by John Strutman
For me, this story really starts in 1926, the year I was born. World War I was over and by the time I was 5 years old, Lindbergh had flown to Paris. Lindbergh's daring flight was retold at every supper table, and every red-blooded American shot the "Hun" out of the skies every night in his dreams.
Daredevil pilots dreamed up every stunt imaginable; flying Jennys into barns, acrobats hanging from airplane wings, and refueling from one Douglas C-1 airplane to a Fokker transport for an endurance record of 6 days. The designers were not sitting around either, Ford was building the trimotor, Curtiss Wright its Condor, and Douglas the DC2. Then I found out they were putting wings on boats and flying them. They were called seaplanes or flying boats, and for some reason this fascinated me.
The Italians had their Marchetti, the Germans their Dornier, the French had the Latecoere, the English, the Short, and the US had the Consolidated PBY-1. They had everything you could think of, multi-wings, multi-engines, multi-hulls, with struts and wires. But to me at this very early age, I thought the Consolidated PBY-1, affectionately known as the Catalina was the neatest looking flying boat in the world.
During World War II, the Catalina was very successful. It was used in the Pacific by the New Zealanders, Australians, and by our own forces. The New Zealanders had two squadrons of the flying boat, PBY-5, and are credited with rescuing hundreds of our service men out of the water. The Catalina was used in the Atlantic by the English and Canadians. The Canadians were licensed to build the PBY-5A during the war and built 600 of them.
After World War II, my brother and I learned to fly float planes and operated a seaplane at the Lake of the Ozarks for a few years. That was the best flying time in my life. But it was difficult to make enough money to raise a family, so we both moved on and got jobs working for McDonnell-Douglas for the next 37 years. Getting close to retirement, I decided to get back into flying and bought a private landing strip with a home on it. Then I decided to build an airplane.
That's right, you guessed it, an amphibian. After looking over the homebuilts, I chose the Seahawker. It is a biplane with side by side seating, and jumps up on the step in 5 seconds and flies like a banshee. Oops-sorry McDonnell.
A pilot friend said, "Strutman, you talk about amphibians all the time, you should go see a real amphibian. There is a Catalina PBY-5A sitting at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport." I had no idea the airplane I had admired the most was so close. So, every time I got a chance, I drove by Spirit Airport and admired the old girl. About the sixth trip there, I noticed a young man admiring her and kicking the tires. He had a boyish grin that reached from ear to ear. His knowledge of PBYs was far beyond the average admirer; he was the captain of this Catalina.
His name was Kirkland Broeder and, after introducing myself, I found out we both shared an admiration for the Catalina. Kirk is a professional pilot, flying for TWA, and is one of the very few pilots who can give instruction in a Catalina PBY-5A. Before our chance meeting was over, Kirk had invited me to be the anchor man on the next flight. Driving home that day I was on Cloud nine.
On the appointed day of our flight, I met the owner, Hank Hancock, a retired TWA captain, and entrepreneur who started an airline in Thailand. Hank was going to be the co-pilot, and as we prepared the Catalina for start up, Captain Broeder's steely eyes narrowed. Well, yes, I must confess there was some hint that Hank's party had lasted into the early morning. "John," said Captain Broeder, "Hank won't be flying today. You'll have to sit in the right-hand seat." It was difficult to wipe the grin off my face.
A run-down of my duties as a co-pilot included which knobs to turn, gear handle to rotate, brakes to set, and instruments to read. After the sumps were drained, each 1830 engine was bumped through 3 blades to check for hydraulic lock. Then with fuel boost on, count 9 blades, mag boost and magnetos on, throttle set, mixture at full rich, and those Pratts come to life. The sweetest sound you could imagine.
Hank needed to sell his Catalina, and all kinds of offers were received. A group from Australia was interested, and someone in Arizona. A group from Italy gave him enough money to move the Catalina to Mena, Arkansas to get an estimate on a new interior. Mena is where she sat for a year. Finally a group of New Zealanders made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The New Zealanders had formed a group called the "Catalina Company." They were composed of pilots and enthusiasts who remembered the courageous role the two Kiwi Squadrons of Catalinas played in World War II. They had rescued hundreds of US pilots and service men out of the sea.
The Catalina Company's point man was Tony Butcher, an ex-New Zealand Air Force crew chief and a civilian pilot with an instrument rating. His vast knowledge of round engines is highly regarded.
