How The World Wags
By Dave Kiffer
This week, someone on EBAY is auctioning off a PBY!
I'm sure most of you are thinking that a PBY must be some sort of odd healthfood sandwich, maybe peanut butter and yucca root or something.
Au contraire! It is another long-lost emissary of my Ketchikan youth. A genuine Consolidated PBY 5A Super Cat. One of the biggest, baddest float planes to every grace Tongass Narrows. And this one actually did grace local air and waters for quite some time.
According to the auction listing, this particular bird (which was built in 1947), flew the Prince Rupert to Queen Charlotte route in the early 1950s, then was bought by Alaska Coastal in Juneau and served Ketchikan when Alaska Coastal and Ellis merged in 1962. It retired to the Caribbean when Alaska Coastal Ellis merged with Alaska Airlines in the late 1960s and has been living in a PBY nursing home of sorts in Moses Lake, Washington for the past 20 years or so.
The bidding is currently at $250,000 but the reserve has not been met. I'm guessing you can own this baby for a cool $350,000! (that doesn't count the estimated $20,000 to get the thing back in shape to fly. It's been grounded for a long time)
If I had been born in the 1940s or early 1950s, I would have fonder memories of Ellis Airlines and its fleet of smaller Grumman Goose amphibians. But my first flying memories are of the early 1960s and the big PBYs. The 1,700 horsepower, nearly 150 mph, 40,000 pound Catalina flying boats always caught my eye along the waterfront. With a length of 60 feet and a wingspan of 100 feet, they were bigger than most of the boats.
The wings were nearly 12 feet higher than the bottom of the hull and that made it look like those huge engines were almost detached from the rest of the plane. It was though the fuselage was hanging from the wing/engines, kinda of like sort of a big, honking, mechanical turkey vulture.
PB stood for "patrol bomber" and that further added to the planes' coolness. When you are a pre-adolescent boy, anything having to do with "war" is cool. I had seen many pictures of PBYs in history books (one of the most reprinted Pearl Harbor photographs shows a flight line of PBYs being attacked on the ground by Japanese bombers.)
Plus, they were frequently shown in the endless World War II movies that were always on TV. I know that Grumman Gooses (Grumman Geese just doesn't sound right, does it?) also took part in the war effort, but Hollywood producers obviously didn't find them nearly as photogenic.
When I hear the old Ellis folks talking about planes, they don't seem to have many good things to say about the PBYs. I'm sure they were loud and awkward to fly. But that doesn't dissuade me from my first aeronatical "amore"!
My favorite part of the PBY's were the seats "in the bubble." Just back of the wings on the fuselage were two big "blisters" that looked exactly like the gun turrents on World War II bombers. During wartime, the bubbles bristled with protective weaponry on PBYs as well. But there was less need for such devices on the Alaska Coastal Ellis routes, so they just became additional seating space for the 12-14 passengers on board each flight. Natch, it was like riding one of those trains with the glass observation dome. You almost felt like you were outside of the body of the plane.
Best of all, they usually leaked a bit when you splashed down in Tongass Narrows. The leak was important part of "scaring" folks who were not expecting a water landing.
On just about every flight there was at least one "outsider" who was shocked when the plane took off from the airport on Annette and then plowed into the waves in front of Ketchikan. You could tell them right away, because their faces would turn white as the airplane hit the water and the waves splashed over the windows (often the entire bubble was briefly submerged). If you were to suddenly point at the water dripping inside the bubble and shout "we're sinking" you could send the unfortunate cheechakos into hysterics.
But I digress. I certainly don't have a half million dollars laying around to buy this bird and bring it home. At any rate, I'm not handy enough with power tools to bring it back to its full glory. And the Tongass Historical Society already has a full nest with its on-going Grumman Goose restoration that will be the cornerstone of a new museum someday.
Still, the auction ends Monday morning. If anyone wants to bid on the Catalina and bring it back to our fair Salmon City, I'd be happy to buy a ticket on the first flight. And, yes, I'd be thrilled to ride shotgun in the "bubble" just one more time.
Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dave Kiffer ©2005