Robson has some sun 'n fun in Florida
Springtime in Florida is a very pleasant time, certainly for a UK resident. Daytime sunshine, hot sunshine, warm pleasant evenings and, for those with aviation leanings, the annual 'Sun 'n Fun' EAA Fly-In at Lakeland-Linder regional airport.
For the uninitiated, this is a show the likes of which we could never imagine in the UK, and second only in size and variety to its 'big brother' event at Oshkosh in July each year. The 'Fly-In' title aptly sums up the event, with all species and subspecies of flying machines attending, giving something to suit all interests. For me, it's the timeless appeal of the classic 'heavy-prop' and all that encompasses, from the ubiquitous Twin Beech, right up to the magnificent Lockheed Super Constellation and everything in-between. For me then, Sun 'n Fun never fails to deliver!
Spring break in Florida a few years ago, timed to coincide with Sun 'n Fun, brought a chance meeting with one Charles Clements, as he taxied his friend's Grumman Mallard onto the National Jets ramp at Fort Lauderdale International, with consequences far beyond any expectations I may have had. Charlie was preparing to fly his recently restored Douglas C-117D 'Super Dak' to the show and offered my wife and I the chance to ride in it with him. Sadly, circumstances made this impossible but the offer was extended to another year - a generous offer we duly took up, and since have become very close friends with Charlie and his wife Perdita, the annual trip to Sun 'n Fun becoming a 'must' in the Robson year planner !
At the time, Charlie was also hopeful of having his other aircraft restored and ready to take to the next Sun 'n Fun, his other aircraft being… a Consolidated PBY 'Super' Catalina. That was back in 1995 and I soon discovered that Charlie Clements is a very patient and determined man, as it would be a further seven years before the 'light at the end of the tunnel' became close enough to see his PBY return to her full glory.
This 'Super Cat' was built as Consolidated Vultee 28-5ACF (PBY-5A) Catalina, manufacturer serial number 1649, in October 1943 at San Diego, California and was issued to the United States Navy in December of that year with the Bureau Number 48287. Service history details of this particular aircraft are scarce, but it is known that it served until demob in 1956, when it joined the ranks of retired Navy types in their desert storage facility at Litchfield Park, Arizona. Sold at auction soon afterwards it took the registration N10017, possibly to facilitate its sale to Canadian operator Questor Surveys Limited, of Toronto, Ontario in 1959. Once in Canada it acquired local marks CF-JMS and began a long career in aerial surveying and mapping, not uncommon for PBYs of the time, which was probably instrumental to its survival. In the early 1960s Timmins Aviation undertook the modification of the airframe to 'Super Cat' status, involving the removal of all military equipment including bow and rear turrets as well as replacing the original 1,200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines with Wright Cyclone R-2600 powerplants, rated at 1,700 hp. To compensate for this significant increase in power, the PBY's tail area was increased with the fitting of a new, larger rudder with a squared off tip offering more directional control. In addition, a ventral air-stair was fitted to assist in ground handling. Following the modification, the aircraft was given a Standard Airworthiness Certificate making it eligible for passenger carrying, up to a maximum of 22 persons, making this one of the few current airworthy PBY's to hold such a certification.
In 'Super Catalina' configuration, its survey life continued, the significant performance increase making it even more suitable in this role, which at times included towing aerial sensors. 1964 saw the 'Cat' operating survey missions in Australia with Selco Explorations as VH-UMS before resuming operation with Questor in Canadian skies under its previous registration, with further work on behalf of various survey companies including Kentings, and Barringer Surveys Limited. Questor exported the aircraft to the US in 1973 as N16647, but records show it was soon back north of the border with Austin Airways of Timmins Ontario as C-GGDW by August 1975. Its final career move saw it flying for well-known PBY operator Geoterrex Ltd of Ottawa, after which it was offered for sale in the early 1980s.
New owner Jack Leavis of Miami, Florida purchased the Super Catalina and had it flown to Opa Locka airport in Florida in 1984, having reverted to N16647. Leavis, a Boeing 727 Captain with Japan Air Lines, also owned a former US Navy Douglas C-117D, which along with the PBY were offered for sale. At the time both aircraft were languishing on the eastern side of Opa Locka, with the grass growing long around them. Southern Florida resident and airline Captain Charlie Clements had known of the PBY at Opa Locka for a number of years and, having been brought up in the Keys around flying boats (his father also flew for the airlines and owned a Republic Seabee) entered into negotiations to buy. Eventually, in February 1989, a deal was concluded, with Charlie shaking on a deal "Too good to miss", which saw him obtaining not only the PBY but the C-117 'Super Dak' as well!
