Vintage IWM Duxford-based Catalina flying boat gets a monster Pick Up from Loch Ness
As one of the world’s only airworthy Catalina flying boats, Miss Pick Up has flown far and wide from its base at the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford.
But while its impressive list of destinations includes air shows as far afield as Iceland, Russia and Turkey, a shorter trip to Loch Ness was to provide the most challenging project yet for Plane Sailing Air Displays Ltd, the team of dedicated volunteers who own and preserve this iconic aircraft.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the plane’s full schedule of bookings across Europe in 2020 but there was great excitement when two filming contracts came in during the autumn, work that would in part compensate for the loss of income in previous months.
After a full day of water training on Loch Ness on October 16 last year, the three-man crew of Paul Warren Wilson (captain), Derek Head (co-pilot) and David Legg (crew chief) prepared for filming on a television programme next day. The Catalina duly landed on the loch, collected two actors, flew some circuits filmed by cameramen on board and on the ground, before landing on the water and disembarking its passengers.
Everything was going in accordance with the script... but when the crew went to restart the Catalina’s two Pratt & Whitney engines, switched off for safety reasons during disembarkation, the starboard unit refused to cooperate. It soon became obvious the Catalina would not be able to take off from the loch.
David says: “We now found ourselves in the difficult position of being in a large flying boat, adrift on a deep loch, at the mercy of the elements with no means of steering.
“There were no places to leave the water such as slipways, no obvious buoys or piers to moor up to, and not even any areas to beach upon, the edges of the loch in the area being steep and surrounded by trees. Oh, and it was not long until sunset!”
A phone call with chief engineer, Garry Short, several hundred miles to the south, suggested a failed starter motor was the problem. The immediate challenge was to secure the Catalina to a buoy capable of taking its weight. This was achieved with the help of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute’s Loch Ness volunteer team and the Catalina crew were taken to dry land.
With the prospect of the stricken Catalina joining the mythical monster in the depths of Loch Ness, they needed to plan a course of action.
David recalls: “The Catalina was in a serious situation. She was exposed on a buoy of uncertain strength, open to the elements and on open water that can sometimes be quite rough. A breakfast-time crew meeting the next day established that the Catalina was at risk of loss and that a rescue plan was needed – and quickly.”
Garry was soon on his way north to Loch Ness by road and fitted a new starter motor but to no avail. It emerged that a complete engine change was needed - the rescue mission had now become very complicated and expensive.
Miss Pick Up is owned by shareholders who pay a monthly amount into a maintenance fund, and sometimes a lump sum if an extra cost arises. This problem was on a different scale so shareholder pilot Matt Dearden rapidly set up a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe while David publicised the plane’s plight in the media.
The rescue team in Scotland received a lot of help from local people and businesses but the costs were soaring - a massive crane had to be hired to lift the Catalina onto a jetty, a scaffolding frame was needed around the engine and wing, there were complicated repairs to the hull and accommodation costs for the crew. Luckily, contributions to the GoFundMe appeal continued to flow in and the £29,400 target was reached.
Garry and the team of volunteers fitted the new engine and Miss Pick Up was successfully ‘picked up’ and placed on the waters of Loch Ness early in the morning of December 1. With Paul in command, Matt as co-pilot and Chris Hodson as crew chief, both engines were fired up successfully and, in quite rough water, the Catalina taxied out onto the loch and took off for Inverness. Later that day, they headed south under Matt’s command and, after an overnight stop in the midlands, continued back to Duxford.
“The recovery has been an extraordinary experience,” says David. “In the past, Miss Pick Up has flown far and wide - to airshows in Iceland, Arctic Norway, Moscow and central Turkey, and also flown a party of students to eastern Greenland for an expedition. But the Loch Ness rescue was probably our most challenging project so far.”
The mission is not over yet for Miss Pick Up, a former Royal Canadian Air Force Canso A (Catalina) amphibian built in 1943 and acquired by the owners in 2002. Work continues to repair it and bring it up to display standard in the hope that 2021 will be a better year for those involved in the airshow sector. Contributions can still be made at ca.gofundme.com/f/misspickup.
And David says that longer term-support can be given by joining Miss Pick Up’s ‘fan club’, The Catalina Society, at catalina.org.uk/the-catalina-society-membership/. He edits the society’s twice-yearly magazine, The Catalina News.