Article: Early Air Search and Rescue

  • Catalina Flying Boat

    Although there is no widely accepted record of the first search and rescue operation in Canada involving an aircraft, one of the earliest reports is of an incident in August, 1911 on Lake Michigan.

    This apparently first-ever, air-sea rescue was performed by Hugh Robinson who landed on Lake Michigan with his Curtiss seaplane to pull a downed pilot out of the water.

    Some of these early air search and rescue operations involved aviators looking for other aviators who got lost or crashed on ventures to be ‘first’ at something.

    Here is one example:

    In August, 1937, a dragline operator working on the construction of government docks at Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, was eyewitness to the arrival of a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat. He wrote the following in a letter to his wife at their home in Saskatchewan:

    “On Wed a big 2 motored plane sat down on the river here and took on 1,000 gallons of gas. They were on their way to look for the downed Russian fliers who are lost someplace between here and the North Pole. She was some kite. The weight of gas alone was 4 ton. All other planes come up to a floating pier but this one was too big so they anchored it in the centre of the river and took the gas out on a barge.”

    This was the Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat, Guba. It had been purchased by the Soviet Union to search for a missing aircraft and crew on a long-range flight from Moscow to Fairbanks, Alaska.

    The missing airplane was the four-engined Bolkhovitinov DB-A monoplane URSS-H209, which after 14hrs, 32min of flying reported engine trouble at a position estimated at 300 miles (483 km) beyond the North Pole on its way to Alaska. The lead pilot was Sigismund Levanevsky.

    One search expedition was organized by Sir Hubert Wilkins, who also brought in former Canadian Airways pilots Herbert Hollick-Kenyon and S.A. Cheesman. The searches turned up nothing and ended when freeze-up made further operations impossible. No trace was found of the Bolkhovitinov or its crew.

    The Consolidated PBY Catalina was an American flying boat of the 1930s and 1940s produced by Consolidated Aircraft. The Soviet government purchased the Guba partly for the search for Levanevsky, but also because it was interested in buying and producing the Catalina under license.

    The Catalina was one of the most widely used multi-role aircraft of the Second World War. The Canadian-built model was known as the Canso. During the war the aircraft was used in anti-submarine warfare, patrol bombing, convoy escorts, search and rescue missions (especially air-sea rescue), and cargo transport. The PBY Catalina was the most successful aircraft of its kind; no other flying boat was produced in greater numbers. The last active military PBYs were not retired until the 1980s. Even today, over 70 years after its debut, there are still PBY aircraft in civilian use.

    Edited from Altitude, a quarterly publication of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, Summer 2010.

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