Night Raid to Tillamook

by: LT Bradley J. Haskin

"I didn't ask you if you wanted to RIDE in it, I asked you if you wanted to FLY it.....". Jack click here for large image Erickson, owner of the Tillamook Naval Air Station Museum stood before me, slight grin on his face, as I looked back at him dumbfounded. "It" was N2172N, a beautifully restored PBY-5A Catalina , decked out in gray and yellow pre-war Navy Rescue markings.

Jack, and his co-pilot Jim Steinbeck, with financial sponsorship from the Chugach Alaska Corporation, had brought the Cat up to NAS Whidbey Island outside of Seattle, Washington, for the 1998 Sea 'n' Sky Fest Airshow. The PBY was the first aircraft type stationed at Whidbey Island when it opened in 1942, and as such, the airshow made it a high priority to secure a Catalina as the "highlight" of this years static display line.

The arrangement had included a photo flight with the PBY on Friday, the "arrival" day. So Friday afternoon, I found myself strapped into the back seat of my buddy Bob Jones' T-6 racer, armed with a camera and lots of rolls of film, as we taxied with the PBY out to the active. Once airborne, Bob maneuvered his T-6 back and forth in a nice tight formation, click here for large imagewhile I shot roll after roll as we flew over the old Seaplane Base, and down low past the Deception Pass Bridge, and over the Air Station.

During the flight, I was impressed by how Jack and Jim had handled the PBY down low, skimming the trees as we set up for our photo passes, manhandling the lumbering patrol bomber like a nimble fighter plane. When I asked Jack the next day how the plane was to fly, he simply asked me to fly the plane home to Tillamook the next afternoon and find out for myself.

He didn't have to ask THIS guy twice!!! Even my wonderfully understanding wife (THANKS, JAMI!) told me I'd be stupid to pass up on this opportunity. So 24 hours later, overnight bag in hand, I found myself climbing up the ladder into the back of the PBY, working my way forward to the jump seat behind the cockpit. We would be flying down to Tillamook with Fred Ihlenburg and his Chinese-built CJ-6J trainer "Yakity Yak". Fred's wife and my buddy Frank Mulcahey would also be along for the ride with me in the PBY.

Now, as a Naval Aviator, I have over 1000 hours of flight time, the majority of which are in the P-3C Orion. I figured so much time in a large, heavy aircraft would prepare me to fly theclick here for large image PBY. Additionally, I assumed that the years I was raised flying my dad's 1940's vintage L-17 Navion, and even the ride in the backseat of a P-51 at Reno would get me ready.......but I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

After a VFR departure to the west out of NAS Whidbey, we stabilized at about 1200 feet, and Jack got up and offered me the right seat of the Cat. Once strapped in, Jim in the left seat gave me a quick "on the fly" check out of the cockpit, and handed the controls over to me. A glance out the window to my right showed that Fred and the CJ-6 were tucked nicely in formation under our wing, giving the guys in the rear observation blister some wonderful photo ops.

The first thing I noticed was how archaic the cockpit of the PBY is. As in most seaplanes, the throttle and prop quadrant was overhead, between the pilots seats. With the exception of the GPS package in the instrument panel, the cockpit probably looked just as it did in WWII. Over the radio I heard, "Brad, isn't that just the wimpiest control wheel you've ever seen in your life?" I looked out the window to see Fred's face grinning back at me from the cockpit of the Yak. And he was right.......for such a large aircraft, the PBY definitely had a small, thin control wheel. Both wheels are connected together by a large metal crossbar. Somewhere in the back of my head, I figured there had to be a REASON for that bar........ and I was to find out first hand later.

We guided the planes west out the Strait of Juan de Fuca, out to Forks on the Washington coast. Once there, we turned south, gradually dropped down to 500 feet and followed the beachline to Tillamook. The sun was setting on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and we watched the beach and surf roll by just a few hundred feet below us. Now, I had spent plenty of time in the P-3 cruising around at 200 feet off the water, so I felt comfortable flying a big plane this low, but this was something completely different. It was here that I realized just how S-L-O-W the PBY is. Every so often, Jim or Fred would comment "Hey, we're actually up to 118 knots now" which point I would look down, realize that I had been in a slow decent for the last few minutes, smile to myself and correct the altitude.

The PBY is a very noisy aircraft, but one only has to look up over the shoulders to see why. click here for large imageThose two Pratt and Whitney radials are RIGHT THERE, and the three bladed props seem to be spinning just inches above and behind your head. The plane is also very heavy on the controls. I felt that I had been doing a pretty good job keeping the plane headed in the right direction (rudder trim is VERY sensitive), holding altitude within about 200 feet, and for the time being, I lulled myself into a state of complacency about how great of a pilot I really was........ FULLY KNOWING in my heart that not only could I fly this bird, but the box it came in as well............. Every now and then Jack would stick his head up between the pilots seats and give me some advice here and there about how to fly the plane, and then he and Jim would exchange a knowing grin. I guess that should have warned me.

