Reviving The PBY Catalina For Modern Warfare Is This Company’s Goal
As the U.S. seeks runway-independent aircraft for a Pacific fight, Catalina Aircraft says its revamped flying boat can play a role.
A Florida company plans to turn an iconic World War II seaplane design into a modern aircraft it claims can perform airborne amphibious operations required by the U.S. military.
Dubbed the Next Generation Amphibious Aircraft (NGAA) Catalina II twin turboprop amphibious flying boat, the aircraft is based on the historic Consolidated PBY 5 Catalina that provided maritime patrol, light transport, and search and rescue, among other duties.
“The NGAA Catalina II is a modern amphibian with advanced engines and avionics and will offer capabilities no other amphibian can provide today," said Lawrence Reece, president of Catalina Aircraft. That’s a Longboat Key, Florida company holding the U.S. and Canadian type certificates for the PBY-5.
The company’s announcement comes as the U.S. seeks runway-independent aircraft that can operate in an environment where large airbases and runways are likely to be early targets in any future conflict with an adversary like China.
U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command is currently testing what it's calling the MC-130J Amphibious Capability, or MAC. That’s an MC-130J special operations tanker/transport aircraft converted into a floatplane. However, as we reported in May, an initial demonstration of that concept is now at least two to three years away, according to U.S. Air Force Col. Ken Kuebler, U.S. Special Operations Command's (SOCOM) program executive officer for Fixed Wing (PEO-FW).
During the SOF Week conference in Tampa, Kuebler said that "we're doing hydro testing, subscale testing... we're moving towards a critical design review." He also stressed that the project encompassed "more than just the development of the aircraft." In addition, Kuebler said studies were being conducted now into how different sea states might impact such an aircraft and into its maintenance and logistics requirements.
A big floatplane will also have limitations where a flying boat would excel, which can include operating in rougher waters. The penalty of flying with giant floats is also not realized on a flying boat. Still, a modern Catalina would be able to complement MAC and vice versa, not really replace one or the other across the board.
In a media release issued Tuesday, Catalina Aircraft said it is pursuing two variants of the NGAA Catalina II, one for commercial customers and one for the military.
The military version, which the company is calling the “NGAA Catalina II Special Use Variant,” is a “new production 40,000-pound Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) unpressurized, twin-turboprop, Sea State 3-capable, amphibious flying boat geared to support government and military-type Concepts of Operations (CONOPs),” the company claims in its media release.
Sea State 3, under the Beaufort Scale, means a “gentle breeze” of up to 10 knots and maximum wave heights of three feet.
According to the company, the NGAA Catalina II is a “Large, Transport Category amphibious flying boat capable of operation from runways, grass, dirt, sand, lakes, rivers, bays, and blue water.”
It has a fuel capacity of up to 2,710 gallons, giving it “over 19 hours of operational capability available for missions. Other green energy power options can also be considered at the customer's request.”
The company also says that the special use variant - equipped with more powerful engines and a Very Low Stall (VLS) wing design - “can offer a high-speed cruise of up to 200 Knots, as well as low-speed entries as slow as 62 Knots.”
With its lift capacity and enlarged forward and aft cabins, the company says its aircraft can support several configurations, including transporting 30 fully-geared troops, up to 16,000 pounds of internal cargo and equipment, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance suites and/or weaponization and two 2,500-pound external wing stores.
The company also took an apparent broadside at AFSOC’s plans for the MAC, without specifically naming it.
“Unlike float converted land planes, the ‘hulled’ fuselage of the NGAA Catalina II is designed specifically for operations in ever-changing maritime conditions.”
Clearly looking at the capabilities being pursued by the U.S. and other militaries, the company claims that the NGAA Catalina II “offers a single asset solution capable of replacing several existing platform types, thus reducing overall Acquisition, Operational and Sustainment costs.”
The company, however, said it was yet to announce the cost of the aircraft.
It is unclear from the release the depth of discussion, if any, the company has had with the U.S. or any other military about this aircraft, which Catalina said it expects to deliver by 2029.
We’ve reached out to the company for additional details - including when it expects to build and demonstrate an NGAA Catalina II. We also reached out to AFSOC to learn what, if anything, they know about this aircraft and what, if any interest, the command might have in making this a procurement priority.
We will update this story with any information provided.
While AFSOC is looking to convert a C-130 into a floatplane, Kuebler in May noted that the command is also exploring other options.
"We're also looking at other amphibious capabilities," he told reporters, including from The War Zone, at the time. "We are looking across the globe really at amphibious capabilities. We've had conversations with the Japanese on looking at how we would train – looking at how we would use the [ShinMaywa] US-2, to develop CONOPS [concepts of operations], etcetera."
As we previously noted, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) appears to remain financially committed to the MAC program despite the delays.
The command is asking for $15 million to continue working on MAC in its budget request for the 2024 Fiscal Year, almost $5 million more than it received for this project in the current fiscal cycle.
Given that Catalina Aircraft has yet to reveal a price point, it’s hard to know how the NGAA Catalina II would measure up against SOCOM’s existing lines of effort. Moreover, the U.S. has yet to show any real interest in procuring the thoroughly modern, highly capable US-2 - a remarkable aircraft that The War Zone has examined in depth in the past. So it is unclear what, if any interest, there would be in a reboot, no matter how modernized, of the Catalina.
But then again, this could be changing outside of SOCOM. Air Mobility Command's chief has discussed procuring a cheaper, slower, but still long-range aircraft capable of operating out of austere locales in the Pacific. Even unmanned or optionally manned options are on the table. These would be used for smaller cargo operations and potentially other roles. You can read all about this effort to refresh America's airlift capability for a future peer fight here, but a modern PBY could actually fit that bill and then some.
But with the tremendous interest in flying boats and the growing importance of runway-independent aircraft, its future is something we will watch closely.
Update 8:37 p.m. Eastern
A U.S. defense official responded to our query.
“AFSOC had informational meetings with Catalina Aircraft Systems previously," the official told us. "At the time of the meeting AFSOC conveyed that our strategy is to modify a MC-130J versus acquiring a platform and that strategy remains."
"Efforts around the MC-130 Amphibious aircraft are ongoing. Small scale model testing has been ongoing for about six months and will continue for the foreseeable future. The first aircraft that will be used for full scale testing is expected to arrive by end of calendar year 2023 but no specific testing is scheduled at this time.”
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