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The Flying Cat
April 18, 2006, by Bill Cawthon
Seaplanes and flying boats have always been among my favorite aircraft. When I was a kid, one of my favorite stories was a one about a boy flying across the Pacific on a Boeing 314 Pan Am Clipper. I even watched the old "Tales of the Gold Monkey" TV show. The stories were okay, but I really liked Jake's Grumman Goose.
When I was very young, my Dad was recalled to active duty during the Korean War. For a time during his tour, we lived in the married officers' quarters at what was then El Toro Marine Corps Air Station near Santa Ana, California. El Toro was a Master Jet Station for the Fleet Marines in the Pacific and the entire area was a hotbed of aircraft activity. There were early jets, like the Shooting Star and Fury, blimps from the nearby Santa Ana Naval Air Station and even a few propeller-driven fighters from World War II. Among the aircraft that I remember were Navy PBY-5A Catalinas used for coastal patrol and rescue operations. I never got to see one making a sea landing, but I was fascinated by these planes. This was my first exposure to an aircraft that could take off and land on sea or land.
Soon to enter its eighth decade of flight, the PBY Catalina was the most successful large seaplane ever developed. Over 4,000 were produced from September 1936 to May 1945. They were built in the United States, Canada and the Soviet Union and were flown by every Allied air service.
Now Herpa is going to make a 1:400 scale version of the PBY-5A Catalina. It will be one of their May-June releases and will definitely be on my wish list.
The PBY's history begins on March 6, 1887, when Reuben Hollis Fleet was born in Montesano, Washington. Fleet's parents were prosperous but lost everything in the Panic of 1893. His father went off to Alaska to make a new start and Reuben was sent to Culver Military Academy, where his uncle was superintendent. Following his graduation in 1906, Fleet worked as a teacher in Washington. Later on, he got into real estate and timber, building up a nice business. He was just 28 when he was elected to the Washington state legislature in 1915.
In keeping with his military education, Fleet was active in the National Guard where he held the rank of captain. As a legislator, he was so active in promoting military aviation he attracted the attention of the Army Air Service. He successfully impressed Colonel Samuel Reber, then head of the Air Service, of the greater potential of military aviation and the service opened its doors to two National Guard officers from each state.
Fleet had just turned 30 when he reported to Rockwell Field in San Diego, California on April 5, 1917. The following day, the U.S. declared war on Germany and he became an officer in the U.S. Army. Fleet earned pilot wings No. 74 and was promoted to major. He was reassigned to Washington where he became the acting executive officer for flight training. As the war's appetite for pilots grew, Fleet oversaw the construction of 34 primary training schools and training for thousands of pilots.
In March 1918, Fleet was given the incredible task of setting up the nation's first airmail service in just two months. With four pilots and some unassembled Curtiss JN-4 Jenny trainers, Fleet pulled it off and airmail service began on May 15, 1918.
In 1919 Major Fleet was sent to the U.S. Air Service Experimental and Engineering Test Center at McCook Field, near Dayton, Ohio, as the air service's contracting officer. Working at the same base was a gifted young aircraft engineer and designer named Isaac Laddon.
Isaac Maclin Laddon was born in Garfield, New Jersey on Christmas Day, 1894. He was educated at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, completing his engineering studies in 1915. Two years later, he arrived at McCook Field. Under the pressure of preparing the Army for aerial warfare, Laddon quickly learned aviation engineering and was in charge of all large aircraft development programs just two years after his arrival.
By 1922, Fleet was tired of the endless Army paperwork and even the occasional test flights in new airplanes weren't enough to keep him in uniform. He left the service and decided to start a new career in the aviation industry. His experience, business expertise and government contacts guaranteed him a good job with a company like Boeing or Curtiss, but Fleet selected Gallaudet Aircraft of Rhode Island. Though it was much smaller than the other companies, Fleet liked the fact Gallaudet's owners included some major New York bankers. Fleet believed he could learn a lot by working with some of the best financial minds around. However, even financial wizards needed something with which to work and Gallaudet had nothing promising in the pipeline. Fleet went shopping for another aircraft company, preferably one with a good design for a military trainer. About the same time, General Motors was looking to exit the aircraft business and unload its holdings in the Dayton-Wright Company. Fleet struck a deal and bought the rights to their designs for $25,000.