About the time we reached the Columbia River and the city of Astoria, Oregon, Fred chimed in over the radio that he had had about enough of this "slow" flying, that he was going to go burn the carbon out of the engine of the Yak. For the next 15 minutes, he proceeded to do strafing runs on us in the Cat, pulling up into beautiful, arcing barrel rolls over the top and out in front of us. I know I enjoyed the show, but I'll bet we weren't having half the time Fred was.

As I sat there in the afternoon sun, spinning props whirring away over my head, looking out over the gun turret nose of the Cat, I took just a moment to soak it all in. Here I was flying one of the most famous aircraft of WWII, the plane that spotted the Japanese fleet at Midway and turned the tide of the war in the Pacific, the plane that was a rescuing angel for thousandsclick here for large image of our downed pilots. I gained an immense amount of respect that day for all the pilots who have ever flown the PBY. It was all I could do to contain the emotion I was feeling, but I think the huge grin on my face gave me away. I think Jack and Jim understood too.

As we passed the resort town of Cannon Beach, Jack suggested that maybe now would be a good time for me to try a few turns in the PBY. Hey, no problem. I've muscled the P-3 around in steep turns before.......... this shouldn't be much different, right? I announced that I was going to do a 360 to the left, had Jim clear me on his side, gave the control wheel a hard but steady turn to the left.............. and nothing happened. The plane kept flying straight and level. For the first time in my flying career, I took my hands OFF the wheel in the middle of a maneuver, took another hefty grip and turned it some more........ and after what seemed like at least 10 seconds, the left wing started to slowly dip.

When I got to about 30 degrees angle of bank, I straightened the wheel out to hold the turn, but now the darn thing just kept on increasing the angle of bank. By the time I got it all figured out, I was actually holding a RIGHT turn into the wheel to hold the LEFT turn at 30 degrees. click here for large imageI gave up trying to keep the ball centered with the rudder pedals. Meanwhile, airspeed had bled off to somewhere below 100 knots, and the altimeter was unwinding at a rate which surely would have failed ANY checkride.

After about 180 degrees, I rolled the plane out on a northerly heading, wondering what the hell had gone wrong, and Jack and Jim laughed out loud at my performance. Fred piped in with something good over the radio too. Okay...... so maybe I wasn't quite ready to take this baby to war. Flying straight and level is one thing, but turning the Cat was a humbling experience to say the least.

My dream world shattered, I forced myself back into my Naval Aviator mentality and attempted a 180 degree turn to the right. Adding a little power to compensate for the speed bleed, I entered a nice coordinated turn, reefing back on the control column to maintain altitude. This time I expected and anticipated the poor roll rate, and compensated for it. Now, I stand 6'3" and 240 lbs, and I know the controls were heavy for me. I figured out about this time that the crossbar between the control wheels was to be used for leverage in the turns! I can only imagine how pilots of smaller stature must have manhandled this plane on a bombing run. One thing for sure...... I'll bet their arm muscles were HUGE!

The turn to the right was much better. I think I only lost 10 mph and about 50 feet. Jack clasped his hand to my shoulder, nodded his head and smiled. "Hey, that looked better" said Fred over the radio, as I saw him drift back into formation off our right wing. "Not quite as easy as it looks, is it...." chuckled Jack.

All too soon, we rounded the peninsula, and there in the distance we could see the huge dirigible hangar that houses the Tillamook Naval Air Station Museum. I knew my time wasclick here for large image running out. I reluctantly turned the controls back over to Jim, and climbed out of the seat. As Jack strapped back in, I stood behind him, peering over his shoulder and suddenly realized how exhausted my whole body felt.

As we strapped into the jump seats, Jack suddenly hopped down, grabbed a large red crank handle, and headed back for the landing gear well. In a much more non-chelant attitude than I ever would have had, Jack informed me that the left main gear was not giving a down and locked indication, and that he was going to crank it all the way down if he had to. Fortunately, Jim was able to recycle the gear, and it resulted in three green lights on the panel.

Just a few short minutes later, the wheels squeaked on the pavement, and we taxied slowly over to the huge hangar. Fred parked the Yak across the tarmac. The sun was just starting to go down over the horizon to the west, but there was still enough time to snap a few pictures of all of us in front of the plane. The epic trip was over. Now Frank and I still had a daunting 7 hour drive home that night, but at that point nothing else mattered.
I will be forever grateful to Jack and Jim and everyone from the Tillamook Naval Air Station Museum for giving me the chance of a lifetime. That flight gave me more memories than I can possibly remember. Oh, and that 2.3 hours of Pilot in Command time of a PBY I have in my logbook doesn't look too shabby either!

(Lt. Bradley J. Haskin is a 30 year old Lieutenant in the Navy. Former P-3 pilot and now a licensed commercial pilot, he currently serves on the Board of the National Air-Racing Group and is also the Air Race Editor for World Airshow News.  Hobbies include flying, model building, photography, and watching air racing and unlimited hydroplane racing. )

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