Academy 1/72 PBY-5 Catalina

KIT #: 2123
PRICE: around $30.00 when available
DECALS: One option
REVIEWER: Ryan Grosswiler

  For every navy, long before the advent of radar and other high-tech sensory devices, the most important tool for tracking an enemy's movements was the human eye. Initially that eye was placed high atop a ship's mast in the crow's nest. With the advent of aircraft, heavier-than-air and otherwise, military leaders immediately saw the means of putting those eyes higher and farther ahead of their forces. This is especially important in the vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean, where an enemy fleet can easily move long distances without detection otherwise. Both the United States and Japan recognized this vulnerability and designed series of very long-range seaplanes to form a visual picket of their Pacific holdings, each making long, sweeping arcs over the shimmering expanses with several pairs of eyes (maintaining varying degrees of attention) looking to see what was out there.
  The PBY is easily the most famous of these, but--strange to think--it was very nearly only a minor player in World War II. Having been in service in developed form since 1936, it was well liked by both aircrew and senior staff. However, larger and significantly more capable replacements, the PBM Mariner, Boeing Sea Ranger, and Consolidated's own Coronado were being tested and entering service in the years leading up to the war, and the PBY was scheduled to leave service in 1941. 
   It was the Royal Navy who both changed this, continuing production by ordering 30 in the desperate buildup following the Munich Crisis, and gave the PBY its best-known name, "Catalina". This order saved the design from termination, and set the stage for the aircraft to play the major and pivotal role that it did. Giving it a name made it immortal. Therefore available and present at the first shot of World War II all over the world in large numbers, easy to service, and extremely dependable, the PBY Catalina would be built greater numbers than all other flying boat types combined simply by dint that it was present in quantity from the beginning and did its job well. While the Martin Mariner did slowly assume the Catalina's combat roles after 1942 it never supplanted them completely. The Sea Ranger was found redundant and rejected for a production contract and the Coronado--a little disappointing and relegated mostly to transport.
   A handful had been in civilian service all along. Typical for such an adaptable, reliable, and very available aircraft, and even more so as seaplane/amphibian, it right away found employment in all sorts of roles in the postwar world and is one of a few wartime types still earning paid service in 2020.
   Directional stability was always a problem, and the area/shape of the vertical tail kept being changed and increased throughout production and in various postwar modifications. The pure seaplane -5 was the best-performing of the lot, being unencumbered with the 3000 lbs. of landing gear dead weight of the amphibian versions.  Wartime need meant that some of the amphibian versions even had their landing gear removed in the field to achieve this performance. Though this lighter variant accounted for about a third of total production, its reduced utility meant that of the eighty or so Catalinas that survive today it only accounts for three or four airframes.
   As the most iconic seaplane of all time, there have been Catalina kits as long as there've been plastic kits as we know them. Aurora provided the earliest one in very approximate 1/72 ("5/32 scale") in 1957. Airfix and Revell both gave us good ones in 1/72 in the sixties, both relegated to the back seat when Academy's came out about 1994. Revell brought out a -5A in 1/48 shortly afterward, nicely detailed but cursed with a vertical fin too fat.
   This offering is typical of Academy's US WWII multi-engined kits which came out at the time. Nice, crisp, and comprehensive engraved detail, some slightly clunky engines and props, very good overall shape and outlines, and easy construction. Admirably, and per the rest of this series, all the major production versions of this classic aircraft from the -2 to the -5A are provided for in various boxings. There have been various resin and vacuform sets to convert the -5A into the tall-tail -6A and PBN Nomad versions. 
  Typical for Academy of the early '90s, tires are provided in black rubber. Live with it, bucko.
   A quarter century on, this is still really a very good kit and there are no actual problems in the build. As in any model there are a few inaccuracies, but happily as it turns out the more obvious they are, the easier they are to fix. In descending order (as in 'descent into hell'):
1) The pair of wheels on each beaching gear leg sit much too far apart. The engineering of the axles doesn't make shortening of them an option, so simply slice off the shallow 'cone' detail on the inside faces of the wheels (part A9) flush with the surrounding rims and they'll slide right in where they should be. Five minutes' work, maybe.
2) The hinge line of the elevator is one panel line too far aft. The real PBY featured massive barn-door elevators extending well forward of the half-chord line of the stabs. Simply fill the existing hinge line and sand, then deepen the next one forward if so desired with more scribing and shaping to represent the new hinge line. You can also instead go a lazier route and simply emphasize the correct lines with a dark wash during finishing. Again, not a big challenge.
3) The engine cowls and nacelles are slightly too big. Probably not worth correcting for most modelers, I didn't discover this one until it was too late to do anything about it anyway. Quickboost offers a corrected cowl, taking care of the first part of the problem, but not the nacelles. I'm not really sure about what you'd do to fix that part, short of laboriously slicing off the nacelle bulges, dividing them into quarters, removing about 1/16" off the width of each, gluing them back in place carefully matching the diameter of the resin cowls, then sanding and rescribing. In the end I didn't think it was worth the hassle since the error really isn't noticeable. I did use the Quickboost engines and props since the kit parts are a bit clunky, though the resin's blade shape still isn't quite pointy enough. If you're anything but among the most uptight of modelers I'd ignore this group of issues completely.
   There are also the various omitted little details and problems resulting from Academy's kit engineers doing their best to deal with the PBY's complex fuselage contours. A scribed skylight panel on the right side of the fuselage aft of the gunners' blisters needs to be opened up and represented with clear plastic. The gunners' semicircular platforms need to be shortened and lowered to a position on the bottom of the hull, then former-and-stringer detail added in their place. I actually ended up spending quite a while detailing this compartment since those big blisters let in a lot of light and the space is pretty visible, even in 1/72. This included a toilet fashioned from a 1/15 Bandai Panzer IV smoke-discharger. 
   Finally, a little more detail was added to the less-visible spaces of the cockpit and forward turret. Holes and cleats were carved and shaped from the spray guard/crew footholds either side of the bow, and I replaced Academy's simplified fuel vents on top of the wing with finer ones of brass rod. All canopies were replaced with those of the vacuform Squadron/Falcon set. Common to all Catalina kits, the gunners' blisters are depicted as smooth teardrops omitting the recessed panel that rotated inward to allow crew access and expose the gun. I didn't pick a fight with that one. 

