and sell his own design, the Commodore none-the-less indicated that Consolidated was able to build a successful flying boat for commercial use. The next flying boat to be built by the company, however, was another design for the military.

Again based on the earlier, unsuccessful Model 9 Admiral monoplane flying boat, the Model 22 Ranger shared the same upper wing but also incorporated a lower, shorter-span wing supporting the two floats. It too had a covered cockpit for the flight crew as on the Commodore, and it was at first powered by three Wright R-1820E Cyclones of 575 hp, later reduced to two. Given the US Navy designation XP2Y-1 and serial Bu8939, the initial example took to the air for the first time on 26th March 1932.

Consolidated went on to produce another 23 twin-engined P2Y-1s for the US Navy, and these were allocated serials Bu8986 to 9008. The final aircraft was completed in June 1933, and was modified a few months later to become the first PY2-2 powered by two 750 hp R-1820-88s. These engines were mounted upon the wing leading edge rather than between the hull and the upper wing as on the P2Y-1. Nearly all of the latter were subsequently upgraded to P2Y-2 standard. The two unconverted aircraft were exported, one to Colombia for air force use and the other to Japan. Incredibly, the South American aircraft remained in service until as late as 1948, by which time it had been supplemented by a number of Catalinas. The Japanese example was used commercially during World War Two.

There followed a further 23 P2Y-3s (Bu9551 to 9571 and 9618 to 9619) of similar configuration to the P2Y-2 but with uprated R-1820-90 engines and greater fuel capacity. A further six were produced to meet an Argentine Navy order in mid-1936, and these flew on until 1947 when, like the Colombian P2Y-1, they were replaced by Catalinas. The US Navy aircraft were used by various patrol squadrons, and many ended up at NAS Pensacola in Florida, where they were used to train flying boat crews, including many who were later to become RAF Catalina personnel.

A twin-engined P2Y-3 at San Diego showing the high strut-mounted wing and much shorter shoulder-mounted lower wing with floats attached Photo: David Legg Collection

The Commodore and Ranger designs only bore a passing resemblance to the PBY inasmuch as the side profile of the lower hull and step were similar. Both types showed evidence of reliability and the capability of long distance flight for both military and commercial users, and it was whilst the early examples of the P2Y series were being produced that the Consolidated designer, Isaac Laddon, began design work on what was to eventually become the Consolidated Model 28/PBY Catalina series.

This design was known initially by its military designation XP3Y-1, and was prompted by a 1933 United States Navy contest inviting manufacturing companies to submit entries to meet the requirements for a military patrol flying boat with an operational range of 3,000 miles and a cruise of 100 mph. Consolidated submitted its design and the US Navy liked what it saw. Reuben Fleet’s company was rewarded with a contract to build one aircraft at the end of October 1933. Rival firm Douglas had previously been given a similar contract to develop its own submission – the XP3D-1; indeed, the Douglas aircraft was the first to fly, beating the Consolidated aircraft off the water by more than a month.

Isaac Laddon incorporated a number novel features into his XP3Y-1 layout, in particular the pylon-mounted parasol wing and the retractable floats that changed the flying boat’s wingspan in flight. The competing Douglas, on the other hand, was rather more conventional, slightly smaller overall, with the wing mounted shoulder-like high up the hull sides and with engines raised above the wing surface on pylons. The powerplant chosen for both the designs was the 825 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-58 Twin Wasp, a good choice that in uprated versions was to see the PBY series through to the end of production in 1945. Performance for both the XP3Y-1 and XP3D-1 was broadly similar, although the Consolidated design had the edge. What really clinched the Consolidated aircraft for the Navy, however, was the unit price – the Douglas design at $110,000 was as much as $20,000 dearer than the XP3Y-1. It will never be known whether the Douglas aircraft would have gone on to be such a famous and durable design as the Catalina had it won through and been accepted by the US Navy.

The sole XP3Y-1 was built at Buffalo in New York, construction starting toward the end of 1933. Its first flight was undertaken from the Naval Air Station at Norfolk in Virginia, this decision being taken because of the possibility of icing on Buffalo’s Niagara River. The almost complete airframe was taken by rail to Norfolk NAS, where final assembly took place and the maiden flight was successfully achieved on 21st March 1935. Further test flights were conducted from Norfolk and Anacostia. The flying boat was given the US Navy serial Bu9459.

