Tuesday 27 September 2011

WW2 Catalina flying boats return to Fermanagh base

WW2 Catalina flying boats return to Fermanagh base

I've been looking forward to writing up this one all week, as it concerns one of my favourite aircraft - the Consolidated PBY Catalina.  Not only that, it also involves the experiences and reminiscences of two ex-pilots who appear to have grasped the opportunity to fly in one of the few remaining airworthy examples with both hands - and why not?!  It sounds like they had a wonderful time and it's lovely to hear their recollections.

As well as the memories there is of course the interesting historical reminder of one of the ways in which the "neutral" Republic of Ireland was involved in the Second World War.  I myself was aware of similar operations (although not this particular one, I must admit) and of the part played by the Catalina in the sinking of the Bismarck, but as with so much about World War II it is important that such stories remain in the public consciousness - so it's good to see this 70th anniversary being celebrated and reported in such a fashion.

Like so many great aircraft of the war, the Cat has many impressive stories surrounding it and is a wonderful aircraft to see in the air - and on the water!  I well remember one year at my local airshow in Southend a Catalina performing a touch-and-go landing on a (rather rough!) Thames Estuary.  I've even dug out and dusted off my (I say "my" - this was actually built by my father, so long ago that I was probably younger than the "suitable age"!  It's still available, though!) own Airfix model that hasn't seen the light of day for years, especially for this post.

Although the American-designed Catalina had first flown in 1935 it wasn't until 4 years later that the British Air Ministry took an interest in it, and even then they only ordered one example for evaluation.  Having received this somewhat conservative order, Consolidated simply plucked a completed Catalina straight off the production line in San Diego and stuck a crew in it who, thanks to the aircraft's colossal 2,500-mile range, flew it directly from San Diego to Felixstowe in England.  When it arrived, many of those watching from the ground refused to believe that it had flown non-stop across the Atlantic, since its engines were still purring away happily without the slightest sign of strain or oil.  They were even more sceptical when the crew explained that, with the aid of the standard yet sophisticated on-board radio equipment, they had been in wireless contact with San Diego as they had landed.  Even then it wasn't until 1941 that the Catalina entered service with RAF Coastal Command, to perform some of the feats mentioned in this accompanying article.

Elsewhere Cats were performing valuable service with most branches of the U.S. armed forces, most notably as air-sea rescue craft with the U.S. Navy.  In one incident, on the 29th May 1945, a Catalina was sent up to provide support for a B-29 bombing raid on Japan.  On its return one bomber did indeed ditch in the Pacific and the Cat was sent to pick them up.  On arrival at the crash site, the Cat promptly landed in open sea and retrieved the bomber crew from their dinghy.  However on attempting to take off again, it was struck forcibly by three large waves which ripped the port engine and part of the wing clean off.  Crashing through the cockpit, it seriously injured the pilot.  The co-pilot was able to radio a back-up rescue submarine and, despite the substantial damage to its structure the Catalina remained afloat until the sub arrived the following day to pick up both crews.

Such are just two stories to go with the one detailed in the original news piece, there are undoubtedly many more involving this fantastic aeroplane.  May it continue to fly and keep the memories of its pilots and crew alive for many years to come.

1 comment:

  1. One of my favourite types too since childhood - they look beautiful, plus flying boats alone are interesting enough no matter how good they look


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