‘Black cat’ Catalina Flying Boat lives another day in Bow Bridge

Toby HusseyAlbany Advertiser
Jeff Boyling and the “black cat”, a relic of Australian military history.
Camera IconJeff Boyling and the “black cat”, a relic of Australian military history. Credit: Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson.

Roaring and rattling through the night sky, north of Darwin, a black shape dropped into the rough ocean on January 21, 1944.

Sheltering from bad weather and taking the chance to re-fuel, the Australian crew of eight to 10 men breathed with relief at returning to safe waters, ending another mission in their Catalina Flying Boat.

For the crew, which could have returned from night-time reconnaissance or bombing from Australia to China, reaching home unscathed after hours in this lumbering amphibian was something they knew many crews did not manage.

However, though they were nearly home, danger still lurked.

The plane would have been turned off and fuel poured into the tank to prepare for the final leg of flight.

Then: a spark.

Catalina flying boat pilot Jeff Boyling.
Camera IconCatalina flying boat pilot Jeff Boyling. Credit: Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson.

Perhaps it was the rough seas, perhaps a tired crew member’s mistake, but records state within moments the plane’s wings were aflame, quickly engulfing the plane.

Hundreds of kilometres from the closest Japanese soldier, the crew from the RAAF’s 43 Squadron could only watch as fire scorched their aircraft.

It is unclear whether the plane was salvaged and returned to the skies but it was moved to Victoria post-war and then again to Albany in 1990.

It was then displayed at Whale World for 14 years before disappearing.

Its fate was known by few — until now.

A relic of Australian military history, the 76-year-old veteran sits hidden off a dusty road in a paddock outside Denmark.

It’s a hot February day when we are taken to see it.

As we pull up, the long, dark body of the “black cat” emerges through the trees, revealing a formidable figure.

Catalina flying boat pilot Jeff Boyling.
Camera IconCatalina flying boat pilot Jeff Boyling. Credit: Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson.

This is no elegant beast.

Its bulging body is unlike anything in the skies today, but it casts a striking image; its heavy features and odd angles fitting a vehicle half-way between an aircraft and a boat.

It’s a rugged transporter made to spot submarines, deliver troops, bomb ships and carry messages through enemy lines — designed for utility, with little thought for elegance or appearance.

On this day, open to the elements and far away in space and time from the Pacific war it was built for, it casts a broad shadow along the grassy floor.

Its belly, once a bay for torpedoes or depth charges, is now the home to spiders which have grown fat in its protection.

How did it come to Denmark?

An owner, who asked not to be named, said he nabbed it from under the nose of a Canadian buyer — an alternative fate he said would have been a loss for Australian military heritage.

Catalina flying boat pilot Jeff Boyling.
Camera IconCatalina flying boat pilot Jeff Boyling. Credit: Albany Advertiser, Laurie Benson.

“They saved a hell of a lot of Allied sailors’ lives,” he said.

“It would have been an absolute disgrace for a warbird which flew for Australia to go to Canada.”

This Catalina is one of few believed still to be in Australian hands.

It will never fly again — he concedes the cost to return it to the skies is well outside his budget — but he plans to get it back together and on display.

At some time, he hopes, it will leave its quiet Denmark den and make a permanent historic display on the Swan River — but those plans are still too early to reveal.

For those few who still fly them, such as pilot Jeff Boyling, Catalinas deserve to be preserved and their crews remembered for their daring, wartime exploits.

At a time when Australian losses were heavy, Australian crews repeatedly flew into enemy airspace — sometimes without armament — to deliver vital supplies, weapons or messages.

“It was probably the most versatile aircraft of World War II,” Mr Boyling said.

“She was active for reconnaissance; convoy protection; submarine hunter; a bomber; she could deliver torpedoes and be used to drop agents into islands.

Catalina enthusiasts like Mr Boyling still fly worldwide, and he hoped they would be preserved for future generations to marvel at.

“They would go off by themselves at night typically on long-range patrols, and sometimes you would never hear from them again.

“Where are they now? We don’t know.”

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