PBY Odyssey

Text by Captain Richard C. Knott, U. S. Navy (Retired), Photos by Journalist Senior Chief Kirby Harrison, U. S. Navy

It was clear in 1986 during the initial planning of the reenactment that the Navy Curtiss NC-4, the huge biplane flying boat that actually made the first crossing and is now on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, was no longer capable of making the journey. To make matters more difficult, neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard had any seaplanes in their inventories. And that's how a civilian named Wilson C. "Connie" Edwards from Big Spring, Texas, got involved.

Besides being one of the world's greatest characters, Connie Edwards has been a corporate pilot, crop duster, soldier of fortune, and movie stunt pilot. He is now the Chief Executive Officer of Edwards Oil Company, Incorporated, and an avid collector of historic aircraft. On the private airstrip of his west Texas ranch, he has nine North American P-51s, 13 Messerschmitt Me-109s, and a variety of other vintage aircraft, most of them flyable. But most important is one of his more recent acquisitions, a PBY Catalina flying boat amphibian, the U. S. Navy's great all-purpose workhorse of World War II. Catalina aircraft served around the globe as patrol, torpedo, and even dive bomber aircraft, and in just about any other capacity required by the fleet.

Connie Edwards's historic seaplane was the ideal aircraft for the reenactment flight,and with his 12,000 plus pilot hours in everything from Spitfire and P-38 fighters to Heinkel and B-25 bombers, he was the ideal pilot for the job. And Connie had no qualms about committing his million-dollar-plus aircraft and donating his time and energy to forward the cause of naval aviation. He immediately began readying his aircraft for the long haul across the Atlantic by installing new engines, fabricating new control surfaces, and replacing rivets and aluminum panels. The Collins Corporation donated the latest in electronic navigation equipment, and General Dynamics stepped forward with a $100,000 grant for fuel and other expenses.

The PBY was repainted in the colors of the original NC-4: yellow wings to imitate the doped fabric; haze gray for the wooden planked hull; and a big red, white, and blue vertical stabilizer. For finishing touches, a silhouette of the NC flying boat was painted across the striped tail and a wide, diagonal slash of blue with gold letters proclaiming the 75th anniversary of U. S. naval aviation ran from the cockpit to the waterline on both sides.

The airplane looked great and enthusiasm was running so high that the flight planners, with Connie Edwards in the lead, decided to make other flights in the big aircraft to commemorate the anniversary, with the transatlantic flight as the highlight of the program. They began where thousands of naval aviators still begin their quest for Navy wings of gold: at the "cradle of naval aviation" in Pensacola, Florida.

Pensacola : Arriving on 3 May 1986, Connie's PBY was joined by a second PBY owned by Robert "Bob" Franks, a Los Angeles real estate entrepreneur and former Navy photographer, that had just been repainted in white, with blue letters proclaiming it the Spirit of Naval Aviation. Bob and his Spirit planned to fly in company with Connie Edwards all the way to Plymouth, England. At Pensacola, a week of activities included sports events, dinners, reunions, and the enshrinement of naval aviation greats in the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor, topped off by a spectacular two-day air show and a prime-time television special hosted by the indefatigable Bob Hope. Unfortunately, Connie and company had to move on in order to be in Long Island, New York, on 8 May to begin the first leg of the transatlantic flight. But before she left Pensacola, the latter-day NC-4 was christened by the wife of the original PBY commander, Albert C. "Putty" Read, who made the first flight all those years ago.

Washington, D. C.: The two PBYs departed Pensacola on 5 May and headed north to Washington, D. C., to give the folks in the nation's capital a preview of what was to come by making a low-level circuit of the Washington beltway. Harried commuters and a host of others who braved the traffic for the event got a close look at a real flying boat. Connie then picked up Rear Admiral Howard Thorsen, U. S. Coast Guard, who would make the trip as far as the Azores in honor of Lieutenant Elmer Stone, the Coast Guard's first aviator and one of the pilots on the original flight. On 6 May they took off for Rockaway, New York, where the 1919 flight had begun. On board Bob Franks' Spirit was the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James Busey, who would represent the Navy at Rockaway, and Dr. Paul Garber, of the National Air and Space Museum.