The US Navy made a few recommendations for modifications, which included a rear hull extension, the installation of a gun position in the lower hull aft of the keel and a revised profile to the bow turret. Generally, though, the clean lines of the hull and wings were to remain virtually unaltered through all the subsequent versions of the PBY. The only major change to the design came during the Second World War, when the Naval Aircraft Factory came up with the rather more aggressive-looking PBN-1 Nomad. However, one particular problem dogged the design from beginning to end – directional stability. The XP3Y-1 alone underwent three changes of rudder profile, and even after these were introduced, problems persisted. In fact, rudder re-design was to be a feature of the subsequent Consolidated Model 28/PBY series throughout its design life and even on into the post-war period! In all other respects, however, Laddon had got it right. The prototype received uprated engines in the shape of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 of 850 hp and it became the XPBY-1 prototype.

Prior to being re-engined, Bu9459 proved its ability to make long-distance flights by completing the journey between Norfolk, Virginia and Coco Solo, Panama Canal Zone, then flying on to San Francisco, California. This occurred in October 1935, and the latter leg created a record for the longest distance flown by a seaplane up to that time.

Satisfied with its choice, the US Navy placed its first order with Consolidated at the end of June 1935, this being for a total of 60 aircraft to be known as the PBY-1, and the company began to plan production at its new facility at Lindbergh Field, San Diego, California. Incidentally, the PBY designation recognised the type’s ability to operate not only in the originally intended patrol role but also as a bomber – P=Patrol, B=Bomber, Y=Consolidated. Service deliveries began in September of the following year, with the first examples going to VP-6 and VP-11, both based at the Navy’s North Island facility across San Diego Bay from the Consolidated factory. The former squadron soon relocated to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and flew its twelve aircraft in a non-stop formation delivery flight, a feat to be copied by various other squadrons as they took on aircraft and left the USA to establish their new overseas bases. Other squadrons to take delivery of PBY-1s included VP-12 at Sands Point, Washington, and VP-3 at the Panama Canal Base of Coco Solo.

The sixty PBY-1s gave good patrol squadron service during the pre-war period, and a number were still based in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 though all had been relegated to second-line service by then. None were to remain in use in post-war peacetime. This first US Navy batch of PBYs was serialled consecutively in the sequence Bu0102 to Bu0161.

Even before the first of the 60 PBY-1s were delivered, the US Navy issued a follow-on order in July 1936 for 50 aircraft to be designated PBY-2 and serialled Bu0454 to Bu0503. The main distinguishing feature between the PBY-1 and PBY-2 was a re-designed horizontal tail and elevator assembly, although some of the PBY-2s also had Curtiss props rather than Hamilton Standards. In addition, the PBY-2 had an increased bomb load capability. Deliveries began in the summer of 1937, and the PBY-2 flew with VP Squadrons 2, 7, 10, 11 and 17 from bases in the USA, Hawaii and the Canal Zone. By mid-1942, the remaining PBY-2s had been relegated to second-line, training and support roles, and like its predecessor, had been withdrawn from use entirely by the war’s end.

A PBY-2 of US Navy patrol squadron VP-11 clearly showing the soon-to-be familiar Catalina lines but with earlier rudder design Photo: David Legg Collection

The next US Navy order was for 66 PBY-3s, placed in November 1936. Again, only detail differences distinguished the new variant. It shared the PBY-2’s tail re-design but was powered by the more powerful P&W R-1830-66 of 900 hp rather than the earlier –64, and this change necessitated a relocation of the carburettor air intake from underneath the lower cowling to above the top cowling close to the exhaust outlet. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, the US Navy flew PBY-3s within VP Squadrons 7 and 9 at San Diego; 4, 18, 21 and 22 at Pearl Harbor and VP-5 at Coco Solo. The type also equipped Seattle-based VP-16 and VP-32. A number of PBY-3s were lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and subsequently this variant followed the lead of its two earlier versions and was relegated to second-line tasks, with some examples still being on US Navy charge as late as May 1945. The 66 PBY-3s carried the Bu numbers 0842 to 0907.

A further change of powerplant to the 1050 hp R-1830-72 and the addition of prop-spinners distinguished the PBY-4 from the PBY-3. However, the PBY-4 was to be produced in smaller numbers, only 33 being ordered, with serials Bu1213 to 1245, of which 32 were actually built as PBY-4s. They served with VP-1 (later VP-21 for a while) at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, where the Squadron was designated VP-101. It also equipped VP-18 at Pearl Harbor. The latter squadron was renumbered VP-26 in July 1939, and went out to the Philippines to become VP-102. It was around this time that the US Navy PBYs began to lose their colourful pre-war liveries and started to adopt a more sober blue-grey. Although the type continued in use after the outbreak of hostilities, it was declared obsolete by the war’s end. Like the PBY-1, -2 and -3 before it, none served as either military or commercial aircraft beyond 1945.

