It's not surprising that Frank Kittle feels an attachment to the World War II-vintage Navy PBY Catalina amphibious plane he is helping to restore at the American Airpower Museum.
The Deer Park resident, 83, not only flew on PBYs during the war but was rescued by one after he was shot down over the Atlantic in 1943 and drifted for 72 hours in a raft.
Flying on a lumbering Catalina, Kittle said, "was monotonous, long hours, noisy and cold. You had to dress real warm. They tried putting heat in them, but it didn't work."
The museum, at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, acquired the search, rescue and antisubmarine aircraft last spring from an upstate aviation museum and, after some rehabilitation, flew it to Long Island in November.
The goal of American Airpower is to use the PBY as more than a static exhibit; it will be restored for ongoing flight, possibly by fall, as part of a living history program. Visitors would be able to pay to take a flight over Great South Bay and search for a mock-up of a German U-boat, echoing how the planes were used during the war.
"The goal of the plane in flight will be like our C-47 D-Day program, museum spokesman Gary Lewi said, referring to the flights that simulate what paratroopers experienced before landing in Normandy in 1944. "We want to show what it must have been like to be 19 years old flying in this type of airplane over the North Atlantic."
Costly but thrilling
Lewi said the cost of a PBY flight will be about $350. The D-Day program costs $285 per person, but the PBY holds fewer people and is more costly to operate.
Between 1936 and 1945, 4,000 Catalinas were built in California by Consolidated Aircraft. The PB stands for patrol bomber, and the Y was the manufacturer's identification. Museum president Jeff Clyman said design work for the plane began in 1933, and it began to go into service in 1935. Initially the planes were flying boats that only took off and landed from the water. The amphibious version came out right before the United States got into World War II.
With a maximum speed of 178 miles per hour and a range of 2,548 miles, the "flying boats" required a crew of eight. "This was the eyes and ears of the Atlantic and Pacific fleets before they had long-distance radar," Clyman said. "And even when they had radar, these planes ranged much farther than radar could see. This is the kind of plane that spotted the Japanese fleet at Midway and was a factor in our victory there, which was the beginning of the end for the Japanese in World War II."
Armed with depth charges and torpedoes mounted on their wings, they operated extensively off Long Island and the East Coast, including a base at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, searching for U-boats.
The museum's PBY was built for shipment to the Soviet Union but never got there. Instead, it was delivered to the U.S. Navy just before the war ended and was retired in 1956. Sent to a scrapyard in Arizona, it avoided being smelted into oblivion by being purchased for passenger service in remote areas of Canada.
A grant brought it to LI
It went through a series of owners who used it for charter flights until 1987, when the aircraft was purchased by the National Warplane Museum near Elmira. After a decade of flying, finances and maintenance became a problem, and the Catalina became a stationary exhibit at what became the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center. American Airpower bought the flying boat with a $300,000 state Economic Development Corporation grant. It took from last spring to November for Len Boyd, the American Airpower museum's chief of maintenance, and his crew to get it ready to fly again before it arrived at Republic Nov. 3.
At the controls that day was Jim Vocell, the museum's chief pilot. Vocell, 59, is a US Airways pilot who flies to the museum to volunteer from his home in New Hampshire. "The airplane is very stable," he said. "It's a joy to fly, but it's very slow because it's so massive. We cruise about 135 to 140 miles an hour."
The museum, at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, acquired the search, rescue and antisubmarine aircraft last spring from an upstate aviation museum and, after some rehabilitation, flew it to...
Created by Glenn H. Curtiss, the twin-engine "America" weighed 1 3/4 tons, had a 72-foot wingspan, and took off and landed on water. Its top cruising speed: A mere 65 mph.
The museum's ultimate goal is to get the plane flying again, but that is likely about $1 million and several years away.
Other historic military aircraft will be joining FIFI at different tour stops