Late 2012, the PBY-5A Catalina of the Dutch “Stichting exploitatie Catalina PH-PBY”, was once again cleared for take-off by the Dutch civil aviation authority. After a very long time on the ground, she’d finally be gracing the European skies again, taking passengers on board with her! She has long been on my “To-fly list”, and all that remained was waiting a few months through winter until the start of the 2013 flying season. I was lucky enough to book a seat on the first flight with passengers of the new season.
Before I start about the actual flight, I want to focus on the history of the PH-PBY, which goes by the name of “Karel Doorman” these days, and the history of the Catalina in general. Karel Doorman was one of the first pilots of the Royal Dutch Navy in the 1910’s and later became an important figure in the Dutch Navy.
The Consolidated Catalina is an extremely successful aircraft. It has saved the lives of thousands in search and rescue missions, performed bomber roles, and was even seen in airline use with early Qantas, AirGreenland, and China Airlines. She could easily fly for over 20 hours, and was one of the first long-range aircraft of her time. Powered by 2 Pratt&Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp engines, the maximum range is about 4000KM (2500Mi). She’s not very fast however, cruising at about 125 mph (201 km/h). The Catalina played a big part in WWII, mainly in the pacific where she’d operate from poorly equipped remote island locations. The US Navy also had the Catalina stationed in the North-Atlantic, which is where the PH-PBY comes in.
The PH-PBY has a long and impressive history, which all started when she rolled off the assembly line of the Consolidated Aircraft factory, in San Diego in late 1941. She’s the 300th Catalina ever built (out of an estimated 3300 built) and is currently the oldest Catalina still flying in the world. There’s an estimated 13 of her sisters still airworthy, but few are still able to land on water, and even fewer take passengers on flights. She started her career with the US Navy, in Iceland during World War II. She has an extremely impressive kill record, sinking no less than 3 German submarines during the war, and damaging a fourth example. Later she flew for the US Coast Guard, and after the war she served as a firefighter in Canada and South America. If you want to read a detailed account of the PH-PBY during WWII, I can refer you to this excellent article written by Prudent Staal.
71 years later, the PBY still goes strong and looks as good as when she was delivered! The foundation that maintains and operates her, now offers scenic flights from various airports and airshows in Europe. One of the regular scenic flights which can be booked from the foundation’s website, is a 30 minute flight which departs and arrives at Lelystad Airport. Included in this flight, is one or more (weather permitting!) touch and go’s (or Splash-and-go as they are called) on the Ijsselmeer.
After obsessively checking the weather all week, it was finally time to fly! April 20th proved to be a fine day for flying. A bit windy, but clear skies for as far as you could see and very little clouds. I drove the 45 minutes to LEY and waited in the airport building, where the volunteers of the Catalina foundation would pick us up. I always consider LEY to be my second home base, after AMS. It’s a friendly little airport with a nice, relaxed atmosphere. There were 14 others waiting for the flight, most of them Catalina enthusiasts. A waiver had to be signed, acknowledging that even though she is fully in accordance with European aviation regulations, it is a 1930’s design that has lower safety standards then modern aircraft. First an introduction and safety video would be shown in one of the conference rooms in the airport building. After a small delay and having been briefed about on-board procedures, my 3 year wait was finally coming to an end!
Another interesting aircraft, this cute little Merlin
There she is!
Entrance through one of the blisters, that takes some agility.
The interior basically consists of 5 little compartments. First there is the cockpit, then a seating area. After that a small walkway underneath the wing root, followed by a second seating area, and finally the area below the two blister windows. I made my way to the first seating area and found a seat with a nice view. The smudges on the window are oil drops from the engines!
View from my seat
Forward view, that’s the pilots in the orange flight suits on an elevated position
Forward seating compartment
Captain G. at the controls
You didn’t think you’d ever see a Catalina safety card did you?
One of the Twin Wasp engines overhead
Pretty decent legroom
No cabin isolation, it’s the outside skin you’re looking at!
One thing you immediately notice upon entering the Catalina, apart from that lovely old-airplane smell, is that the Catalina was not designed with crew comfort in mind. There is no form of isolation, so it’s basically the same temperature inside as outside. There’s also no lavatory on board! Between the 2 seating compartments is a small walkway, in the area where the wing root meets the fuselage, and where the landing gear is stowed. Access to the different compartments is gained by climbing through small hatches and is quite a challenge during turbulent flight for a tall guy like myself.
Apart from the two pilots, one cabin attendant is seated in the aft seating compartment. The attendant on our flight is a cabin trainer for Transavia in his daily life, and works as a Catalina flight attendant on the side!