Consolidated continued to look at the PBY design and make modifications to it. Three of the last PBY-4s (serials Bu1241, 1242 and 1243) were used as pattern aircraft for rear hull blister gun emplacements installed in place of the sliding hatches that had been employed up to that point. They also had minor modifications to the rudder trailing edge. Bu1241/13-P-12 of VP-13 was also used for trials of yet another vertical tail/rudder design, and both the blisters and the new rudder were to become standard for the PBY-5 variant to follow.

With all PBYs delivered and no further orders from the US military forthcoming, future prospects for the type were not looking so rosy by the summer of 1939. However, events in Europe were to change all that and lead to production levels that could never have been envisaged when the XP3Y-1 was first on the drawing board! The British ordered Model 28-5s/PBY-5s in some number, and this revitalised production. The US Navy also ordered 200 PBY-5s with 1,050 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-72 engines at the end of December 1939, with deliveries beginning in the following September although the final 33 aircraft were built as PBY-5As. Follow-on orders continued as the war progressed and the USA’s involvement in it expanded. The British-inspired name Catalina was bestowed on the type, the USA also adopting this sobriquet, and thereafter it became the type’s official name, although, it continued to be called the PBY by many US servicemen, along with other less polite nicknames!

A fine air-to-air of VP-44’s aircraft ‘2’ Photo: via Barry Dowsett

As mentioned above, the final PBY-4 was not initially delivered to the US Navy for squadron use but was retained by the manufacturers for further design work. In fact, it was used for trials of the amphibious undercarriage system that was to provide future Catalinas with so much flexibility and that was ultimately to ensure the type’s longevity. Bu1245 had its weight increased by 2,300 lbs through the addition of two main wheel units, a nose wheel assembly and associated wheel well bays and doors. Although at first it was not fitted with blisters and it retained the original shape PBY-4 rudder, it became the prototype PBY-5A (XPBY-5A), first flying as such on 2nd November 1939. The US Navy, realising the type’s potential, decided that its then current order for PBY-5s should be amended to PBY-5As, and thereafter ordered many more. The British remained distinctly cool about the added wheels, however, and stuck to the pure flying boat variant, although one small order for twelve amphibious Catalina IIIs was placed.

As an interesting aside, Bu1245 was later delivered to the US Navy and used as a staff transport in both the Atlantic and Canal Zones. Starting in March 1943, it underwent modifications that saw it lose its amphibious undercarriage but gain a PBY-5 tail and blisters. More radically, it lost its bow turret in favour of a faired-over ‘clipper’ bow – shades of things to come in the post-war commercial sector – and had an internal fit allowing seating for a number of passengers. In this unarmed guise, it became the PBY-5R Sea Mare.

At the start of hostilities between the USA and Japan in December 1941, the US Navy’s PBY squadrons were based in various locations around the US mainland – Alaska, Washington State, Virginia, California and overseas at locations including Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, the Canal Zone and the Philippines.

Prior to the USA entering the Second World War, the second production PBY-5, Bu2290, was transferred by the US Navy to the US Coast Guard, with which it adopted the serial V189. Initially flown in a high visibility livery of overall aluminium but with yellow-orange upper wing surfaces and red and white vertically striped rudder topped with blue, it later adopted a more sober grey scheme when in wartime use up in Alaska. It remained in service until at least 1943, when it was stationed in the San Francisco area, and it was the predecessor for many more wartime and post-war USCG Catalinas.

As the war progressed, Catalinas of both flying boat and amphibian varieties continued to be produced at the Consolidated factory in San Diego, production later being switched to the plant at New Orleans. Aircraft were supplied not only to the US forces and the Royal Air Force but also to the Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, Netherlands Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force. Additional production was contracted out to Canadian Vickers, initially at St Hubert and later at Cartierville, Quebec, and to Boeing of Canada at Sea Island, Vancouver, BC.