On May 29, 1923, Reuben Fleet formed Consolidated Aircraft, one of the first American aircraft firms to be created from pieces of earlier firms instead of around a home-brewed design.
Fleet improved on the Dayton-Wright TW-3 and won an Army competition to supply a new trainer to the military. Fleet moved the company from Rhode Island to the Curtiss Plant in Buffalo, New York and began producing PT-1 trainers for the Army and NY-1 trainers for the Navy.
Though the trainer business was doing well for the company, Fleet realized he needed to expand his horizons in order to make his company successful. In 1927 Fleet brought in Isaac Laddon as chief engineer and gave him the task of developing larger aircraft for use as bombers and new flying boats for military and civilian sales.
Within a year, Laddon produced the designs for the XPY-1 Admiral Flying Boat for a Navy design competition. It first flew on January 22, 1929. Though Martin won the Navy order, Consolidated built a luxuriously appointed civilian version, called the Commodore, and pulled in $2 million in orders.
In 1931, the Navy was looking for another flying boat. Consolidated came back with the P2Y-1 Ranger and was able to score at least a partial victory: the Navy bought 46 of these between 1931 and 1933.
In 1933, the Navy put out a request for a new seaplane design to replace the Consolidated P2Y and the Martin P3M. This time the Navy wanted a real patrol warplane and neither the Consolidated nor the Martin had the range or capacity required.
Laddon's design for XP3Y-1 was revolutionary. The new plane had an internally-braced parasol wing (a parasol wing is not directly attached to the fuselage) with a pair of small, streamlined struts on each side. Instead of the outrigger floats of the earlier versions, the XP3Y-1 had stabilizer floats that could be retracted, reducing drag and improving performance. Additional performance was obtained by a new tail design that replaced the previous twin stabilizer configuration.
The plane was powered by a pair of 825 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-54 Twin Wasp engines. It could reach a top speed of 179 miles per hour and had a range of over 2,500 miles. The armament included four 30 caliber Browning machine guns and up to 2,000 pounds of bombs or depth charges.
The XP3Y-1 took its maiden flight on March 28, 1935. After the flight, it was delivered to the Navy for service trials. The Navy liked the new plane but decided what it really wanted was a patrol-bomber aircraft and returned the plane to Consolidated for further development. The plane got a pair of 900 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-64 engines and a redesigned tail. Newly designated as the XPBY-1, the flying boat took to the air May 19, 1936 and set a new record for a non-stop distance flight of 3,443 miles. By the way, if the alphabet soup bothers you, it's pretty easy: "X" is for experimental, "P" is for patrol, "B" is for bomber and "Y" is Consolidated's manufacturer code.
While the XP3Y-1 was being upgraded, Reuben Fleet decided he had had enough of trying to test flying boats in Buffalo's frigid climate. In late 1935, Consolidated moved to San Diego, California.
Consolidated wasn't the only manufacturer competing for the Navy order. Douglas delivered its own design, the XP3D-1. Though both planes were good, Consolidated won the day because its plane was thousands of dollars less expensive than the Douglas design. On June 29, 1935, the Navy awarded Consolidated a $22 million order for sixty aircraft. It was the largest single military aircraft order since World War I. This was followed by another order for fifty planes even before the first one was delivered.
The first of the new planes was delivered to US Navy Squadron VP-11F in October 1936. Over the following three years, the PBY design was improved and additional new models were introduced. In September 1940, Consolidated introduced the PBY-5 with two 1200-horsepower engines and in October 1941, it rolled out the PBY-5A which added tricycle landing gear, making the plane an amphibian. These two versions accounted for the bulk of PBY production during World War II. By the way, "Catalina" came from the name Consolidated gave to the civilian version of the PBY. The Navy adopted the name on October 1, 1940. The Army also had a version of the PBY-5A they called the OA-10. Canadian-built Catalinas were called "Cansos."