Rockaway, New York: Later that day, the new NC-4 and its consort splashed down in Jamaica Bay. Because the old Naval Air Station, Rockaway no longer exists, the aircraft spent the rest of that day and all of the next at the U. S. Coast Guard Air Station, Floyd Bennett Field, where flight engineer Al Brown made final inspections and adjustments.

The 8th of May is not only the official birthday of naval aviation; it is also the day that the original three NCs departed Naval Air Station, Rockaway, on the first leg of their historic journey. Their first stop was supposed to have been Halifax, Nova Scotia, but engines were not all that reliable in 1919, and one of the NCs had to land on the open sea when two of her big water-cooled Liberty engines failed. The plane taxied through the night on her remaining two engines to Cape Cod, where she put into the Naval Air Station, Chatham, Massachusetts.

The two anniversary planes followed the accidental route of the earlier planes, flying to NAS South Weymouth for ceremonies and then back-tracking to the present-day Chatham Airport. One local resident had a special reason for remembering the NCs—George Goodspeed had been one of the mechanics who had labored around the clock back in 1919 to change the NC-4's engines and send her on her way.

Halifax, Nova Scotia : The two modern PBYs landed in Halifax harbor on 14 May, just as Lieutenant Commander Putty Read and his crew had done in 1919. The town crier, the mayor, and a great outpouring of affection from the citizens greeted the crews, who were then hosted and feted at the Canadian Air Force Base at Shearwater, outside Halifax, as U. S. and Canadian flags flew from the cockpits of the two aircraft.

Trepassey Bay, Newfoundland : Connie and his crew experienced a similar introduction to that of the original aviators when they met the high, gusty winds of Trepassey Bay. But Connie, faithful to the 1919 itinerary, was determined to make at least a splash-and-go landing in the Bay at the jumping-off point of the first great transatlantic adventure. So with everyone and everything that could move in the aircraft strapped down, he eased the big plane onto the snarling surface of the water, skimming over the white-caps for the length of a football field to give the townspeople a full view of what the original NCs must have looked like. When Connie recalled the old wooden-hulled biplane with its open cockpit and fabric-covered wings in the museum at Pensacola, he said that those 1919 pilots had been "some kind of aviators."

After their joust with the icy waters of Trepassey Bay, they landed at nearby St. Johns airport where they were warmly welcomed by the mayor and his constituents. St. Johnswas the starting point for several transatlantic attempts in the early days of aviation, with aviators like Harry Hawker, and Alcock and Brown. But the crew had little time to relax and enjoy the Newfoundland hospitality because much of the next day was devoted to preparation for the long, overwater flight. The original NCs had taken off on the evening of 16 May to arrive in the Azores during the daylight hours. The more-modern PBYs, however, took off in the early morning hours of 17 May because their slightly greater speed would allow them to arrive on the proper date, although later in the day.

The Azores : Jumbo jet airliners now cross the Atlantic in seven hours, and the Concord does it in about three , but that big ocean takes on a different perspective when viewed from a twin-engine , World War II, propeller-driven antique. That the original NCs attempted it in 1919 with their rudimentary engines and primitive navigation equipment can only be described as "awesome."

Bad weather dogged the first flight, and two of the NCs went down in the open ocean. Both crews survived, although the NC-1 aircraft was lost in the high seas. The NC-3 drifted toward the Azores and later taxied into port, seriously damaged and unable to continue. But NC-4 pressed on and at 1123 Azores time on 17 May she touched down in Horta harbor.

In 1986, the two PBYs, in contrast, had beautiful weather across the ocean—until they reached Horta, where the waves dashed wildly against the rocks on the shore, seeming to reach hungrily for the old Catalina. Reluctantly, the crew decided not to land on the water but continued on to the municipal airport where a deafening welcome awaited them. During the ceremonies, Connie presented Putty Read's sword to the people of Portugal on behalf of the United States. The next morning, sea conditions were more hospitable and the two PBYs were able to splash down and taxi through Horta harbor, with U. S. and Portuguese flags flying from the cockpits.