The export license for the Catalina was slow in coming. Promised schedules were not met. The Kiwis had tight schedules to meet in New Zealand. Anxiety ran high. Six 50 gallon fuel drums were mounted in the cabin for extra fuel on the two longest legs of the pacific flight - Los Angeles to Hilo, Hawaii, then Hilo to Tahiti. The electric fuel transfer pump did not arrive in time, so was sent on to Los Angeles to be installed there. The Los Angeles FAA would be issuing the final ferry permit.
Four New Zealanders arrived to accept the Catalina, two professional pilots and a navigator who was a licensed pilot. A woman, Peta Carey, from a New Zealand TV station was with them. The two professionals, Tom Neave and Gordon Thompson, had thousands of hours flying large aircraft. Tom was 72 years old and had flown PBY-5s in World War II with a thousand hours in the Catalina before stepping up to a larger flying boat, the English four engine Sonderland. Tom's return to a Catalina was 50 years to the day, when he stepped up to the flight deck and cranked up those two Pratts. His beautiful water landings were equaled only by his greasing it in on the numbers. Gordon was quickly acclimated to float-plane flying and more than satisfied Capt. Broeder, who was hired to ferry the PBY, along with Ronnie Gardener, the US flight examiner.
After all licenses were satisfied, we loaded up one morning and headed towards Santa Monica, CA. This was a shake down cruise of about 15 hours. We were taking the southern route and were just skimming by the New Mexico-Mexican border when it was my turn as relief co-pilot. With great pleasure, I stepped up to the flight deck to fly with Tom Neave, who had flown Catalinas so long ago. Our radios were not working very well, the RFI noise in one got so bad we could not use it, and the other was not much better. We had filled one 50 gallon drum with fuel and tried out our mechanical operated fuel transfer pump. It worked beautifully and in 25 minutes had pumped 50 gallons into the wing tanks. Tony Butcher and I were congratulating ourselves when word came back all radios were dead!
We had just crossed into California and the sun was low on the horizon. Trying to fly into Los Angeles with no radios would be suicidal. We had to get down! Capt. Broeder quickly found Blyth, CA as an alternate airport, and we headed for it. Mike Riddle, our A-1 mechanic on board, immediately headed for the back of the instrument panel and I followed with a flashlight. If you have never seen the back end of a 50 year old airplane instrument panel, let me tell you, it's a rat's nest of wires. To our amazement, Mike found a broken co-ax coming out of the last working radio. He pulled the co-ax down to where I could strip the wires back. I pig-tailed it with two short alligator clip leads, then Mike clipped onto the broken wire and held it. I signaled to Capt. Broeder to try the radio. It worked! We got down just at sunset. It took several beers that evening to relieve the tension.
The next day the radios were repaired. Oil was added to the leaky starboard engine, and we made for Santa Monica.. The Santa Monica airport is the home of the Museum of Flying, where the P51 Miss America resides. The museum shop's mechanics and volunteer workers are the finest in the country.
After a week's work of chasing squawks, we thought we were ready for the big one. The FAA had carefully checked out our electric pump fuel transfer systems and issued a ferry permit. We moved over to LAX for the longer runways. Water and food were stored, weather checked, and a flight plan issued. A rain squall moved through a few hours before takeoff and the starboard engine would not start. That engine would run through any amount of rain when hot, but would not start when wet and cold. We lost our takeoff slot. Back into the hanger with heat lamps on her 'till two in the morning.
The next day she started up like gangbusters and away we went. Hilo here we comet Well, almost. Our all-up weight was 34,000 pounds, with 2080 US gallons of fuel on board. She was 6000 pounds overloaded with a crew of seven. After run up and brakes released, Capt. Neave pointed her down the runway at full take off power, 44 inches and 2700 RPM. The old girl gracefully lifted off, then wheels up and meto power of 44 inches and 2600 RPM. After land was cleared, we settled into a climb power setting of 35 inches and 2300 RPM. We headed for the open sea. About an hour into the flight, Capt. Broeder asked for my hand held transceiver because the radios were starting to go bad. We had pumped one 50 gallon drum up into the wing tanks, when the starboard engine oil temperature slowly went to the red line. Capt. Broeder issued an order to return to Santa Monica and dump the remaining fuel. No one had foreseen such an emergency, but Tony Butcher quickly reconfigured the hoses and found a hole in the fuselage and stuck the hose overboard. Tony almost cried seeing 250 gallons going into the Pacific. He said, "That much fuel would fly me for a year back in Kiwiland." It was Capt. Thompson's turn at the wheel. Capt. Broeder was on the radio because the Kiwi's have a hard time understanding our communications. Apparently, "We are still divided by a common language."
