The Consolidated PBY Catalina was an American flying boat of the 1930s and 1940s produced by Consolidated Aircraft. It was one of the most widely used multi-role aircraft of World War II. Catalinas served with every branch of the United States Armed Forces and in the air forces and navies of many other nations.
During World War II, PBYs were used in anti-submarine warfare, patrol bombing, convoy escorts, search and rescue missions (especially air-sea rescue), and cargo transport. The PBY was the most numerous aircraft of its kind and the last active military PBYs were not retired from service until the 1980s. Even today, over 70 years after its first flight, the aircraft continues to fly as a waterbomber (or airtanker) in aerial firefighting operations all over the world.
The designation "PBY" was determined in accordance with the U.S. Navy aircraft designation system of 1922; PB representing "Patrol Bomber" and Y being the code assigned to Consolidated Aircraft as its manufacturer. Catalinas built by other manufacturers for the US Navy were designated according to different manufacturer codes, thus Canadian Vickers-built examples were designated PBV, Boeing-Canada examples PB2B (there already being a Boeing PBB) and Naval Aircraft Factory examples were designated PBN. Canadian Catalinas were named Canso by the Royal Canadian Air Force in accordance with contemporary British naming practice of naming seaplanes after coastal port towns, in this case for the town of Canso in Nova Scotia. The RAF in contrast used the Catalina name. The United States Army Air Forces and later the United States Air Force used the designation OA-10.
The PBY was originally designed to be a patrol bomber, an aircraft with a long operational range intended to locate and attack enemy transport ships at sea in order to disrupt enemy supply lines. With a mind to a potential conflict in the Pacific Ocean, where troops would require resupply over great distances, the U.S. Navy in the 1930s invested millions of dollars in developing long-range flying boats for this purpose. Flying boats had the advantage of not requiring runways, in effect having the entire ocean available. Several different flying boats were adopted by the Navy, but the PBY was the most widely used and produced.
Although slow and ungainly, Catalinas distinguished themselves in World War II. Allied forces used them successfully in a wide variety of roles that the aircraft was never intended for. They are remembered for their role in rescuing downed airmen, in which they saved the lives of thousands of aircrew downed over water. Catalina airmen called their aircraft the "cat" on combat missions and "Dumbo" in air-sea rescue service.
Roles in World War II
Around 4,000 aircraft were built, and these operated in nearly all operational theatres of World War II. The Catalina served with distinction and played a prominent and invaluable role 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 aircraft available with the necessary range.
Catalinas 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. By 1943, U-boats were well-armed with anti-aircraft guns and two Victoria Crosses were won by Catalina pilots pressing home their attacks on U-boats in the face of heavy fire: John Cruickshank of the RAF, in 1944, against "U-347" (or U-361 depending on sources) and in the same year Flight Lt. David Hornell of the RCAF (posthumously) against the U-1225. Catalinas destroyed 40 U-boats but not without losses of their own. A Brazilian Catalina attacked and sank U-199 in Brazilian waters on 31 July 1943. Later, the aircraft was baptized as “Arará”, in memory of the merchant ship of that name which was sunk by another U-boat.
In their role as patrol aircraft, Catalinas participated in some of the most notable naval engagements of World War II. The aircraft's parasol wing and large waist blisters provided excellent visibility and combined with its long range and endurance, made it well suited for the task. An RAF Coastal Command Catalina located the German battleship Bismarck on 26 May 1941 while attempting to evade Royal Navy forces. A flight of Catalinas spotted the Japanese fleet approaching Midway Island, beginning the Battle of Midway.
Night attack and naval interdiction
Several squadrons of PBY-5As and -6As in the Pacific theater were specially modified to operate as night raiders. Outfitted with state-of-the-art magnetic anomaly detectors and painted flat black, these "Black Cats" attacked Japanese supply convoys at night. Catalinas were surprisingly successful and from August 1943 to January 1944, Black Cats sank 112,700 tons of merchant shipping, damaged 47,000 tons, and damaged 10 Japanese warships.
Search and rescue
Catalinas were employed by every branch of the U.S. military as rescue aircraft. A PBY piloted by LCDR Adrian Marks (USN) rescued 56 sailors in high seas from the USS Indianapolis after the ship was sunk during World War II. When there was no more room inside, the crew tied sailors to the wings. Catalinas continued to function in this capacity for decades after the end of the war.