The Catalina uses the same engines as the DC-3, but these are models without much of an exhaust pipe and as a result are more noisy then on the DC-3. (Which of course, is a good thing!) Combined with the lack of cabin isolation, it’s very noisy inside the aircraft at high power engine settings.
Once the cabin was secured, the unmistakable sound of the fuel pumps filled the airplane, followed by the engine start. Both PW’s started without hesitation. The aircraft vibrates quite a lot, especially combined with turbulence. You’ll see that some of my pictures didn’t come out as well as I hoped, for which I apologize. My camera apparently doesn’t deal well with vibrations.
A nice Beech and a Fokker 50 as seen during the taxi-out
Another aircraft from the same era, a P-51D “Damn Yankee”
We parked at the end of the runway for the necessary run-up checks to warm and prep the engines for the take-off power setting. The actual take-off roll was quite short and the noise level inside was very impressive, I was glad I had earplugs! A short take-off video can be found here:
Shortly after take-off the seatbelt sign went off and we were free to roam through the cabin. The cabin attendant makes sure not all of us gather in the back or front at the same time, to prevent balance issues. Towels were put on the 2 seats behind the cockpit, so you could stand on the seats and look over the pilot’s shoulder. A nice idea!
The cockpit, gotta love the throttle leavers coming from the ceiling!
Some interesting switches
Flying over the Houtribdijk, separating the Ijsselmeer and Markermeer lakes
A look into the nose. Empty these days but there used to be a gunner position here
Let’s go to the aft, I’ll have to climb through this hatch..
The engines and wing seen from a small inspection window in the wing-strut
A manual float-extension point, sorry for the blur..
Once you step into the very aft compartment with the blisters, you’ll have perhaps the greatest view you’ve ever had from an airplane! It’s like standing on a flying carpet. You can look in every direction and the views are spectacular!
The famous PH-PBY view, along the fuselage
The left float is just retracting
The flight attendant signals us to take our seats, we’re gonna make the first splash-and-go!
What an awesome shadow descending onto the lake!
Touching the water, at 90kts
I would have loved standing on that boat as well!
I have compiled some video-footage of the splash-and-go’s into a 3 minute video. We ended up doing 2 splash-and-go’s, one of which you can see here. There’s some lovely sound of the PW’s towards the end of the video!
As soon as we regained altitude we were once again free to roam through the aircraft. Back to the blisters!
My god, what a view!
Waterproof door towards a hatch in the tail
It really feels like you can just climb on top of the wing!
Back to my seat, unfortunately the flight is coming to an end!
Running like its brand new
The flight over the water was very smooth. Over land it was a bit bumpy due to the rising warm air. The Catalina’s fuselage basically hangs beneath a giant wing and is quite susceptible to turbulence. A short landing video can be found here, look how that oil has spread out! A loud squeak was heard when the main gear touched the ground, bringing this fantastic flight to an end.
Once back on the stand we were asked to remain seated until the tail-stand had been placed and the stairs positioned. We were welcome to do a walkaround and take as many pictures as we could. Let’s have a look at the outside!
Isn’t she gorgeous?
And the same angle without me, a much better sight indeed
The gear bay
And the dual Twin Wasps
Royal Navy it says
And the hidden hatch in the back, which I’m sure is quite useful!
Pulling the drain plugs, apparently she took some of the lake back with her
Some close ups
A cool feature are these built in tie-down points, along with rope to tie her to a buoy or anchor
Bye! Thanks for the good flight!
After everyone took plenty of pictures, we headed back to the conference room where we got our flight-certificate. I don’t have a picture unfortunately but it featured a lot of details about the aircraft which I really liked. The PH-PBY was towed back to her hangar which she nowadays shares with the DC-3 PH-PBA, and a Fokker 27 which registration I don’t know.
In all this was a fantastic flight which was well worth the wait and the money! It’s great to see this legendary and nowadays unique aircraft in such a pristine condition. The volunteers and operators that keep her flying have a great passion for this aircraft, which you can really sense when they take you on a flight. I can highly recommend flying the PH-PBY to anyone, whether you are crazy about old props like me, or just want to experience flying as it was meant to be. You won’t come to regret it! The Catalina is a long awaited, spectacular accomplishment in my quest to log as many types as I can afford.
You can find more information on the website of the Catalina foundation here: http://www.catalina-pby.nl/
I hope you liked reading my first report in a long time. Any questions or comments are always welcome.
Thanks for reading and best regards,