On the 20th it was on to Ponta Delgada, and since the original NC-4 had not departed the Azores until 27 May, the PBYs next flew over to the Naval Air Facility at Lajes Air Base on Terceira Island, where the crews conducted their flight maintenance in preparation for the next leg to Lisbon. At Lajes, the bands played "The NC-4 March," which had been composed back in 1919 to honor the conquering heroes. Then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James D. Watkins, met with Connie Edwards and Bob Franks to thank them for their efforts on behalf of the anniversary year.

Lisbon, Portugal: On the 27th, it was on to Lisbon. Portuguese Captain Jorge Tierco, who had worked for the success of the flight as it crossed his country, went along on this leg of the journey. Eight hours after takeoff, the PBYs were winging their way over the estuary of the Tagus River that has provided Lisbon with one of the finest harbors in Europe for centuries. It was here that the early Portuguese navigators began their historic exploration voyages, and here that the NC-4 completed the world's first flight across the Atlantic on 27 May 1919. It is little wonder that crowds lined the banks of the Tagus to pay their respects to the NC-4 crews in 1919 and to their counterparts in 1986. But once again, the wind and sea conspired against the PBYs to prevent a water landing that day.

At the Lisbon international airport, they were met by assembled troops, dignit31ies, and two huge bands. The Portuguese Secretary of State for Defense, the Mayor of Lisbon, the U. S. Ambassador to Portugal, and a host of others greeted the crews.

On 28 May, wind conditions had improved somewhat and despite a gusting crosswind, Connie and his crew landed on the Tagus River. They taxied over to the famous Belem Tower and anchored to the music of two more bands. After the ceremony, with the river cleared of traffic, the PBY taxied out and took off, roaring under a large span across the Tagus. To make the stunt legal and above-board, Connie was made an honorary Portuguese bridge inspector before departing.

Plymouth, England : On 30 May, the crew bid farewell to their gracious Portuguese hosts 311d flew north toward their ultimate destination, Plymouth, England, making one overnight stop at Santiago, Spain, to symbolize the one NC-4 had made in 1919 at El Ferrol del Caudillo on the northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula. At Plymouth, the Lord Mayor and the Deputy Commander in Chief, U. S. Naval Forces Europe, Vice Admiral Robert F. "Dutch" Schoultz, were on hand to meet the crews.

En route to the city, the weather, which had held up fairly well for most of the trip, suddenly turned sour. But to Connie, who had spent many months in England flying the aerial sequences for the movie Battle of Britain landing in such conditions was old hat. Arriving in rain and low clouds,the Catalina made a careful letdown and broke out under the overcast with Plymouth Harbor dead ahead.

To the British, rain and fog are a way of life and more than 5,000 people had lined the harbor sometime before. There were a few in the crowd who had flown PBYs in World War II and had come for a nostalgic glimpse of the venerable old planes. With radio clearance from the harbormaster, Connie made a low circuit around the harbor flying over docks and ships just above the heads of the wildly waving crowd. The big boat touched down at the appointed time of 1100 and taxied over to tie up to a buoy just off the Mayflower steps, duplicating the performance of the NC-4 in 1919. Out went the Stars and Stripes and the British Union Jack from the cockpit. Fire boats spewed water into the air. Boat captains leaned on their horns and whistles, people cheered, and the U. S. Sixth Fleet Band struck up a tune.

The luck of the voyage ran out on the Spirit, which arrived a half hour later. The Spirit's crew let down through the muck successfully and broke out for the final approach to the harbor. But immediately after touchdown, the big boat swerved to the right, hit a buoy with the left wing, spun violently, and came to a stop. While water poured in through the nose section, harbor craft scurried out to take her in tow to prevent her from sinking. Unfortunately, they failed in their effort and the Spirit sank in five feet of water. Later, an official inquiry into the mishap theorized that the PBY had hit a partially submerged object.

Despite the somber note, Bob Franks and the crew of the Spirit insisted that the ceremonies continue. The band played each country's national anthem,the Lord Mayor made his official welcoming speech, and Connie Edwards made his speech. Spirits were high despite the unfortunate accident, and the friendship that developed between the Americans and their British hosts was indeed remarkable.

