Warbird flying – UK

Occasionally in life, an opportunity comes along that fulfils a long held dream. For me, being able to get involved with a genuine World War II warbird is something I’ve wanted to do since I got my pilot’s licence. That opportunity came around much sooner that I expected and so I now find myself a proud new part-owner of G-PBYA, the UK’s only flying PBY-5A Catalina build in 1943 and based in Duxford, UK.

Miss Pick Up - Duxford based PBY-5A Catalina

Miss Pick Up – Duxford based PBY-5A Catalina

My first up close and personal encounter with a Catalina came a few years ago whilst diving off the coast of Biak, an island out here in Papua, Indonesia heavily contested during WWII. Ok, I had seen them in museums too but this was the first time I’d ever been allowed to get up close and even go inside; although this one was down on the sea floor at 30m or so! It was actually pretty eerie seeing such a large, historic aircraft left to the fishes but it didn’t put me off the idea.

PBY Catalina off the coast of Biak, Papua

PBY Catalina off the coast of Biak, Papua

I actually did the deal for my share whilst out in Indonesia and first got to see what I’d invested in on the first day of my type rating training earlier last month at Duxford.

It took just under a week to complete the training which involved a written exam, ground training and then a couple of flights totalling 1.5 hours. The flying mostly involved getting used to handling such a large aircraft with it’s various idiosyncrasies, the biggest of which is the significant adverse yaw during turns requiring plenty of rudder inputs to keep things in balance. The other major thing was looking after those monstrous Pratt and Whitney Twin-Wasp radial engines. There is no noise on this planet quite like the sound of a pair of 14 cylinder radials on full chat, perched a few feet above your head. You’ll be able to read all about my type rating training in next month’s (the Summer edition) Flyer Magazine and I will of course be posting updates every time I’m back in the UK flying her.

Turn practice

Turn practice

Following on from the Catalina flying I was offered the chance to spend a day flying around southern England in a friend’s Piper L-4 “Grasshopper” – basically a military spec J-3 Cub, also used during WWII. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I met Andy at Henstridge airfield ready for a day of playing. We really lucked out on the weather with one of those perfect English summer’s day – bliss!

The first port of call was to Compton Abbas airfield for a spot of lunch and to meet up with some fellow aviators. I love Compton Abbas – it holds a special place for me, being the first airfield I went to solo during my PPL (private pilot licence) training. It’s always a busy spot on a nice day and there were plenty of aircraft coming and going whilst we enjoyed lunch outside on the edge of the airstrip.

Lunch over it was time for some more flying to a couple of private airstrips (or farm strips as they’re often known) along with a couple of other aircraft and their owners; Johnny’s lovely Vagabond and David’s immaculate Jodel. I was sitting in the front of the Cub, with a very trusting Andy behind me who was letting me fly the legs from Compton Abbas to the farm strips. Now, I’ve not done any light aircraft flying for well over three years and small piston aircraft are quite different to the large turbine Porter I usually fly. But the Cub is simply wonderful to punt about the sky – so responsive and light on the controls, an absolute delight!

Landing was mostly a question of having the approach path and speed correct, both of which Andy helpfully talked me through. The trouble with being known as a bush pilot is everyone thinks you’re some kind of expert, which I suppose I am if you’re talking about landing a Porter into a remote Papuan airstrip. However, a Cub into a narrow grass farm strip is quite different. Thankfully I nailed the landing on what was not an especially wide airstrip, even by my standards!

A quick cup of tea and a chat, we were airborne again en-route to Jonny’s farm strip near Hungerford. After a brief circle of the town, Andy and I found it eventually and I setup for the landing. Feeling confident after my first success I embarked on a curved final approach and it all seemed to be going so well, until the touchdown. The less said about that landing the better! Some more chatting on the ground followed which we could have continued all day but sadly we all had places to go, so I took up David’s offer of a lift back to Henstridge in his Jodel in order to get there before their 5pm closing time. Another wonderful aircraft and another reminder of why I need to get into this sort of flying more often. Anyone got a share in a Cub for sale?

Coming into land at a private strip near Hungerford

Coming into land at a private strip near Hungerford

Matt Dearden

Matt Dearden

English born professional pilot, writer, blogger and columnist. Currently flying the Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter in Papua, Indonesia.

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6 Responses

  1. Geoff Chennells says:

    From a Catalina to a Cub ???!!! Fan-F-tastic!!! Well done Matt … just LOVE your blog!

  2. James Beegan says:

    Matt, I think it’s awesome you got your hands on a PBY & got to enjoy the Cub, fond memories for me in my teen years of flying with both those planes. It was in the early days of my “problem”, I was and still am a flight junkie, even though it’s been 30 years of aviation for me, I’m still “that kid”. I was treated to flying in Cubs through friends & a local at my hometown airport, nothing like that little plane, second, I was treated to a ride in a Catalina, my best friend’s grandfather flew them in the Pacific Theatre during WWII & was fortunate to still fly one with a handful of WWII aviators that had one at the time flying it all over to various air shows in the U.S.. I’ll never forget it, it was the loudest, creakiest thing I’d flown in at that point. Smiling from ear to ear I was in heaven. I enjoyed many memories and conversations specific to that aircraft & the roles it fulfilled in its prime. You lucky dog, I’m happy for you. Sails to the wind my friend!

  3. Recently had the great opportunity to fly on PBY-5A as a passenger here in The Netherlands, a water landing was included, wonderful experience!

  4. Craig Bailey says:

    That is quite a nice looking PBY. There was one at the Sonoma County Airport for quite a few years. Someone in Sweden purchased it. Blue skies.

  5. John Richard says:

    Only recently followed you on Twitter after I noticed your follow of Rathmines. Was interested in your bush pilot adventures just as an interest because of the area. Then I finally had a look at your blog today, and am not half envious! Piloting ‘Plane Sailing’! I am only trying to ‘bust’ a leg to get over to see her. David Legg has been of assistance over years to us, and follow there progress continually. Can you tell me the identity of the Cat you dived on up North? Would like to offer you a fly in our PBY when restored, but unfortunately, she will only be static.

    • Matt Dearden Matt Dearden says:

      Hi John,

      David is an absolute fount of knowledge when it comes to Catalinas. What he doesn’t know about them probably isn’t worth knowing! The Cat I’m a part of is technically a 1943 Canso built for the Royal Canadian Air Force and saw service during WWII. She performed various roles after the war and our group purchased her in 2004 and then set about repainting her in the USAAF colours of the 8th Air Force 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron based at Halesworth, Suffolk in the UK. She’s registered as G-PBYA in the UK and is based at Duxford. There’s plenty more information on our website here: http://www.catalina.org.uk/our-catalina-g-pbya/

      I would love to come over and take a look at “Our Girl” some day! I follow the progress on your website – you’ve certainly got your work cut out and I wish you all the best getting her back together again.



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