A dream realised

2013-01-16 00:00

ON Tuesday, December 11, 2012, I realised a 52-year-old dream. A telephone call out of the blue the previous Thursday had me flying to Johannesburg on Sunday, and that same afternoon, I was standing in hangar five at Rand Airport staring at my childhood dream. It was a twin-engined, 1943 vintage, Consolidated PBY-5a amphibious aircraft also known as the Catalina. The Americans termed it a PBY, (The PB stood for Patrol Bomber and the Y stood for Consolidated Aircraft Corporation). The British named it the Catalina. After many years of on and off refurbishment, the aged lady, in a trim new outfit of pale-grey hull and deep-yellow wing, was flying again — and I was promised a place.

When I was 12 years old, I built a plastic model of a Catalina and that fascination has endured to the present. I came across the war-time history of the Royal Air Force and SAAF involvement with these classic flying boats when I worked for the Natal Parks Board at St Lucia. In 1982, I waded across part of Lake St Lucia to examine the wreckage of one that had crashed there in 1943. I was thrilled to see a Catalina perform at the Virginia Air Show one year, wrote magazine articles on them, and corresponded with men who had served at the old flying boat base on the eastern shores.

In 2005, I met Captain Flippie Vermeulen, a senior captain in SAA, and founder of the SAA Historic Flight. He admitted to an addiction to old aircraft with radial engines and propellers. I told him of my fascination with Catalinas and he invited me to his hangar at Rand Airport. There stood a perfectly intact Catalina, dominating the smaller aircraft with its massive, high-mounted, 34-metre wing.

This aircraft was built in 1943 by Canadian Vickers under licence from Consolidated Aircraft. It served in the Canadian navy until 1962, was decommissioned and passed to the forestry department as a water bomber fighting forest fires for the next 30 years. It was sold to private concerns in Greece.

In 2001, it was operating in Mozambique and later ended up at Rand Airport.

In 2005, a wealthy American sea-plane enthusiast bought it and began the restoration. Now it has been sold again to another American who sent out a three-man crew to fly it back to the United States. An epic trip — from Rand Airport to the west coast of Africa, to Sierra Leone, across the Atlantic to Brazil, up the east coast of South America, across the Bahamas and into the U.S.

The Catalina has been fitted with two new 18-cylinder Pratt and Whitney R1830-92 engines developing 900 horsepower each, and the entire aircraft had been thoroughly overhauled. It was also fitted with new perspex panels throughout and had been repainted in the colours of some war-time American PBYs.

I was driven to the airport by a young commercial pilot friend Tyler Clark, who was enthralled by the prospect of seeing the Catalina. He and I sat against the hangar wall as the Cat was hauled out and parked in front of us.

The two pilots, Bob Franicola and Mike Castilo, began their checks, the fuel pump shrieked, and then the whine of the inertia starters began. Slowly the massive port propeller began to turn. Black smoke belched from exhausts as, one by one, the 18 cylinders began to fire and the discordant clatter settled to a deep rumble. The starboard engine, too, started easily and after “running them up”, the pilots switched off and climbed out.

“We’ll go up in about 10 minutes,” called Castilo. “You guys might as well find yourselves a seat in the meantime.”

Clark grinned broadly when he realised the invitation included him. We quickly clambered into the un-insulated interior of the old plane, finding seats near the big perspex blisters that used to house a.50 machine gun each — and strapped ourselves in.

The interior was not upholstered and the ruggedly built frame of the aircraft was clearly visible. It was no wonder that the PBY earned a reputation for reliability during World War 2.

We heard the now-familiar whine of the starters and the two big radial engines quickly burst into life. We taxied out to the top of Runway 11. The pilots again ran the engines up to maximum revolutions and down to an idle again. It was like being in a cliff-hanging drama. Would they? Or wouldn’t they take off? It seemed that they wouldn’t, so with a feeling of sick disappointment we taxied back to the hangar for some further adjustments.

After a bit of tinkering, the big radial engines started once more and we taxied out onto the runway. This time there were no interruptions and after a surprisingly short run for a 14-ton aircraft, I felt the Catalina sway slightly as it became airborne, lifting easily into the air at a paltry 65 knots. A 52-year-old dream had become reality. It was an emotional moment for me.

We scuttled aft to the blister compartment. It was like flying inside a greenhouse. The view was amazing — the Catalina floating through the sky, around us was a broad canvas of cloud, blue sky and urban skyline.

I saw the main landing gear retract, the large wheels fitting effortlessly into a recess in the curved side. But then they came out again, retracted, and came out again.

There was a problem with the nose gear. We headed back to the airport.

The pilot put the Catalina onto the runway but held the nose up until we were almost stationary, then gently lowered the aircraft onto the nose wheel. The gear held and there was no further drama, so we taxied back to the hangar followed by two hopeful fire trucks.

For us it was the end of a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We retired to the Harvard Café for a celebratory beer and cigar.

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