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Published 8th December 2022, 12:31pm

The PBY Catalina in Cayman’s Aviation History

On Wednesday 30th November 2022, the staff of CINA headed out to Owen Roberts International Airport for a brief field trip ahead of the upcoming and hugely anticipated Air Show scheduled for Saturday, 3rd December. Our goal was to have an ‘up close and personal look see’ of the PBY Catalina, the ‘Princess of the Stars’, an aircraft similar to the first commercial plane to land at the airport 70 years ago. 

Giddy with delight, as most CINA staff had only seen the PBY planes in numerous archival photos over the years, we were escorted onto the tarmac and led to the ‘Princess of the Stars’. Phones in hand, we anxiously captured every angle and facet inside and out of this amazing seaplane, making sure that we memorialised this experience for years to come. Walking up the narrow rear steps, we entered the seaplane, gasping in awe and firing off questions to the PBY aviators - who so patiently answered all of our questions and shared the history of this most awe-inspiring seaplane. CINA’s Director, Charisse Morrison, likened the moment to “Feeling like a little girl in a candy or toy store, being told that I could get whatever I wanted!” Another staff member, who was lucky to have been a passenger on one of the PBY planes many years ago, regaled us with a story about one such trip on the seaplane. Having landed in the North Sound, a little water seeped into the plane. Wearing new Clark shoes, she would not put her feet down - not wanting to get her new shoes wet, and had to be carried off of the seaplane! She even wore Clark shoes today for the tour.

This series of aircraft, the PBY Catalina, has played a significant role in Cayman’s aviation history.  From 1942 to 1945, PBY 4s/5s were used by the U.S. Navy established here in Cayman to track German submarine activity in the region. These same aircraft were used by veteran RAF pilots, King Parker and Commander Owen Roberts, who established airline companies to provide regular amphibian air services between Grand Cayman, Kingston and Cayman Brac initially, and later Tampa from 1946 to 1952. Finally, when commercial airline services began in 1952, they used the PBY 5a, as represented by the “Princess of the Stars”. 

On 15th June 2022, our Facebook post featured first-hand recollections by children, of flying into Cayman by seaplane, similar to the PBY aircraft currently at Owen Roberts International Airport. In another Facebook post, dated 31st March of this year, we also wrote about the landing of the first commercial airplane:  “After six years of seaplane travel, with varying degrees of success and failure, on 28th November 1952, a Caribbean International Airways (CIA) amphibian plane made a perfect landing on the partially completed runway, watched by an enthusiastic crowd, marking this event as one of the most memorable for 1952.” (Colonial Reports: 1951 &1952). From the hugely knowledgeable aviators and our tour guides Coy, Peter and Larry, today we learned that the earliest PBY’s, used 1942-1952, would have been the PBY 4s/5s and they were strictly ‘flying boats’ capable of only landing on water. 

During WWII, when the United States established a Navy Base (code name ‘Bald Pate’) on vacant land behind the old George Town Public Library, these seaplanes became an integral part of the day-to-day work of the naval personnel. Two miles away from the Base, in what we know as the George Town Barcadere (where the George Town Yacht Club restaurant is now located), they constructed a fuel depot, ammunition store, firing range and new jetty (Founded upon the Seas: A History of The Cayman Islands and Their People, p. 292). It was from that location the PBY Catalina aircraft flew in and out to perform daily recognisance flights, reporting back to the U.S. military on any German submarine activity in the Caribbean region. At that time, there was a heightened German interest in torpedoing tankers or merchant ships traveling through the familiar shipping lanes of the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South America into the U.S.A.

Hoping that many were able to attend the Air Show events on Saturday, 3rd December, and be transported back in time to the early days of aviation. The beautifully preserved PBY 5a, the “Princess of the Stars”, and the other planes was surely a treat for anyone interested in aviation in general, or specifically the history of aviation in Cayman.