|Form follows function in the sculpted curves and blisters of the classic Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina amphibian visiting AirVenture 2013. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)
By Frederick A. Johnsen
July 31, 2013 - Nothing looks like a Catalina. The shiny example parked on Phillips 66 Plaza at AirVenture 2013 draws onlookers who ponder its structure.
Its fuselage is clearly a hull, V-shaped to knife through the water. But its semicircular upper hemisphere is reminiscent of a huge aluminum travel trailer, capped with a pair of goggle-eyed Plexiglas blisters. Its high wing rests on a sculpted central pylon, and two struts, not parallel with each other when viewed from the front, angle up to the wing from each side of the fuselage.
Huge tires support the Catalina on the ramp, and tuck neatly into gaping exposed wheel wells in flight.
In the cockpit, the pilot's throttles are an overhead handful, not floor-mounted on a pedestal. Behind the pilots, nested in that sculpted central pylon, the flight engineer has his own instrument panel and a pair of side windows.
The Catalina's wingtip floats are a mechanical marvel to watch as they extend or retract, metal elbows and arms folding into pockets and recesses that cause the floats to become oversized wingtips in flight.
If all of the Catalina's monkey-motion makes it sound like a Rube Goldberg contraption, you'd better smile when you say that, pardner! In the seven decades since its introduction in 1935, the PBY Catalina has endeared itself to generations of fliers and fans alike.
That big hull let it land in open seas, where those huge blisters made for convenient pick-ups of downed fliers. The expansive 104-foot spread of its wing (only 6 feet shy of the span of a four-engine B-24 Liberator) supported Catalinas on long-endurance patrol and search missions. A poster-child for the theory of form-follows-function, everything on the Catalina is there on purpose.
Cruising at a leisurely 125 mph, Catalinas scored some major coups for the Allies during World War II, including spotting the approaching Japanese fleet when it was still out to sea, but en route to Midway. And the ill-fated German battleship Bismarck was shadowed by a Catalina. Navy and Army Air Forces squadrons used Catalinas for search-and-rescue under the generic nickname "Dumbo," giving many a flier safe haven and a second chance.
The Catalina on display at AirVenture 2013 is shown by James Slattery, a San Diego businessman with a passion for preserving vintage warbirds such as this. Through his efforts, this Cat was rebuilt where he located it in South Africa, culminating in a 12,000-mile delivery flight to San Diego this January.
The PBY nomenclature technically applies to Catalinas made by the design's creator, Consolidated Aircraft (later Convair). The example at AirVenture was built under license by Vickers in Canada, so great was the wartime demand for these seaplanes.
As they phased out of military service, a number of Catalinas became freighters and regional civil transports. Perhaps the best-known civilian use of Catalinas was as firefighting air tankers. Some were fitted with belly scoops enabling them to take on a load of water on the fly, as thrillingly captured in the opening sequences of the motion picture Always, a tribute to air tankers.
It may be slow, even awkward-looking on the ground, but the Catalina is a classic that is a welcome sight at Oshkosh.