World War II: Consolidated PBY Catalina

PBY Catalina. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Consolidated PBY Catalina (PBY-5A) - Specifications:


  • Length: 63 ft., 10 in.
  • Wingspan: 104 ft.
  • Height: 21 ft., 1 in.
  • Wing Area: 1,400 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 20,910 lbs.
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 35,420 lbs.
  • Crew: 10


  • Maximum Speed: 196 mph
  • Range: 2,530 miles
  • Service Ceiling: 15,800 ft.
  • Power Plant:  2 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-92 Twin Wasp engines, 1,200 hp each


  • 3 .30 cal. machine guns 
  • 2 .50 cal. machine guns 
  • 4,000 lbs. of bombs or depth charges or torpedoes

PBY Catalina - Design & Development:

In the early 1930s, the US Navy became increasingly concerned about rising Japanese strength in the Pacific.  Due to this, it sought a new maritime patrol aircraft to replace its fleet of Consolidated P2Y and Martin P3M flying boats.  While these aircraft were still relatively new, they lacked both sufficient range and payload.  Responding to a formal request from the US Navy for a monoplane patrol aircraft in October 1933, Isaac Laddon at Consolidated commenced work on a new design dubbed the Model 28.  Taking inspiration from the earlier P2Y, Laddon created an aircraft centered on a two-step hull.

Unlike earlier designs, the Model 28, later designated the XP3Y-1, featured a large parasol wing mounted on a pylon over the fuselage and supported by external struts.  For stability on the water, two floats were mounted outboard under the wings.

  Using a system licensed from Saunders-Roe, these floats retracted in flight to become stream-lined wingtips.  Power for the aircraft came from a pair of Pratt & Whitney R-1830-54 Twin Wasp radial engines mounted on the leading edge of the wing.  The rear of the XP3Y-1 utilized a large cantilever cruciform tail unit.

  For armament, Laddon's design carried four .30 in. Browning AN/M2 machine guns and up to 2,000 lbs. of bombs.

Completing the prototype in 1935, the aircraft first flew on March 28 before being offered to the US Navy for trials.  Impressed with the XP3Y-1's performance, the US Navy returned it to Consolidated that fall and offered a list of improvements.  These included the use of more powerful engines and enhancements to the vertical tail surfaces.  With these alterations in place, the aircraft, now designated XPBY-1 returned to the air on May 16, 1936.  Competing against the Douglas XP3D-1 the following month, the Consolidated aircraft easily defeated its foe and the US Navy placed an initial order for sixty aircraft.

PBY Catalina - Variants:   

Entering production, the first PBY-1s commenced service in October 1936.  The following year, modifications were made to the type including altering the tail and strengthening the hull.  Dubbed the PBY-2, this model was followed by the PBY-3 which included more powerful engines.  In May 1938, the PBY-4 arrived which utilized stronger engines, propeller spinners, and, on some units, distinctive acrylic glass blisters over the waist gun positions.

  Two years later, in September 1940, the PBY-5 entered use which saw engine enhancements, removal of the propeller spinners, inclusion self-sealing fuel tanks, and standardization of the waist blisters. 

A year later, this variant was further modified into the PBY-5A which included retractable landing gear, making the aircraft amphibious, as well as stronger armor, a tail gun position, and revised nose turret.  In January 1945, the final variant of the aircraft, the PBY-6A moved into production.  This included modifications drawn from the PBN Nomad such as a longer bow, larger tail, improved electrical system, stronger wing, radar, and enlarged fuel tanks.  A total of 3,305 PBYs of all types were constructed with the most numerous being the PBY-5A (805 units).       

PBY Catalina - Operational History:

Entering service with VP-11 in October 1936, variants of the PBY soon came to equip the majority of the US Navy's patrol squadrons.

  With the beginning of World War II in Europe, PBYs were provided to Great Britain through the Lend-Lease Program.  Flying for the British, the aircraft earned the nickname "Catalina." In May 1941, Coastal Command Catalinas played a key role in locating the German battleship Bismarck and directing Royal Navy forces in to destroy it.  As the conflict progressed, PBYs took part in the Battle of the Atlantic in patrol and anti-submarine warfare roles.  In the course of these operations, the type sank forty German U-boats.  During the course of the war, Catalinas were flown by a wide array of Allied nations and saw service in most theaters of the conflict.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, US Navy PBYs were among the few available aircraft with the range to conduct meaningful patrols in the Pacific.  In June 1942, PBYs succeeded in locating the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway.  These sighting reports allowed Rear Admirals Frank J. Fletcher and Raymond Spruance to inflict a devastating blow on the Japanese and sink four enemy carriers.  PBY squadrons typically operated from a seaplane tender which would anchor in a protected body of water.  These ships housed fuel, munitions, as well as repair facilities. 

As part of their patrol capability, Catalinas were often employed for search and rescue missions across the Pacific.  While frequently picking up downed aviators, in August 1945 the aircraft aided in the rescue of the survivors from the sinking of USS Indianapolis.

  Search and rescue PBYs earned the nickname "Dumbo" after the Disney character and generally embarked a doctor and pharmacist's mate.  By the end of 1943, Dumbo Catalinas would follow large air strikes and loiter outside of the battle zone to collect downed pilots.  Though hazardous duty, their efforts were greatly appreciated by other pilots who often zealously defended Dumbos when they were under attack.     

In late 1942, the US Navy began converting some PBY units into night attack aircraft.  These PBY-5As possessed airborne search radar and magnetic anomaly detectors.  Painted flat black and with flame dampers installed on their exhaust ports, they quickly became known at "Black Cats" and were virtually invisible at night.  Initially flying from the Solomon Islands, Black Cat units mounted highly effective attacks on Japanese shipping using a mix of bombs, torpedoes, and machine guns.  Royal Australian Air Force Catalinas also played an offensive role by mining ports throughout the Southwest Pacific, Philippines, and China.     

PBY Catalina - Postwar:

With the end of the war, the US Navy quickly retired the majority of its flying boat PBYs.  Amphibian aircraft were retained and used in varying roles until 1957.  The Catalina continued to see service with numerous nations and came to prominence again in 1952 when a Swedish PBY was downed by a Soviet fighter.  As the Catalina's military use declined, surplus aircraft found new lives in a variety of civilian roles including passenger service and aerial firefighting.

  The majority of PBYs still in flyable condition are employed in the latter.  

Selected Sources:

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Consolidated PBY Catalina." ThoughtCo, Aug. 12, 2015, Hickman, Kennedy. (2015, August 12). World War II: Consolidated PBY Catalina. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Consolidated PBY Catalina." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 11, 2017).