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Modern Catalina Flying Boat Will Fill Unmet Needs of US Navy and Coast Guard

Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina Flying Boat

It did what a helicopter or Osprey can't. Its endurance was unmatched. Under fire, and in rough seas, it rescued thousands of sailors from situations no other ship, boat, or aircraft could. But at the end of World War II, land-based airports became much more common, and as was the case with almost all seaplanes, it fell out of use. Consequently, it was discarded in 1956 by the U.S. military services. And in doing so, they discarded capabilities they have yet to replace.

But it appears that an opportunity to rectify this oversight is presenting itself courtesy of Catalina Aircraft based in Florida, which has embarked on a venture to bring back the unique set of capabilities represented by Consolidated’s World War II era PBY Catalina Flying Boat (pdf). The goal of Catalina Aircraft’s next-generation amphibious aircraft (NGAA) will be to deliver a plane chock full of modern avionics with the versatility and capabilities of the original PBY Catalina Flying Boat—as enhanced by modern materials and more powerful/reliable engines.

Two Variants Initially, there will be two Catalina 2 variants, one targeting civilian/commercial use, and the special use variant (SUV) with more power and more range, targeting military and governmental applications. The civilian version will have a max take-off weight (MTOW) of 32,000 pounds, and the SUV version’s MTOW will be 40,000 pounds. Both the commercial version and SUV version will feature powerful turboprop engines capable of cruising at 212 mph and 230 mph, respectively. For comparison, the original PBY Catalina’s cruising speed was 124 mph. And along with being faster, the Catalina 2’s more powerful engines should require a shorter runway to take off than the original Catalina.

Civilian/Commercial Use Variant On the civilian side of things, the Catalina 2 will be able to bring passengers and cargo into areas and regions not supported by traditional airports. And along with being able to provide unique vacation experiences, the Catalina will provide civilian operators, and even governmental operators, with a highly capable platform for quickly responding to emergencies in areas accessible by seas, lakes, and rivers. Other use cases include fishery stocking, an air ambulance service, humanitarian aid, offshore facilities support, and VIP transport, etc. And while it will not be able to carry as much cargo as its beefier sibling, its 12,000-pound max cargo capacity is still very respectable and capable of meeting the needs of many potential clients looking to provide niche transport services. It will be certified to operate in Sea State 2 conditions.

The Special Use Variant Along with greater endurance and range than the commercial variant, the SUV version will be certified to land and take off in conditions of up to Sea State 3. But as was the case with the original Catalina, it should be able to handle rougher seas in situations of dire need. As noted, its range will be substantially greater than the civilian version’s 1,525 nautical miles, and its endurance will be greater than 20 hours. Its max cargo capacity will be around 16,000 pounds. The Catalina 2 SUV won’t replace helicopters when it comes to rough sea rescues that are within a helicopter’s limited range. But if you're doing a search and rescue mission beyond 100 miles or so, the Catalina 2, with its vastly greater operating radius, will be able to cover many dozen times the surface area a helicopter can cover, and carry on operations four to six times longer before needing refueling. It literally can fly out 1,000 miles to rescue someone, or many someones, and fly back. And along with being able to take off and land on bodies of water, it will be able to take off and land on grass, dirt, and sand. Finally, for scenarios where being able to go slow is an advantage, the SUV’s wings allow it to fly comfortably at 70 miles per hour for very long periods of time.

But What About the Osprey? Sailors have a joke: “The Osprey can wave at you while you drown.” The fact of the matter is that the viciously powerful hot jet/prop downwash of Air Force’s Marines CV-22 and MV-22 Ospreys, coupled with their tendency to overheat if forced to hover in one place too long, makes them almost useless as an air-sea rescue platform. And while a lightly loaded Osprey has a range much superior to that of a helicopter, only a very lightly loaded Osprey will come close to matching the range of the SUV Catalina 2, which will almost certainly exceed 2,000 miles. And without extra fuel tanks, the Osprey’s loiter/patrol time is about one-fifth that of the Catalina 2 SUV. Even maxed out with three mission auxiliary tanks and zero passengers, the Osprey can only eke out about five hours of mission endurance (pdf). So, while the Osprey can do some things the Catalina 2 can't, it's entirely outclassed when it comes to long-duration patrols and air-sea rescues. Additionally, while the Catalina 2 isn't as heavy or powerful as the Osprey, it looks as if there are a number of scenarios in which it will be able to transport cargo loads farther than the Osprey due to its overall more fuel-efficient design. Further, being mechanically simpler, the Catalina 2 will almost certainly be more reliable and cost less to maintain. And while its raison d'être is its ability to land on water, it can also land and take off from land-based airstrips that are much shorter than most cargo aircraft. Other use cases include, but are not limited to, surveillance and reconnaissance, firefighting, anti-submarine warfare, special op forces insertion and extraction, and any other number of missions, including mass rescues.

Mass Rescues When it comes to mass air-sea rescues, no other platform in the U.S. military inventory even comes close. An example of this unmatched capability can be found in World War II when LCDR Adrian Marks (USN) landed his PBY Catalina in 12-foot swells to rescue 56 sailors from the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, which had been sunk by a Japanese submarine. With no more room inside the plane, the crew strapped sailors to the wings. And then the Catalina used the tremendous lift provided by its massive wings to get back into the air and fly the sailors to safety.

In better sea state conditions, an Australian Catalina managed to lift off while carrying 87 Dutch sailors rescued from their sunken freighter. This long-range mass rescue capability is one that's sorely lacking by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

Coming When? Deliveries are projected to begin in 2029, and as reported by Popular Mechanics, Catalina Aircraft already has a lead customer. Larry Reece, the president of Catalina Aircraft, also confirmed that he has received inquiries from civilian, government, and military sectors and that he and his team “look forward to supporting our future customers’ needs across the globe.” Of course, no Catalina 2 exists yet, and pricing is yet to be announced, but if Catalina Aircraft is successful in producing a modern, more capable version of the Catalina at a reasonable price point, it's hard to imagine that there won’t be a lot of interest and sales for an aircraft that truly does what other aircraft can't.

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