After an official reception and luncheon at the Plymouth Council House, and a few more speeches and ceremonies, the PBY took off again into the murky English skies for the Royal Naval Air Station, Yeovilton, where the necessary maintenance would be completed before the long flight back. A short distance from Yeovilton, two ghosts from the past—a Fairey Firefly and a Hawker Sea Fury from the Royal Navy's Historic Flight collection—broke out of the clouds, joined up with their American cousin, and escorted the Catalina to the base.

After some leisurely sightseeing and warm British hospitality, it was time to head back across the Atlantic by way of the Azores and NAS Bermuda. Bob Franks' Spirit was later raised and refurbished and is flying today as good as new. Connie and his aircraft still had many miles to travel before their work was done.

In late June 1911, Captain Chambers went by train to Hammondsport, New York, where Glenn Curtiss had his small aircraft factory. There on 1 July, he watched the Navy's first aviator, Lieutenant Theodore G. "Spuds" Ellyson, qualify in the Navy's first aeroplane, the A-1 Triad.

During the last week of June and first week of July 1986, that same event was celebrated. Vice Admiral Edward H. Martin, U. S. Navy, Lieutenant General Keith Smith, U. S. Marine Corps, and Rear Admiral Clyde Robbins, U. S. Coast Guard, participated, representing the aviation branches of their respective services. There were demonstrations by a Marine Corps Harrier and a Coast Guard helicopter, and fly-overs by antique aircraft. But none drew more attention than Connie Edwards' big, colorful Catalina flying boat when it splashed down in the lake on 28 June with Admiral Martin and General Smith on board. Perched atop the big yellow wing of the PBY as it swung on its mooring, Connie and crew watched a reenactment of Ellyson's 1911 flight made by Dale Crites in his A-1 replica.

The PBY and its crew made another showing at the Naval Air Station, Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. On 4 July, they took part in the salute to "Miss Liberty" in New York Harbor. On the first of August they flew in the famous Oshkosh Air Show in Wisconsin, an event that annually draws an attendance of more than 12,000 aircraft and over a half million people.

In mid-September Connie and the PBY crew returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to participate in the air show at the Royal Canadian Air Force Base at Shearwater. Then it was back to Trepassey and St. Johns, Newfoundland. The PBY was able to make a full-stop water landing this time. Their next stop was Badeck, Newfoundland, in honor of the town's famous former resident, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. There, with Glenn Curtiss and others, Dr. Bell conducted early experiments with tetrahedral kites, experiments which led to the construction of primitive but successful powered aircraft, and ultimately, by extension, to Curtiss' A-1 Triad.

The PBY's final appearance was at NAS New Orleans, where a huge air show was in progress. Nearly 350,000 people attended the four-day show during the last days of October and the first of November, which included performances by the Blue Angels, the Canadian Parachute Team, and appearances by a large number of both vintage and contemporary aircraft.

Connie and his PBY had flown more than 36,000 miles and made 128 water landings by the time they returned to Big Spring, Texas. The faithful Catalina had once again served her country and the U. S. Navy with distinction.

C a ptain Knott attended the Johns Hopkins Advanced School of International Studies and is a graduate of the Naval War College. He toured in VP-45 from 1958 to 1961 as patrol plane commander in P-5M flying boats, and later in VP-16 as patrol plane commander in P-3 Orions. He was the editor of Naval Aviati o n Ne w s ,and served as a Special Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Naval Warfare as the Director of Naval Aviation History and Publications. Captain Knott is the author of Th e American Flyin g Boat published by the Naval Institute, and continues to write on naval aviation subjects.

Chi e f Harrison is presently the associate editor and staff photojournalist at Na v al Aviati o n News. His numerous stories and photo features have appeared in more than 100 national and international newspapers and magazines. He is one of only two, three-time winners of the Navy's Photojournalist of the Year competition and is a graduate of the Navy's one-year advanced photojournalism course at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communications. He has covered events for the Navy in Vietnam, the Philippines and the South Pacific. After 20 years of Navy service, Chief Harrison will retire this month to pursue freelance work.

 

Answering the Call is a monthly series of short essays by prominent men and women who served in the military and found that it had an enduring impact on their careers and later achievements.

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