PBY Catalina, U.S. Flying Boat

Photograph of PBY Catalina

Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina


Crew 8
Dimensions 104’ by 63’11” by 18’10”
31.70m by 19.48m by 5.74m
Wing area 14000 square feet
1301 square meters
Weight 17,465-34,000 lbs
Maximum speed       196 mph (315 km/h) at 5700 feet (1740 meters)
189 mph (304 km/h) at sea level
Cruising speed
117 mph (188 km/h)
Landing speed 73 mph
117 km/s
Climb rate 17 feet per second
5.2 meters per second
Service ceiling 18,100 feet
5520 meters
Power plant Two 1200 hp (895 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 Twin Wasp 14-cylinder 2-row radial engines driving three-bladed propellers
Armament 1 0.50 flexible nose machine gun
2 0.50 flexible waist blister machine guns
1 0.50 flexible ventral machine gun
External stores 4 1000lb (454 kg) bombs or 2 1000lb (454 kg) torpedoes or 4 325lb (147 kg) depth charges
Range 3100 miles (5000 km) patrol range
1433 miles (2300 km) with 2000lbs (908 kg) of bombs
Fuel 1478 gallons
5590 liters
Production 3290 of all variants by 1945 at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, San Diego, and Boeing Canada, Vancouver, including 355 PBY-5 or -5A by December 1941.

-1 through -4 had only minor differences.  Some were retrofitted with an ASV.II external dipole array as early as July 1941, but radar was not widely available in the Pacific until June 1942.

-5 replaced the sliding waist hatches with bubble hatches. Later production included ASV radar, adequate armor, and self-sealing fuel tanks.

A number of -5s in the Southwest Pacific were field-modified with four 0.50 machine guns in the nose to increase their strafing firepower.

-6A had an ASV radar blister on a pylon above the cockpit. It was initially produced as the Nomad, almost all of which went to Russia as Lend-Lease. Navy production did not begin until January 1945.

Versions suffixed with A were amphibious aircraft, equipped with wheels for operations from airfields.

The Catalina was the standard patrol plane for the Allies, serving in every maritime theater of the war.  Its exploits were legendary. A Catalina located the Bismark in mid-Atlantic after it had broken contact with radar-equipped British cruisers. Catalinas from Midway carried out a night torpedo attack on approaching Japanese troop transports using improvised racks and crews that had never dropped a torpedo before, and actually succeeded in damaging an oiler.  A Catalina is said to have attacked a Japanese carrier in daylight after radioing:  “Please inform next of kin.” In reality, the Catalina was much too slow to make an effective daylight bomber except under unusual conditions.  However, it was an effective night attack aircraft and antisubmarine platform as well as a versatile patrol and rescue aircraft.

The design came out of a Navy competition for a flying boat suitable for patrolling the vast reaches of the Pacific. Consolidated based its design on the successful P2Y flying boat, and the first Catalina flew on 21 March 1935. The design mounted its wing on a single large pylon rather than with the multitude of struts of earlier flying boats, and its wing floats retracted to become the wingtips. The wing included a large integral fuel tank in its center section, giving the aircraft its long range. The fuselage was divided into seven watertight compartments with such amenities as bunks, a galley, and toilet. However, the aircraft suffered from inadequate directional stability and was heavy on the controls. A Sperry autopilot proved indispensable on long patrol missions, but the cabin was not heated until nearly the end of the war.

The Navy selected the Catalina over the Douglas contender in June 1936 and the first operational aircraft were delivered in October 1936. The Navy was sufficiently pleased with the design that the original order of 60 aircraft (the largest since World War I) was followed by an even larger order for 149 more. Eventually all the Navy's patrol squadrons (26 squadrons organized into five wings by December 1941) would be equipped with the aircraft. The first amphibious variant (capable of landing in the water or at an airfield) flew on 22 November 1939.  

The Catalina served as a test platform for jet-assisted takeoff and magnetic anomaly detection even before war broke out in the Pacific, but these seem not to have seen widespread use in the Pacific during the war. A single unarmed Catalina, "Guba", was sold to anthropologist Richard Archbold for his work in New Guinea, but Archbold subsequently sold the Catalina to Australian polar explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins to search for Russian aviator Sigismund Levanevsky, who went missing 13 August 1937 on a trans-polar flight and was never found.

Catalinas subsequently served around the world and were supplied in significant numbers as Lend-Lease to the Allies. Britain received some 578 Catalinas by the end of the war. The aircraft was manufactured under license by the Canadians and Russians, eventually being manufactured in greater numbers than any other flying boat.