A war weary Catalina IB of the Royal Air Force South East Asia Command. FP229 served with 302 Ferry Training Unit, 270 and 205 Squadrons before being struck off charge in September 1944 Photo: David Legg Collection

In the main, the design of the Catalina remained fairly constant once PBY-5 production commenced, the main modifications being the addition of an amphibious undercarriage to some versions, changes to the bow turret and to the vertical and horizontal tail surfaces. The latter redesign was a feature of the flying boat PB2B-2 and PBY-6A. It also appeared on the somewhat more radical but less successful PBN-1 Nomad developed by the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia and supplied to both the US Navy and the USSR. In addition to the changed tail, the Nomad also had a revised hull and float shape and a new bow turret.

The PBY-6A, widely used by the US Navy, featured a taller tail/rudder and wider span elevators. This example, BuAer46642, shows the later ‘eye-ball’ bow turret and AN/APS radar housing above the cockpit Photo: David Legg Collection

The Naval Aircraft Factory developed the Catalina into the PBN-1 Nomad but most examples were supplied to the Soviet Union. In addition to the PBY-6A-style tail and rudder, the Nomad had a more streamlined bow, hull and floats but was only built in flying-boat format Photo: David Legg Collection

The Catalina served with distinction throughout the Second World War and was involved in many significant actions including the location of the German battleship Bismark, the sighting of the Japanese invasion force heading for Ceylon and many individual actions against U-boats and submarines. Two Victoria Crosses were awarded to Coastal Command Catalina captains. In the main, the type carried on its role of maritime patrol, characterised by long, monotonous sorties without sighting land or enemy.

With the Second World War over, the various military air arms that were operating the Catalina in all its different marks began a rapid down-sizing of its fleets. Further details are given under the entries for the individual countries involved. In summary, the USA continued to operate amphibious versions with the United States Army Air Force (United States Air Force from September, 1947, onward), the US Navy and the US Coast Guard but none of these were flying pure flying boat PBY-5s or PBN-1 Nomads post-war. Indeed, only one complete US Navy PBY-5 was to survive for posterity, this being Bu08317 which can be found today lovingly restored at the United States Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola in Florida. Large numbers of Navy, Army and Coast Guard Catalina amphibians were commercialised throughout the late-1940s and the 1950s however.

Of the Commonwealth air forces, the Royal Air Force disposed of its entire fleet with almost indecent haste but the Royal New Zealand Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force continued to use their Catalinas in decreasing numbers for a few more years, small numbers transferring to the commercial sector. The Royal Canadian Air Force did not operate flying boat Cansos post-war although they used a fair number of their amphibious Canso As well into the 1960s. Many of the Canso As were subsequently disposed of to civil operators as they came up for tender although no pure flying boat versions were sold for commercial use.

So, having acquitted itself so well during the ‘war, the Catalina found itself suddenly poised to embark on a new career once it had ended. The irony is that, having been conceived as a flying boat, its saving grace as far as its future longevity was concerned was the fact that it had been developed into an amphibian! The addition of a retractable undercarriage gave the PBY so much more flexibility that many post-war commercial and military operators leapt at the chance of buying up surplus military examples. In fact as time went on, a fair number of the aircraft that continued in use were operated almost entirely from land and rarely if ever ventured onto water! Conversely, the ability to operate from water led to the Catalina flying in commercial roles that were far beyond the original vision of the Consolidated design office! Notwithstanding the above, a small number of pure flying-boat examples did fly commercially although even some of these were originally built as amphibians and had had their undercarriage units removed and the bays plated over.

During its long post-war career as a commercial aircraft, the Catalina was used in a variety of ways. These included the relatively conventional roles of passenger and freight transport, executive aircraft and rich man’s airborne yacht. As time went on, it also carved out a niche for itself in a small number of highly specialised roles. The first – aerial survey – relied on the type’s ability to fly steadily for long periods whilst being equipped with a variety of external equipment hung around its airframe. The other – aerial fire fighting and spraying – was to a great extent based on the Catalina’s water-landing capability although ironically a number of those flown in the USA against forest fires were land-based. It is a fact that these two activities have contributed greatly to the Catalina’s longevity and have been responsible for the continued existence of many of the world’s remaining flying specimen’s. Catalinas have also been involved in air display and film work and in some notable long-distance flights.

It seems that despite the fact that surviving Catalinas had all reached at least their 55th birthday by the end of the second millennium, some of them were still capable of carrying out very long over-water trips without incident, surely a great tribute to the design and the present day owner/operators who have kept them flying.

Copyright © David Legg May 2006, 2011

PBY Catalina Documentary