   General assembly followed, no problems. The wiser modeler may want to leave off the wing and struts until after basic colors are painted. This less-than-wise modeller didn't, and good times were had getting paint/weathering into all those awkward little nooks and crannies around the root and pylon.
  The kit provides an attractive option from the prewar Yellow Wing era, but I wanted my -5 to be an early-war workhorse. Wolfpack decals out of Korea (not to be confused with the also-excellent American Wolf-Pak decals) provided these markings. After spraying the basic colors of Intermediate Blue over a very light Gull Gray under a coat of Future these snuggled right down into the panel and rivet lines with Micro Set and Sol. 
   Sidebar note: As of this writing Wolfpack is offering a special release of the Academy kit with a set of their decals, including an example with the gigantic full-chord national markings on the wings. It even includes a complete set of precut canopy masks.
   That big plank of a wing presents a lot of uninterrupted surface area which could turn out really bland in such a drab basic color, so I went full-tilt boogie and threw every weathering and highlighting technique I could think of at it, including some post-shading with heavily thinned Tamiya Clear Blue (X-23). Academy's crisp engraved detail takes an oil wash really sure to emphasize it more around the center-section and engines, where the maintenance crew would be spending most of their time. I might have overdone it a tad.
   Though the kit comes with a quartet of really overscale 500-lb bombs, I armed my Catalina with a two pairs of Attack Squadron Mk XVII depth charges, currently available from BrenGun. The PBY's complex spiderweb of various low-frequency antennas running this way and that was represented in simplified form with EZ Line.
   Build it straight form the box or go to town and detail the stuffing out of it! Nothing to be found here but enjoyment.  Still the best Catalina in any scale.

Dorney, Louis B. US Navy PBY Units of the Pacific War. Osprey Publishing Ltd. Botley, Oxford UK 2007
Scarborough, WE. PBY Catalina in action. Squadron-signal Publications, Carrolton, TX 1983
Bowers, Peter. Long Range Patrol Pt. I & II. Vol 24, No 5 & 6 Airpower Ma.gazine, Granada Hills, CA 1994
Matt, Paul. Paul Matt Scale Airplane Drawings Vol. 1. Wind Canyon Books, Brawley, CA 2005

Ryan Grosswiler

4 January 2021


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