Cowichan Lake was perfectly cooperative on Thursday, July 23 as aircraft buffs tested a legendary amphibious plane with a series of touch-and-gos and landings west of Youbou.
Members of the Victoria-based Catalina Preservation society used the lake for crew training and exercising their Consolidated PBY Catalina for a few hours that afternoon, and the situation couldn’t have been better.
“It was a stellar day,” said Oliver Evans, who was behind the controls of the Catalina. “The weather worked out perfectly. We got there early, and the water conditions were just pristine.
“Everyone there was extremely cognizant of the aircraft. They stuck close to the shore, which made my life easier.”
The Catalina — as it is known in most of the world, although it is also called a Canso in Canada — is a flying boat, designed to take off and land on water, with more than 80 years of history, serving in both military and civilian purposes.
During the Second World War, the Catalina served in both the Pacific and Atlantic theatres, sinking about 40 submarines, and it was a Royal Air Force Catalina that spotted the infamous German battleship Bismarck, leading to its sinking. Post-war, a Catalina was involved in the first hijacking of a commercial aircraft, in 1948. Just recently, a couple of Catalinas were loaded onto an aircraft carrier in San Diego and will be shipped to Hawai’i for VE Day 75th-anniversary celebrations later this year.
“The Americans really love this airplane,” said Evans, a director of the Catalina Preservation Society and a Boeing 787 pilot for Air Canada.
The society typically takes the plane, also known as Shady Lady, on the airshow circuit each year, including a highly anticipated stop at Seattle Seafair. Unfortunately, most airshows have been cancelled this year because of COVID-19, and Shady Lady has been grounded more than usual.
This particular Catalina, formerly RCAF 11024 and now registered as C-FUAW, has its own colourful history. Built in Montreal in 1943, it was based in Victoria for the last two years of the Second World War, where it hunted for enemy submarines. After the war, it was used for search and rescue missions out of Jericho Beach, then spent a few decades as a civilian freighter and water bomber.
“It’s quite a remarkable aircraft,” Evans noted.
Bob Dyck bought the Catalina from Buffalo Airways in 2011, and since then a group of volunteers have banded together to support the restoration project. Dyck gave it the name “Shady Lady,” borrowed from a different Catalina that flew out of Tofino during the Second World War. Society member Russell Redman, who actually flew RCAF 11024 during the war, died earlier this year at the age of 96.
“There’s hardly anybody left [who flew military Catalinas],” Evans said. “There aren’t many left to fix them anymore, either.”
That’s a big part of what keeps the society going.
“We try to keep it alive for those who flew it during the war,” Evans explained.
Catalinas themselves are a disappearing icon. Of about 4,000 built — almost entirely in the U.S. and Canada — fewer than 10 are still flying. Although it is still configured as a military aircraft and has limited seating, Shady Lady is one of two left taking passengers, the other being in New Zealand. The society had finally gone through the hoops to get it insured and licensed for passengers when COVID-19 hit.
For its most recent excursion to Cowichan Lake, the Catalina was joined by a Grumman G-73 Mallard, also from Victoria. The Mallard’s pilot is a friend of the society, and wanted to take advantage when he heard there would be video and camera equipment, including a drone, filming the Catalina.
“It’s not very often you have two flying boats on one lake,” Evans commented.
Not quite as old as the Catalina, the Mallard was produced between 1946 and 1951. This particular Mallard belonged at one point to the late Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
After stopping at Cowichan Lake, the Catalina went to Port Alberni where it picked up former pilot and society president Jim Vissers for what might have been his final flight. Recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Vissers flew a Catalina fighting forest fires in the 1980s.
It’s another testament to the lifespan and the emotional value of a plane like the Catalina.
“It’s probably going to outlive all of us,” Evans said. “It’s touched the lives of a lot of people along the way.”