One Heck of a Flying Boat

Ever since I got started with Aviation photography, I was drawn to the PBY. Something about the design of the plane made it stand out compared to the others, which isn’t to say that the others were bad looking. Made by Consolidated Aircraft Company the Catalina PBY had a wide array of roles throughout WWII, including as I have just learned, a horizontal bomber during the first year of the war. It was quickly found out that the PBY-4 was a terrible horizontal daylight bombing aircraft. 

The two greatest contributions the plane made was as a patrol aircraft and a search and rescue plane. Downed airmen or stranded sailors looked to the skies in both the Pacific and Atlantic for these great winged birds descending from the skies to bring the stranded back to safety. As a patrol plane, the PBY could go large distances and with a nine-man crew, there were lots of eyes scanning the horizons for ships. Unfortunately, like most things in time they become outdated and more trouble then they are worth. Due to the size and limited interest, only a handful of airworthy PBY’s are still flying today.

The Consolidated PBY Catalina

When I first saw this plane it was in a black and white photo much like the one below. Many famous black and white photographs were taken after the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, December 7th 1941, of the ships and planes that were destroyed at the base. Amongst those photographs was a shot of a row of PBY flying boats that were beached after the bombing. Shots like that one have stuck in my mind as ones of interest and while I don’t want to recreate that exact image, the feeling and power in the image is something that I strive for. It was that image that first got me interested in this particular aircraft and is to this day one of my favorite planes, Consolidated PBY Catalina.


The PBY was a long range Patrol Bomber that served many uses by the Armed Services as well as Air Forces for many other nations. It was developed throughout the 1930’s and first flew on March 28th, 1935. Over three thousand were built between 1936-1945. They were retired from the US Navy in 1957 but remained in service with the US Air Force until the 1980’s. Today many still remain active as an aerial fire bomber all over the world. One of the reasons it was such a successful aircraft was that it had a range of about 2,500 miles. The combination of such a large range, cargo hold up to 4,000 lbs including possible armaments, and landing capabilities on both water and land made this an ideal airplane for the Pacific.


The designation PBY actually means Patrol Bomber and then the Y is for Consolidated. While it was primarily designed for that purpose the plane served many others throughout it’s career. Such roles included, antisubmarine warfare, maritime patrols, night attack and interdiction, search and rescue and some early commercial use. Throughout those roles it was given several nicknames, two of the most popoular were the “Cat” for combat missions and “Dumbo” for rescue operations. One of the most interesting features of the plane is its Wingtip retractable floats which allow for greater stability when landing on the water and more streamlined flight performance when in the air. This is seen above and below.


This particular PBY belongs to Jim Slattery and his Greatest Generation Naval Museum. While several examples still remain on static display at various museums, this is one of the few flying examples with a military scheme, both inside and out.


This PBY, as well as in the first image, is part of Fantasy of Flight in Polk City Fl. It is a PBY-5A Catalina built in 1943. The name Catalina came after the Catalina Islands in 1941. The United States insignia on the plane actually goes back to WWI which wanted the three primary colors of the American flag present in their insignia. The blue circle around a white star and a red inner circle roughly 1/3 the diameter of the blue outer circle. During WWII this was put onto American planes but found that friendly fire incidents arose, initially being blamed on the red circle which had at that point been reduced to appear as the points of a center of a pentagon. The overall look at a distance was too similar to the Japanese Hinomaru symbol and thus a pole was taken in which it was the shape that was consistently reported as being the problem, not color. By June of 1943 the insignia was redesigned with bars flanking the roundel with a red border all the way around. By September of 1943 the red was still unsatisfactory and a blue outline was put around the design. By 1944, US Navy aircraft were painted in almost the same gloss midnight blue as the outer blue line of the insignia as well as the roundel, so the blue was left off with the white remaining.