Most PBY-5s had been retrofitted with self-sealing fuel tanks and some armor protection for pilots and gunners by mid-1942. Nevertheless, the flying boats proved highly vulnerable to enemy fighters, and by early 1945 they were being superseded as daylight reconnaissance aircraft by land-based PV-1 Venturas and PB4Y Liberators and in the antisubmarine role by the PBM Mariner flying boat.

U.S. Navy PBYs typically operated from a seaplane tender, which could anchor in almost any large protected body of water and conduct operations until its fuel, rations, and munitions were all expended. In some cases, range was extended by staging the flying boats through a forward anchorage with a mooring buoy equipped with a 500-gallon (1890 liter) rubber gasoline storage tank.

Black Cats. A handful of PBY-5A Catalinas equipped with early ASV radar had reached the Pacific by August 1942 and participated in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. In December 1942, the Americans deployed a full squadron of PBY-5As to operate at night in the Solomon Islands. This "Black Cat" squadron (VP-11) painted its aircraft black, except for a squadron insignia that started out as a basic cat outline. Eyes were added after the second mission, teeth and whiskers after the third, and, allegedly, "anatomical insignia of a more personal nature" after the fourth mission (Morison 1949). The Black Cats participated in search, strike, and gunfire spotting missions, taking off at about 2230 each night and returning after daybreak. Over time, other squadrons began flying Black Cat missions, and Creed (1985) claims most of the squadrons in the South and Southwest Pacific had rotated through Black Cat tours by the end of the war.

The Catalinas proved well suited for these missions. The black paint and the flame dampers that were later installed over their exhaust ports made them all but invisible in the darkness. If a Japanese night fighter did locate a Black Cat, the Catalina would drop to very low altitude, where it was almost impossible for a night fighter to engage without crashing into the sea. This tactic was aided by radar altimeters installed on most of the Black Cats. The radar altimeters also allowed the Cats to fly the last 100 miles (160 km) to their targets at 50' (15 m) altitude to evade radar. The slow speed of the Cats was actually advantageous for night attacks at mast height.

Initially, the Cats dropped illuminating flares before attacking, but this proved counterproductive. Torpedoes also proved ineffective because of their unreliability. Eventually the tactic that was settled on was to locate targets by radar, then visually, before attacking from the quarter with a salvo of four 500 lb (227 kg) bombs with 5-second-delay fusees dropped from 50 to 150 feet (15 to 45 meters) altitude. A flare was sometimes dropped with the bombs to blind enemy gunners, and some Cat crewmen tossed parafrag bombs from the blisters or ventral hatch to further suppress antiaircraft fire. The gunners held their fire until the bombs were released to further increase the element of surprise.

Black Cat search missions in the Solomons included "Mike Search", a three-hour course up "The Slot" and through Indispensable Strait between Santa Isabel and Malaita. Three circuits could be flown in a single night. By August 1943 the Cats were flying "ferret" missions with electronic warfare technicians to locate Japanese radar installations for later air strikes.

A number of Cats in the Southwest Pacific were field modified with four 0.50 machine guns in the nose, turning them into potent strafers and making them highly effective at night barge hunting.

"Dumbo." Other Catalinas were equipped for air-sea rescue and were known as "Dumbos," after the Disney cartoon character. Each "Dumbo" carried a doctor and pharmacist's mate. Formal operations began in January 1943 and by 15 August 1943 at least 161 aircrew had been rescued by these aircraft. By the end of the year, three or four "Dumbos" took off with each large air strike to follow the aircraft to their targets and orbit some distance away to rescue any downed airmen. "Dumbo" missions were often very hazardous, taking place close to enemy airspace, but did much to improve aircrew morale. The "Dumbos" came to be heavily escorted and fiercely defended by grateful fighter pilots.

Minelaying. Australia had two squadrons of Catalinas when war broke out in the Pacific. These engaged in the same kinds of missions as their allied counterparts, but in addition the Australians began minelaying operations on 23 April 1943, starting in the Bismarcks but later expanding throughout southeast Asia. Each Catalina coiuld carry two magnetic mines. Success of missions was monitored by cryptanalysis and the campaign seriously inconvenienced the Japanese. One mission in December 1944 was escorted by a U.S. Navy Catalina equipped with electronic radar jammers.

Photo Gallery

PBY landing on water

U.S. Navy

Catalina with crew

U.S. Navy

Controls of PBY Catalina



Creed (1985)

Dorny (2007)

Gunston (1986)

Lunstrom (2006)

Morison (1949)
Sharpe et al. (1999)

Wilson (1998)

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