Consolidated PBY Catalina - Introduction and Development

The Consolidated PBY Catalina was by far the most successful flying boat of the Second World War, and played a major part in the both the war in the Pacific and the Battle of the Atlantic, serving in large numbers with the US Navy and RAF Coastal Command.

The PBY (PB for patrol bomber, Y for Consolidated) was the third flying boat that Consolidated had developed for the US Navy. The first, the XPY-1 on 1928 had been built to a design produced by the Naval Aircraft Factory, and would be the US Navy’s first monoplane flying boat. Despite successfully building the prototype, Consolidated failed to win the production contract, and the small number of aircraft were produced were built as the Glenn Martin P3M.

Consolidated had more luck with their P2Y. This was a more advanced version of the XPY, and like the earlier aircraft is very obviously an ancestor of the Catalina. The P2Y made its first flight on 26 March 1932. By then the Navy had ordered the first of an eventual total of 47 P2Ys, and the aircraft became the standard Navy patrol aircraft for most of the 1930s.

Consolidated Catalina at rest, 1941
Consolidated Catalina at rest, 1941

Work on what would become the Catalina began in 1932, after the Navy issued a specification for a flying boat with a range of 3,000 miles and a cruising speed of 100 mph. Douglas and Consolidated both produced prototypes – the XP3D-1 and XP3Y-1 respectively. Both of these aircraft met the Navy’s requirements, but the Douglas machine cost $110,000 each, the Consolidated machine only $90,000, and so Consolidated won the production contract.

The XP3Y-1 made its first flight on 28 March 1935. It was powered by a pair of 825hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-54 Twin Wasp radial engines, armed with four machine guns, and could carry up to 2,000lb of bombs. Early tests revealed that the aircraft had the potential to operate as a Patrol Bomber, and so in October 1935 it was returned to Consolidated for modification as the XPBY-1. Amongst the changes made was the installation of more powerful R-1830-64 engines, and a change to the shape of the vertical tail surfaces. The aircraft made its first flight as the XPBY-1 on 19 May 1936.

This was almost a year after Consolidated had received their first order for the PBY. On 29 June 1935 the US Navy placed an order for sixty Consolidated PBY-1 flying boats. Over 3,000 more aircraft would follow before production ended in 1945.

The US Navy would not adopt the name Catalina until 1 October 1941. The aircraft had first gained that name in 1939, when it was first examined by the RAF. The name was taken from Catalina Island, a holiday island off the coast of California (close to Los Angeles).

The Catalina and its variants would be produced by six factories owned by four different manufactures. Most were produced by Consolidated themselves, at San Diego, New Orleans and Buffalo. The PBN-1 Nomad was designed and produced by the Naval Aircraft Factory.

The remaining two factories were both in Canada. Boeing of Canada produced the aircraft at Vancouver as the PB2B and the Canso A (the standard Canadian designation for the aircraft), while Canadian Vickers produced it at Montreal as the OA-10A (for the USAAF) and as the Canso A. Both companies produced a similar number of aircraft – Boeing of Canada produced 362, starting on 12 May 1943, while Vickers produced 379, starting on 3 April 1943.

Physical Description

The PBY Catalina was a particularly elegant looking aircraft, with a simple streamlined appearance. This is largely due to the design of the cantilevered parasol wing. On the P2Y this had been connected to the fuselage by a complex system of struts, which also supported two stabiliser floats, while the engines were placed between the wing and the fuselage.

On the Catalina most of the struts were swept away, or were hidden when the aircraft was in flight. The wing was connected to the fuselage by a single large pylon, which also contained the engineer’s station, with only one pair of struts on each side, running from the side of the hull to a position just outside the engines. The two engine nacelles were mounted close together on the front of the wing.

The design of the stabiliser floats was particularly clever. Instead of having fixed permanent floats, the Catalina floats folded up into the wing. The stabiliser struts thus disappeared completely, while the floats themselves became the wing tips.

The main fuselage was also simple in design. The top part, containing the crew compartments, was simply the top half of a tube, with a circular roof. The width remained constant from the pilot’s compartment to the start of the waist gunner’s compartment and then began to taper off towards the tail. The top of the fuselage was level all the way from the cockpit to the start of the tail.

The bottom of the fuselage was shaped like the hull of a boat, which of course it was. This gave all flying boats a distinctive shape, emphasised on the Catalina by the regularity of the upper fuselage.

The tail was mounted far higher than would be the case on a land plane, to take account of the angle at which the aircraft would take off or land. The P2Y had a complex tail structure, with two rudders mounted on top of the horizontal stabiliser, which was itself mounted on top of a tail pylon. In contrast the Catalina had a single vertical tail, with the horizontal stabiliser mounted half way up.

Internal Layout

The PBY Catalina was split into seven distinct sections. The Bombardier’s compartment was in the nose, with the forward gun turret at the top and the bomb aiming window in the lower front. This window was providing with a sliding cover to protect it when landing or taking off on the water.

Looking back through the cockpit of a Catalina
Looking back through the cockpit of a Catalina

The Pilot’s compartment was next, in the upper half of the fuselage. Below them was the anchor, and on the later amphibians part of the nose wheel mechanism. The two pilots sat side by side, with the door into the bombardier’s compartment between them.

Behind the pilots was the Navigator’s, Radio operator’s and Radar operator’s compartment, normally pictured with the radio operator on the right and the navigator on the left.

Next was the tall mechanic’s compartment, which stretched up into the pylon supporting the wing. The mechanic’s seat was in the roof of this compartment, accessed up three steps. Small windows in the side of the pylon allowed the engineer to see the engines from inside the aircraft. The base of his seat was cushioned to protect crew members walking underneath! The bottom half of the compartment carried some of the engineering equipment, but also contained a two ring electric cooker, with water tanks.


Consolidated Catalina:
Rear (tunnel) gunner

Behind the engineer were the living quarters, complete with bunk beds, an essential feature in an aircraft that might be required to operate in very remote areas, at quite a distance from the nearest base.

Behind the living quarters was the waist gunner’s compartment. In the PBY-1 to PBY-4 the guns were mounted behind sliding windows, which opened out and forward. On the PBY-5 these sliding windows were replaced with the famous gun blisters. This compartment also contained a chemical toilet and the life raft.

Finally, at the rear of the fuselage, came the tunnel gunner’s position. A single rear firing machine gun was mounted in the floor of this compartment, protected by a hatch when not in use. The gunner fired his gun while in a kneeling position. Late in the production of the PBY-5 ball mountings were added in the side of this compartment, and the single gun could easily be moved between the three firing positions.

US Navy PBY Catalina Units of the Pacific War, Louis B Dorny Osprey Combat Aircraft 62. This entry in the Combat Aircraft series looks at the varied uses of the Catalina in the Pacific theatre, where it served as successfully as a long range reconnaissance aircraft, a night bomber (the "Black Cat") and on air-sea rescue, or Dumbo duties. The text is well supported with first hand accounts, contemporary photographs and full colour illustrations. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 August 2008), Consolidated PBY Catalina – Introduction and Development , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_PBY_catalina_development.html

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