Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina that owes its continued existence to the need for aerial firefighting aircraft, C-FNJF flew in this role for many years, not only in various Canadian Provinces but also in the South of France.
Its military career as a Royal Canadian Air Force Canso A, serial 11005, included wartime usage with 9 (BR) Squadron and a post-war spell with the famous 413 Tusker Squadron which had operated Catalina flying boats with distinction within the Royal Air Force in Scotland and the Indian Ocean Theatre during the Second World War. When 11005 was with 413 Squadron, it was engaged in more peaceful aerial mapping and photographic reconnaissance out of Rockliffe, Ontario, work that mostly took it northward and up into Arctic regions. It also flew with 121 Search & Rescue Flight from Sea Island, Vancouver. After being withdrawn from military service in 1959, it was stored for a time at Lincoln Park and was formally struck off charge in May 1961. It was initially sold to Frontier Air Transport and was intended for use by CANSPEC as a water bomber with under-wing tanks. Instead, it appears to have been converted by Field Aviation with internal hull tanks.
In 1963, it was with Kenting Aviation of Toronto and, in their ownership, it spent several seasons in France as they hired their water bombing fleet out on a regular basis. In France, it was operated by the French Government body, Protection Civile, based at Marseille. In common with all of the Protection Civile Catalinas, it bore a coloured identification stripe, in this case blue, on the rear hull and was known by the call sign Pelican Bleu. It is known to have flown in France during the 1966, ’67 and ’68 seasons and carried two different French Government registrations, F-ZBAY and F-ZBBD.
In 1974, it parted company with Kentings as they disposed of their fleet and it then flew for a while with Prince Albert-based Norcanair on fire fighting duties in Saskatchewan. It carried a vivid white, grey and dayglo orange livery with the hull code ’14’. Around 1980, it was taken over by the Province of Saskatchewan fire fighting service at La Ronge and was eventually repainted bright yellow with green and red trim, coded ‘7’.
As one of a fleet of three Catalinas flown by the Province, it soldiered on for many years, maintained in superb condition and operated alongside more modern equipment in the fleet, namely Grumman Trackers and Canadair CL-215s. On one memorable occasion, it flew in a local air display with its two sister aircraft and a formation water drop was carried out at low level!
All good things come to an end and the Province decided to dispose of its Catalinas. C-FNJF flew to St Thomas, Ontario with C-FNJB where it was placed on the market by Hicks and Lawrence. Whilst there, both Catalinas were surveyed by representatives of a Zimbabwe-based concern owned by Malaysian businessmen. At that time, they were in the early stages of setting up a tourist charter operation based in Harare in which the two Catalinas were to feature strongly.
In due course, both C-FNJF and C-FNJB were purchased and flown across the Rockies to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Once there, C-FNJF was immediately hangared and work started on stripping out the water tanks from within the hull and replacing them with internal fittings suitable for passenger carrying including an air stair and panoramic view blisters. The work was carried out by Ray Williams and his local company Catalina Aero Services. C-FNJF remained at Nanaimo and was put up for sale in late-1999 without the operation in Zimbabwe getting off the ground.
C-FNJF was purchased by Duxford-based Catalina Aircraft Ltd in August 2002. The company has been formed to enable 20 shareholders to own a share of this classic piece of aviation history, to participate in its operation and, if qualified, to fly the aircraft as pilot. The aircraft has now been returned to fully airworthy state and was ferried to her new base at Duxford Airfield, England in March 2004, from where she is now being operated by Plane Sailing.