The main Transport Gallery of the Powerhouse Museum (Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences or MAAS) in Sydney Australia is an impressive space and the centrepiece is the Consolidated PB2B-2 Catalina “Frigate Bird II” flying boat that sits proudly suspended from the ceiling. This was a variant of the PBY-5 powered by two Pratt and Whitney R1830-92 Twin Wasp 1,200 hp engines and fitted with the taller tail and larger rudder of the PBN-1 Nomad, built under licence by Boeing Aircraft of Canada Limited, Vancouver in 1944. Boeing produced 67 PB2B-2 in Canada between September 1944 and March 1945, mostly for the RAAF (47) with the rest going to the RAF (Catalina Mk.VI) and US Navy.
This big Cat was operated by the RAAF (A24-385, Bu.44248/JX630) but did not arrive in Australia until September 3rd, 1945 which was just a few weeks after the World War Two Japanese surrender. The log books for the aircraft were lost but the museum states that it was operated by No. 46 Squadron for four months before being placed in temporary storage in February 1946 at Rathmines Flying Boat Base in NSW.
Post war it was used by rescue squadrons in Australia and New Guinea (the silver livery was attained during this SAR period). In 1950 Captain Patrick G. Taylor (1896 – 1966) was approved by the Australian Government to conduct a survey flight to set up an air route for Qantas from Australia to South America and offered an RAAF Catalina to do so. He selected this exact flying boat to complete the journey as it was in good condition and the best available. The aircraft was officially handed over to Taylor on August 22nd, 1950 and despite its good condition it was given a complete overhaul by the RAAF and then named “Frigate Bird II” with the civil registration of VH-ASA (Australia to South America – Taylor requested this be changed from the original VH-AGB).
Captain Patrick G. Taylor was a good man for the job at hand. During World War One he had served in the Royal Flying Corps in Europe being awarded the Military Cross for gallantry during 40 offensive missions over France with No. 66 Squadron and then after returning to Australia was a flight instructor with the Australian Flying Corps. In the 1930’s he flew with Charles Kingsford Smith on his record-breaking flights and during World War Two he was a ferry pilot for military aircraft across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1944 the RAF commissioned him to survey an air route between Mexico and New Zealand in a Catalina Mk.IVB (JX275) which was named “Frigate Bird“, hence the name of his new steed in 1950.
Taylor and his team removed any unnecessary equipment and so forth to reduce the weight of the Catalina. He and a minimal crew of 4 (First Officer Captain Harry Purvis, Flight Engineer E. L’Huillier, Radio Operator Angus Allison, Official Correspondent and Executive Officer Jack Percival) set off from Rose Bay Flying Boat Base, Sydney on March 13th, 1951 across the Southern Pacific Ocean bound for Chile (landing near the capital, Valparaiso). They arrived in Chile on March 26th, 1951 to be greeted by the Chilean President after flying 13,679 km, island hopping with fuel stops along the way in New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, Aitutaki (Cook Islands), Tahiti, French Oceania and Easter Island.
The last refuelling stop at Easter Island caused some issues, where in stormy weather conditions three anchor ropes broke and Taylor was washed overboard! He was pulled back in but due to a lack of sheltered water they had to take-off using JATO (Jet Assisted Take-Off) rockets that had been fitted by the RAAF to get out of there! This added to the aviation pioneering journeys across the oceans by Australians (the Atlantic alluded them – too far away!).
Taylor and his crew set off to return to Australia on April 3rd, 1951. Easter Island nearly brought them undone again, when another storm hit and the JATO rockets did not fire resulting in them almost colliding with cliffs on the island! Luckily they made it out of there and arrived back at Rose Bay to a heroes welcome on April 21st, 1951. Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies presented Taylor with “Frigate Bird II” in recognition of their achievement.
The PB2B-2 Catalina was put back into storage in 1954 and over the years it was picked at for spares, relocated, left outdoors where exposure to the elements deteriorated the airframe and was in pretty poor condition when Captain Taylor decided to present it to the museum in 1962. The museum had minimal space then, so it went back into storage for many years, until 1985 when the restoration process was started by Hawker Pacific at Bankstown Airport to enable the aircraft to be displayed in time for the then new gallery opening in 1988. Now the showpiece of this excellent museum, “Frigate Bird II” captures a piece of Australian aviation history and some aviator derring-do in the process!