By that time the Navy had already ordered 20 production model PBM-1s plus a single XPBM-2 intended for catapult launching. That aircraft had a strengthened hull and additional fuel tanks. The Navy built a large catapult barge—designated AVC-1—to launch heavy flying boats. While XPBM-2 tests were successful, the concept was soon dropped in favor of rocket-assisted takeoffs using JATO canisters. 1
The production PBM-1s entered service with patrol squadron VP-55 during September 1940—some 19 months after the first flight. The aircraft immediately began flying neutrality patrols over the western Atlantic, employed to observe and report the movement of foreign warships—including U-boats; the reporting areas were soon expanded to the east coast of Canada and down to the West Indies. Although the United States was not yet in the war, U.S. surface ships and aircraft on neutrality patrol were of significant assistance to Great Britain.
In July 1941 the capabilities of the neutrality patrol were enhanced when two PBM-1s of VP-74 as well as one PBY-5 in each of three other VP squadrons were fitted with British ASV (air-to-surface vessel) radar. These were the first operational units of the U.S. Navy to fly radar-equipped aircraft.
Although relatively complex, the Mariner's superior performance marked it as an outstanding aircraft. Hundreds more were ordered for long-range patrol, antisubmarine warfare, transport, and search-and-rescue operations.
The original PBM-1 was followed by improved combat variants. The aircraft had bomb bays within the engine nacelles, which could hold four 1,600-, 1,000-, or 500-pound bombs, or mines, or two MK 13 aerial torpedoes for a maximum weapons load of 8,000 pounds. The defensive armament consisted of up to eight .50-caliber machine guns—two each in nose, dorsal, and tail power turrets, and single guns in the waist positions. The aircraft had a crew of seven to nine.
The PBM-3D introduced a large surface-search radome immediately aft of the flight deck. The PBM-3S was an antisubmarine warfare version with increased range, the weight of additional fuel being offset by deletion of power turrets and less armor protection for the crew. The follow-on PBM-5S had electronic countermeasures equipment to detect submarine radio transmissions, magnetic anomaly detection gear, and a large searchlight, and could launch and monitor sonobuoys. A single PBM-5N was modified for all-weather operations, an oxymoron considering how Mariners operated during the war.
The PBM-3R was an unarmed cargo variant built for the Naval Air Transport Service. It had strengthened decks for 9,000 pounds of cargo or seats for 20 passengers, and large cargo loading doors. Although only a few were built, older aircraft subsequently were modified to the cargo/transport role.
The Mariner was produced in larger numbers than any other military flying boat of any nation, except for the PBY Catalina. A total of 1,366 PBMs were produced through 1947, including 54 for the Royal Air Force. Those aircraft never became operational with the British, and some were returned to the U.S. Navy. During the war Mariners were flown in the search-and-rescue role by the U.S. Coast Guard—27 PBM-3s and 41 PBM-5s were delivered through 1945.
1. The AVC-1 was a 424-foot craft completed in 1941. She was never used operationally.