We threaded our way into the Santa Monica air space and did tight figure eights until called in by the tower. We were at absolute gross weight for a landing and came in hot, 90 knots. Capt. Broeder yelled, "Flare, flare," then, "brakes, brakes!" The nose wheel went into resonance and I thought the whole front cockpit was coming off. We stopped 30 feet from going over the hill at the end of the runway. Capt. Broeder said, "We were just saving the brakes." However, the new Zealand TV lady recorded me saying "30 feet more and we would have been over the hill." The Kiwis called me "over the hill Strutman" the rest of the trip.
Our aborted flight had devastated all of us. The New Zealand and American Team had but one goal - get to New Zealand for their national holidays and other commitments. We failed! Christmas (1993 . . . ed) was a week away, so we all went home to lick our wounds.
Meanwhile, the Museum of Flying made the Kiwis an offer they could not refuse. They would rebuild the nose gear and brakes, fix the radios and the engine overheat problem, all over the holidays - well, almost. The work they did finish was excellent. Their volunteer radio man came in on Sunday to fix a last minute snag.
The return of the New Zealanders was headed by Dr. Ross Ewing, leader of the Catalina Company. Ross is an ex-New Zealand Air Force pilot with considerable flying and medical experience. Ross's gentle but firm hand provided the stabilizing force for our roller coaster ending.
All systems were go! We did a qualifying flight three times around Catalina Island, a last salute to her namesake, and put into LAX for the big one. Mother nature was smiling the next day when we took off at 5 PM with a 12 knot tailwind. The six 50 gallon fuel drums pumped up beautifully and the next morning, with the sun to our backs, we broke out to scattered clouds with Hilo, Hawaii dead ahead, "Ain't GPS's wonderful!"
The island of Hawaii is beautiful and one of the least populated. The people are friendly and what a place to relax for our next long leg to Tahiti.
Hilo to Tahiti, our longest leg of 2,183 miles gave us a flight time of 21 hours, 13 minutes. The fuel endurance is 24 hours plus one hour reserve. We seriously considered flying Hilo to Christmas Island to Tahiti to give us a lower gross weight but there were several problems associated with this. This flight plan needed 48 hours notice and we did not know if there was Avgas on this tiny island with a long landing strip, a product of the cold war. We elected to go for Tahiti.
Capt. Neave was at the controls. After run up and onto the runway, he looked back to see five smiling faces with thumbs up. As the throaty roar of the Pratts caught on, we lumbered down the runway. The Catalina's drooping wings slowly flexed up to catch the wind. At takeoff of 44 inches, 2700 RPM, he throttled back to 44 inches, 2600 RPM with the wheels up. After clearing land, we settled back to a slow climb of 36 inches 2300 RPM. Tahiti here we come. Well, almost.
Capt. Broeder had talked Flight Control into allowing us to stay at 1000 feet until we had burned off 4 hours of fuel, then up to 5000 feet. One of the captains had to be on the flight at all times while the co-pilots eagerly awaited their turn to do most of the flying. I was trying to sleep, but one eye was usually open as the co-pilots changed, and Ross made his position reports to Flight Control back in Honolulu.
The melodic drone of the Pratts continued on, being interrupted softly by the left engine slipping sync and the co-pilot making a small adjustment. It was near 0400 hours in the morning when Capt. Broeder stopped by before his turn on the flight deck. With our feet propped on the bulkhead he said, "John, in your wildest dream, did you ever think, at our meeting a year and a half ago, you and I would be ferrying a Catalina to New Zealand?" "No," I replied, "not in my wildest. This is a dream of a lifetime." In less than an hour that dream came back to hard reality.