The PBY Catalina was one of the most important players over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It also made a fair reputation in the Indian Ocean. It is known to have sunk forty submarines in the Atlantic on antisubmarine missions, while at the same time PBY’s were picking up downed airmen in the Pacific. Thousands of men owe their lives to the this plane. While it certainly is not the fastest plane, with a speed of 179mph, nor is it the sleekest looking with its giant upper wing, the PBY does have a long and important note in the pages of Aviation History.

Images Captured with Nikon D3, 24-70 AF-S f/2.8, 200-400 VR, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

When to go Black and White

When to convert an image to black and white? This has always been a question that I have asked and is often answered during the moment of capture. Sometimes it’s the subject or sometimes it’s the mood of the moment, but something about the moment it clicks that makes you think, “hey that will be a nice black and white.” It’s common in most fields of photography but in aviation it is a lot less. I never quite figured out why. Perhaps it’s because everything we knew about aviation was once captured in black and white and now everything has to be captured in color. It’s the difference between historical images and contemporary images.



These two examples are ones that I took a while back of a PBY Catalina and a T6 Texan. Both of these images I converted not because of the mood, or the subject, or even the clouds but of the combination of everything. The goal was to recreate the historic images that lead the way in avaition photography. A classic black and white image of a PBY beached at Pearl Harbor with destruction all around has become a staple in military history. As well ha all the images of trainer aircraft flying above the clouds. It’s simple ideas of recreating the past that fuels the projects for the future. Theses ideas spark others and the cycle continues. Black and White photography is not just about the right elements, but about the overall message being conveyed.

One Big Flying Boat

You got to love flying boats. It’s one thing for a plane to land on a piece of earth but landing on water and then taking off again is just something else. The Consolidated PBY Catalina was one of the most widely used flying boats in WWII for air sea rescue, patrols, cargo, and antisubmarine activity. It was used in the military up till the 1980’s and in some areas is still used for firefighting as a water dumper. However more are seen today in museums than they are flying about, so to have the opportunity to photograph this plane was awesome.


One of the rather unique features of this aircraft is the wing pontoons go up and down from the edge of the wings. The pontoons go down when the plane lands on the water and go back up, as seen, when the plane is flying as a way to decrease drag and increase speed. Although it may not be the fastest plane, it sure is great observation plane.

In the Camera Bag:
Nikon D3, 200-400 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

More to the Gallery

As some of you might have expected from earlier this week, there are now two new additions to my Aviation Gallery. First obviously is the PBY. It’s just too cool of a plane not to have up there. The next one wasn’t one of my favorites at first. The L39 which is a Vietnam era jet has been at the Reno Air Races for some time and i have photographed it a number of times. Until i got this static shot last year i didn’t think it was that great of a plane. Visually of course. It just seemed to commercial looking, don’t know why just how it seemed. One morning during PRS the skies weren’t great, no clouds, just light and with some help from ACR this was the result. Now i can see the beauty in the plane.

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Black and White VS. Color

This is not at all a new topic, the idea of choosing when to convert images into black and white. Ever since i started in aviation photography a couple of years ago, i have slowly converted some images. The problem that seems to arise is when. The fact these planes are seventy years old creates an overwhelming feeling that they should always be in black and white. It just creates that nostalgia old world feel. In a way there is a seduction with the images in black and white which can be just addicting and that’s where the problem lies. It can be over done.

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This past month the folks and myself were down in Florida for Photoshop world. Dad’s precon was at Fantasy of Flight, which is an incredible museum/theme park and one of the planes in particular caught my eye. This PBY was in great shape considering there aren’t many left flying nowadays. Well i shot the plane from many angles, tight and wide, and afterward i discovered something interesting about the plane. The PBY is probably one of the best planes to turn into a black and white image, here’s why. This particular plane has a white point, the star, and a black point, the nose so the two basics of a good black and white are already there. No how intense those colors are are entirely up to the photographers discretion. The other powerful element this plane has is its wing span. These planes have a really long wing and it shows in an image. It is so long that below 24mms you have to be careful otherwise that line will start to bend. That line is just so powerful that it does bring the eye in. It’s one of those planes that just needs to be photographed.

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Images captured with Nikon D3, AF-S 24-70, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film

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