Deer Park Man Helps Restore Navy PBY Catalina; Saved by One in WWII

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."

Once the Catalina was rolled into the museum's hangar, with little room to spare, the volunteer rehab crew resumed where it left off upstate.

One of them was Kittle, who was already a crewman on a PBY helping to protect convoys across the Atlantic to Britain as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Neutrality Patrol when the United States was drawn into the war on Dec. 7, 1941. "I was a flight engineer and more or less took care of the engines," Kittle said. Initially he was stationed in Newfoundland, searching for U- boats. Then, he was transferred to Greenland, where "we were plotting icebergs to make sure they didn't get into the shipping lanes when the convoys were coming over, and also doing rescue work."

He helped in rescuing the crews of B-17 bombers and P-38 fighters that went down on the Greenland icecap in 1942. But Kittle said he was never on a PBY that had to land on the water to make a rescue. "We could land on the ocean, but it's not desirable when it's rough," he said. "And it was rough up there, and it's cold."

B-24 shot down

Early in 1943, he shifted from flying and maintaining PBYs to bombers, primarily B-24s based in England. "On November the twelfth, 1943," he recalled, "I was shot down in a B-24 off the coast of Portugal about 150 miles out. We spotted a submarine on the surface and made a gunnery run on it. They were diving and going under, so we made a 180- degree turn and came back, and at the same time, six Junker 88s - German fighters - attacked us. They were escorting the submarine, and we didn't know it."

Kittle said, "Under attack, you normally jettison your bombs so they won't explode in the airplane. But we decided we had the submarine where we wanted it, so we salvoed the whole load on the submarine. But the JU-88s shot us up. We got our submarine, but they got us. They shot out three engines, and we couldn't maintain altitude, so we had to ditch. Everybody survived, but the airplane broke into three pieces and sunk. They strafed us in the water before they left. I guess they were teed off that we got their sub."

The crew climbed aboard its life raft. "We were out there floating around for 72 hours," Kittle said. A plane spotted them, and then a familiar sight for Kittle - a PBY - swooped in and landed. "Oh man, it was an angel. The PBY picked us up and flew us to Gibraltar, where we spent three days in sick bay," said Kittle, who after 4 1/2 years in the Navy worked in maintenance for United Airlines, ending up as an instructor.

Clyman said, "What this plane does for the museum is give us an incredible historical asset that can only add to the living history component, which is its raison d'ĂȘtre. It not only pays tribute to veterans of World War II but to all of our fighting men and women, and all the people who were in public service."

Clyman noted the flying boats were used by the Navy, Coast Guard and Army Air Forces in World War II and, later, up to the early '60s as firefighting aerial tankers that put out forest fires in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. If PBYs were special planes, the museum's model is very special, according to Clyman. "This airplane is completely original, with the gun blisters and the nose turret. It's a one-of-a-kind item."

Who sat where in the PBY Catalina

Wing span: 104 feet

Length: 63 feet, 10 inches

Wing area: 14,000 square feet

Colors: Varied by service and use. Colors shown here are those planned at the museum


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