The changing of the flight crew took place. The co-pilot was a mechanic and pilot we picked up in California. Everyone had settle down to wait his turn with one eye open, when out of the night and startlingly bright, the left engine coughed up a flame that stabbed at our hearts. Its cracking bark was stopped only by the captain reducing power. Ross stepped back from a conference on the flight deck saying, "Hopefully, it's carburetor ice." This opinion was painfully denied when a few minutes later the engine again barked a stabbing flame through the carburetor that could only be stopped by reducing power. I knew that we were in trouble when Capt. Broeder told Ross to issue a PAN emergency to Honolulu Flight Control and then diverted towards Christmas Island 330 miles away. The order came down to dump the last 50 gallons of fuel overboard to lighten the load. Another engine backfire required another reduction of power. The captain asked Ross to issue a Mayday, and give a position report. I knew we were in deep trouble.
Baggage was transferred from the nose compartment to the tail for a better trim. A conference was held on how to keep the Catalina in the air. The fuel dumps were removed when the airplane was converted to civilian use. There was no way to safely get to the wing tanks and dump fuel while flying without a prior hookup. The engine backfired again and was reduced to 0 thrust, but still running. Capt. Broeder hit the feather switch, nothing happened. The feather pump had always indicated a spike on the AMP meter during engine run up, but now it failed. It was physically difficult to hold the airplane in trim, and we could not maintain altitude with METO power on the good engine. Ross told Flight Control we were going down. Capt. Broeder came on the PA saying we had thirty minutes before impact, prepare for a ditching. The cabin was cleared of loose objects. Flight Control could not give us an altimeter setting for this part of the ocean. Ditching at sea in the night is extremely dangerous. If you skip off a swell and then pitch down into the next one, the nose gear doors blow off, the in-rushing water splits the hull open and there are no survivors.
We would have been better served if Capt. Neave had been able to get into the right hand seat, but the situation had deteriorated so fast it was no longer safe to transfer co-pilots. Capt. Neave strapped in beside me. I looked back at the other three strapped in with grim faces. The thought occurred to me that this may be close to the end. I said to Tom, "If I cash in my chips tonight, I could not have done it with a better bunch of guys." Slowly he turned and smiled; we shook hands, nothing else was said and we both drifted off to more personal thoughts.
Ross called out at 300 feet, "Brace yourself!" A minute later we hit the water. It was like flying into a concrete wall. We skipped off the swell and Ross called out, "Hold on for another one!" The co-pilot failed to throttle back the #2 engine, so Capt. Broeder reached up and cut the power and kept her nose high for final impact. The last thirty seconds seemed to take 30 minutes. We finally slammed to a stop.
The left wing was down in the water, we were on our side and I could hear the water rushing by a foot from my head. I was worried about a window breaking next to me and water coming in. I heard Capt. Broeder tell himself to deploy the floats. The sweet sound of the screw jacks came on as it laboriously screwed itself to fulfillment. With the floats down she righted herself. Capt. Broeder turned the cabin lights on and we all stood up and cheered.
We were down and no one was hurt. We all felt a tremendous gratitude for Capt. Broeder's successful ditching. Ross called Flight Control in Honolulu. They could still hear us. Our position was given, they called back saying a C130 was on the way and a container ship had been diverted. Capt. Broeder called out to check the bilge. Tom and Tony both came back with a sober reply that we were taking on water. A bilge pump was turned on and the water disappeared. A stream of profane and abusive language was directed at us by the California co-pilot.
Then the New Zealanders were singled out for abuse. We were all stunned! I was embarrassed that he was an American. He then climbed out of the overhead hatch and onto the wing where he just sat while the rest of us returned to saving the ship. I opened the two blister hatches and cleared the area of junk; we were all to assemble there if we abandoned ship.
The bilge pump failed and we turned on the last one. It lasted about 15 minutes and failed. Like magic, Tony reconfigured the electric fuel transfer pump into a bilge pump that sucked the water out immediately, but it failed after 15 minutes. We then hooked up the mechanical fuel pump. That lasted for 30 minutes and then also failed. Then, with great determination, Tony removed the seats and decking to get to the leak area. Tony called for some PK screws out of the junk box to plug up the popped rivet holes, I knew I was in trouble.
I had just thrown the box over board. "Tony, I said the box has been thrown overboard." "Well who was the SOB of a MF CX2*! who did that?" To my dismay I acknowledged I did. Ross turned to me and said, "John you're no SOB." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but I felt I had to redeem myself. I grabbed a screwdriver and started to take screws out of equipment racks until Tonys' needs were satisfied. PK screws were put in the leaking rivet holes, but long leaking seams could not be stopped.