Even though it had not flown since its arrival, the PBY had enjoyed periodic engine runs to keep her semi-active and in February 1990 Charlie flew his cherished PBY south to Fort Lauderdale International airport where a thorough programme of disassembly, inspection, repair and restoration was planned - well, that was the plan... Chalk's International Airlines, a long established seaplane operation, agreed to having the aircraft on their ramp where sheet metal repairs, clean up of areas of corrosion, recovering control surfaces and engine and propeller overhauls were done, with Chalk greatly assisting in most of this. The interior was completely stripped, cleaned and primed with Glidguard Series 5000 Epoxy Primer, with all newly fabricated flooring and supports fitted. The exterior of the aircraft was totally primed and completed in Sterling Jet Black Polyurethane Topcoat and clear finish. The project occasionally stalled, due mainly to what Charlie laughingly describes as "funding"; after all restoring not one but two classic transports is somewhat of a financial challenge! Charlie's sterling efforts, ably assisted by a solid band of close friends, were occasionally put on hold by situations totally out of their control, not least being the extreme Florida weather, especially so in the 'hurricane season'. However, the careless actions of the pilot of a former drug-impound C-123 Provider also impacted upon the restoration effort, both in time and finance, when he taxied too close to the PBY and caught his wing tip on one of the PBY's props, severely damaging the engine.
Once all major work was completed in Fort Lauderdale, the PBY was flown to Tamiami Airport in South Miami, Florida, where it took up residence on the main ramp adjacent to Kermit Weeks's air museum at the west end of the field. Here, the number two engine was removed and overhauled and reinstalled in July 1999. The aircraft was put on an FAA Approved maintenance program and a letter of authorisation to deviate from FAR 125 issued, and by September 2001 the maintenance inspection was complete. A major rectification programme, covering some two hundred items listed on discrepancy sheets as of a result of the inspection programmes was initiated, all of which were cleared, together with the replacement of all fuel, oil and hydraulic lines, giving the aircraft a clean bill of health and a valuable asset in any future sale of the airframe. Still missing the distinctive fuselage blisters or nose turret, a large side cargo door occupies the left rear fuselage, which incorporates a three-step stairway to assist entry, all resulting from its demob modifications for survey work. Likewise, the standard 'tunnel' gun door in the lower rear fuselage was also greatly enlarged to cater for survey equipment. In its present guise, this lends itself well to loading all the requisite 'ground support' for Charlie's airshow appearances - such as deck chairs, ice-coolers and the like as well as providing a very pleasant, though slightly unusual, vantage point to watch the world go by during flight!
Whilst maintaining a full-time day-job as an airline pilot, to date Charlie has spent most of his waking moments over the past ten years working towards the restoration of his 'Super Cat', much to the chagrin of his very patient wife Perdita. Indeed, home for the Clements's, until very recently, has been a nicely modified warehouse, with 'adequate' living quarters above his healthy spares store. However, without a dedicated 'crew', under the wonderful organisation of Maintenance Chief Mike Borja, the whole task would have been so much more difficult, with always something more to do. On this point, everyone gets their hands dirty sometime, from crew chief Luis to Charlie's 'volunteer' pilots Tom Hall and Bob Hill, and all others lucky enough to enjoy the experience of being around and flying in the PBY.
Since its restoration back to flight in April 2002, Charlie has flown as often as time allows, putting over 150 hours on the airframe since then, including many airshow appearances as well as flying "Just for the fun of it", which recently included taking it to the Cayman Islands for a vacation. Mostly the flying is local and often in conjunction with some of the residents of the local 'Wings Over Miami' museum, co-located at Tamiami-Kendall, it is not unusual for the tourists on Miami's trendy South Beach to see a gaggle of vintage T-6s and Nanchang CJ-6s escorting the statuesque PBY on one of its 'patrols' of the locale, or as Charlie laughingly puts it "Keeping Biscayne Bay clear of U-Boats!"