In 1939, the Navy was considering replacing the Catalina in favor of newer planes but Consolidated already had orders from Australia, Canada, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands so continued production was ensured. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered more patrols of U.S. coastal and territorial waters, so the Navy shelved its plans and just ordered more Catalinas.
Although the Catalina was a fairly slow plane and some versions lacked armor protection for the crew, the plane's range and durability soon established it as one of the most versatile aircraft in the Allied arsenal. It could carry out long-range reconnaissance and attack missions and, when equipped with depth charges, was a very effective anti-submarine aircraft. As a rescue plane, the Catalina was unmatched, saving thousands of lives during the war. It was also the first U.S. aircraft to be equipped with radar.
When the Bismarck tried to hide from Allied forces, it was spotted by a Catalina from the Royal Air Force's 209 Squadron on May 26, 1941 enabling the Royal Navy to locate and sink the mighty German battleship.
Catalinas put a crimp in the style of U-Boat commanders. Thanks to their long range, Catalinas from the U.S., Canada and Great Britain could serve as convoy escorts and patrol large areas of the Atlantic. Not only did PBYs destroy about 40 submarines, they forced captains to run submerged during the daylight and use the cover of night to surface and recharge their batteries, which cut down on the opportunities for the wolf packs to go hunting.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they destroyed the majority of six squadrons of various Consolidated flying boats, including a number of new PBYs. On June 3, 1942, PBYs from Naval Patrol Squadron VP-44 sighted the Japanese fleet steaming toward Midway. This allowed the U.S. to stage its own surprise attack with torpedo and dive bombers and sink four Japanese aircraft carriers, turning the tide in the war at sea in the Pacific.
In the Pacific, the PBY came into its own as an offensive weapon. During the fighting on Guadalcanal, Catalinas attacked Japanese supply ships attempting to deliver supplies and reinforcements. Equipped with magnetic anomaly detectors and painted black, other Catalinas attacked Japanese ships at night usually catching them by surprise. The "Black Cats" were highly effective at disrupting Japanese supply operations. In one six-month period, they sank or damaged 159,000 tons of Japanese shipping and damaged 10 warships.
Just as important were the rescue missions. Named "Dumbo" for Disney's flying elephant, the missions were based on the PBY's ability to land, pick up downed aviators and fly them to safety. On February 15, 1943, Navy Lt. Nathan Gordon plucked 15 airmen from rough seas while under heavy fire, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Business goes on, even in wartime. In late 1941, Reuben Fleet sold his 34 percent stock holding in Consolidated Aircraft to Vultee Aircraft for $10 million. On March 17, 1943, Consolidated officially merged with Vultee as Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, which became known as Convair. Isaac Laddon was named executive vice president and general manager. Fleet remained with Convair as an advisor until April 12, 1946 when he retired, ending 23 years with Consolidated. Isaac Laddon remained with Convair until his retirement in 1959. Reuben Fleet died on October 29, 1975 at the age of 88. Isaac Laddon died less than three months later on January 14, 1976 just a few weeks after his 81st birthday.
The last Convair PBY-6A left the line in May 1945 but the Catalina remained in U.S. military service until 1967 and in service with the armed forces of other nations until the 1980s. The missions changed; the PBY had been long surpassed by other aircraft as a weapons delivery system, so it became a patrol and rescue plane in the service of many nations.
The PBY also found a new career as a different kind of bomber. Instead of starting fires with high explosives, Catalinas put them out as fire-bombers. A Catalina with an experienced crew could land, load four tons of water in fourteen seconds and be on their way back to the fire.
Catalinas also flew in passenger service making history there, too. In 1951, Australian pilot P.G. Taylor island-hopped a Catalina across the South Pacific from Sydney to Valparaiso, Chile, a distance of 8,451 miles. It was the first time the trip from Australia to South America had been made by airplane.
Today, most of the PBY Catalinas have been scrapped, retired or shuffled off to museums. However, there are still a few fighting fires, transporting people and cargo, and carrying on a tradition of service that began seventy years ago.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant working with the information technology and hobby industries. He is an associate editor for Model Railroad News and writes a monthly column on the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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