We set up a chain gang to bail water into an icebox, then carry it out and dump it through the stern hatches. After three hours, we were exhausted, and the water level was gaining on us. In a last determined act, Tony jumped into the pilot seat and started up both engines. We all hoped that some magic would happen, but the left engine would only run in idle and the good one just pushed us around in circles. We were beat!
A conference was held. Captain Broeder issued his last order, "Abandon ship." We deployed our life raft. We each took one suitcase and all the water and food was put on board. We were all exhausted and some of us were seasick.
It was difficult to leave Catalina 5404J, but we had no choice, she was going down. It was sad as we floated away. Ross gave some medication to the California co-pilot who was very seasick. Tony again rose to the occasion with his humorous jokes and wisecracks. He kept us laughing and we forgot our dire situation. After about an hour on the raft, we heard a loud roar and down on the deck at 300 feet came a United States Coast Guard C130. Man, did that ever look good! I will never regret my tax dollars going to the US Coast Guard, NEVER, NEVER, EVER!
They circled and dropped three smoke flares, then came in on a low pass and dropped three life rafts that floated into us. We tied those up for spares. We also got a package with food, water, and an emergency radio. The radio did not work very well and we ended up using my hand held radio that worked beautifully.
The C130 told us the container ship, "Direct Kookaburra" would reach us just before dark. They then had to leave to refuel at Christmas Island. The C130 returned that evening to guide the Kookaburra straight to us. After 11 hours in the raft on the open sea, we felt we knew what it was like to be a survivor. We were anxious to get aboard the Kookaburra before dark.
Capt. Sussac of the Kookaburra skillfully maneuvered his large container ship alongside us dead in the water. The only way to the deck was a rope ladder hanging down the side. The deck seemed to be 100 feet high, and the thought of going up this dangling rope ladder scared the life out of me. A line was heaved and it missed us. Fourteen eager hands grabbed for the next line and the deck crew inched us back to the hanging ladder. The ladder did not go all the way to the water. You could only reach the ladder from the top of a swell. Timing was crucial, if you missed you were in deep, deep trouble. We all made it to the top with cheers and hugs from the Filipino deck crew.
The New Zealanders were apprehensive about being rescued by an Australian ship. "Boy, are they going to kid us." It turned out the ship line was French-owned, there was not an Aussie on board. The captain was French, the officers mostly Polish and Filipino, the deck crew all Filipino. This French line has five ships that go from Australia to New Zealand to San Francisco, CA. A ship only passes that spot in the Pacific Ocean every 11 days. Boy, were we lucky! Capt. Sussac and his crew were wonderful. It was seven relaxing days back to San Francisco. Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge held special meaning for the Americans, we were back home! For the Kiwis, it was a new challenge.
This is the end of the story now and I should go practice my stiff upper lip One thing, I'm sure of, these Kiwis will return. Would I go on another trip if asked? You bet'cha! The second time around would be a piece of cake.
Catalina Dreaming, a book by Ross Ewing
Primarily an aviation adventure story involving privately owned ex-military planes and a worldwide search for one in particular - an airworthy PBY-5A "Catalina" flying boat. It a fascinating personal account of one man's passion for classic ex-military planes - he had been a military pilot in his younger days - and his dream of getting a Catalina to New Zealand and flying it and sharing it with the public, Catalinas being very much a part of New Zealand's aviation heritage. The dream turned into somewhat of a nightmare and even finding a Catalina - let alone bringing it to New Zealand - was hugely ambitious and turned out to be full of uncertainty, drama and - initially - disaster.
The book includes a dramatic first-hand account of a night-time ditching of a Catalina and then its abandonment in the mid-Pacific Ocean. But there is more human interest along the way and the book is dedicated to Ilama Dawe and Jacqui Bland, both of whom were cancer patients of the author (who was also a doctor in general medical practice); and both of whom had developed an interest in "the Catalina project".
The aircraft now raises donations for the Cancer Foundation as part of a "Flying in the Face of Cancer" project. The book is well-illustrated and contains historical photos of military Catalinas as well as some of the other ex-military planes - Harvards and a Vampire jet (the author had flown them in the air force in his early days) - that he had since helped set up as privately owned ventures. Catalina Dreaming is a 96 pages soft cover book. This is the second edition (the first, 1996, is now unavailable), which has been completely re-written, re-illustrated and updated.