The Catalina

Chances are, if you ask an aviation enthusiast or indeed anyone with a passing interest in aviation to name a flying boat or amphibian, the “PBY Catalina” is the first aircraft that will come to mind.

The Consolidated PBY Catalina first flew in 1935 and it was one of the most widely used seaplanes of the Second World War. Operated by every branch of the United States Armed Forces and the air forces of many other nations, the Catalina served as an anti-submarine warfare aircraft, in maritime patrol, convoy escort and search and rescue.

In Australia, they were operated by Qantas Empire Airways during the war between Perth and Colombo in the “double sunrise flights”  that spanned 28 to 32 hours. Post-World War II they saw service until the 1980s with the Brazilian Air Force and even today they are still used as an aerial firefighting aircraft.

The first time I saw a Catalina was on television in the 1970s, when acclaimed diver Jacques-Yves Cousteau used one to support his diving expeditions. The idea of a plane that could go anywhere it wanted, on land or water was enticing and as a child I dreamed of owning one and flying the world.

The “Flying Calypso” operated by world renowned diver Jacques Cousteau

As years went on, reality took hold and while I gained my private pilot license, even the idea of experiencing a flight in a Catalina seemed tantalizing. The only airworthy “Cat” in Australia was operated by HARS and the chances of scoring a ride in that seemed pretty remote. When I boarded an Air New Zealand B787 to head across “the ditch” to attend the Warbirds Over Wanaka, little did I knew I’d soon have the opportunity to tick that item on the “bucket list”.

The RNZAF operated 56 Catalinas between 1943 and 1953, and in 1994 a syndicate was formed to purchase an ex-RCAF aircraft in memory of the Kiwis who operated this aircraft. Flying a big amphibious warbird that was built over 70 years ago is an expensive exercise, and to offset the costs I soon discovered they offer joy-flights in their aircraft – I couldn’t get my credit card out quick enough!

ZK-PBY looks like a WW2 RNZAF aircraft on the outside, but inside there have been a number of concessions to passenger comfort. The aircraft has been lined and some sound proofing added, and 16 passenger seats added. There are even a few modern touches like carpeted bench seats in the blisters and the crew take us through a safety briefing (complete with laminated safety cards!) as we taxi out to Wanaka’s sealed runway. The plan is to do a water landing too (depending on the conditions) so we are all fitted out with life jackets.

Soon after takeoff, we are allowed to leave our seats and I take the opportunity to observe the pilots from an elevated platform just behind the cockpit. I’m a little surprised how small the cockpit is – it looks very cramped in there. But what an amazing view of New Zealand’s South Island!

Soon we’re instructed to return to our seats, and we’re descending for a water landing on Lake Wanaka. To be honest, this was a little underwhelming because my only view is out a tiny window in the forward fuselage. In an ideal world, I’d be seated in the blister watching the spray as we touched down but that wasn’t to be for safety reason. But then I remind myself, “You’re doing a water landing, in a Catalina! Enjoy it!”

After a touch and go (splash and go?), we’re soon on our way back to Wanaka airport and this was the highlight of the flight. Now was my turn to sit in the blister and enjoy the view – it was every bit as amazing as I had possibly hoped. The view was spectacular, and watching the two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radials was mesmerizing.

All too soon, the aircraft began its descent and the pilot lowered the undercarriage (fascinating to watch them unfold, sadly I was too slow with the camera), and we were directed back to our seats for the landing. Before I knew it we were back on terra firma and handing back our life jackets as our “hostesses” bid us farewell.

This flight was without doubt the unexpected highlight of the Wanaka airshow for me and a memory I will long treasure. Was it enough for me? No! If I get over to New Zealand again for another airshow I would definitely go for another ride! The syndicate member I spoke to even mentioned they would teach members to fly it – for a price 🙂

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