It was a plane designed to search for and track Japanese fleets in World War II. After the war, it was used as a water bomber to fight fires all over the world. It has been described as one of the most rugged and versatile aircraft in U.S. history.
But a powerful gust of wind in South St. Paul put an end to the flying days of one particular Consolidated PBY-6A Catalina, now being restored by the Duluth-based Lake Superior Squadron 101 of the Commemorative Air Force, which hopes to get its 1945 seaplane airborne again by 2020.
The all-volunteer group, made up of about 50 members, works out of an abandoned U.S. Air Force hangar on Monday evenings. About half its members live in the area and half of those regularly work on the plane, which has proved to be as pesky as any 72-year-old patient.
They're working on the 104-foot wing right now, inspecting the surface for defects. They've found quite a few.
"For every one we fix, we find three more," said the unit's leader, Kevin Parks.
The group has been getting assistance from volunteers working nearby at AAR Corp. Students at Lake Superior College's School of Aviation also have pledged to help with a corrosion inspection of the entire aircraft.
The Catalina being restored in Duluth never made it overseas in wartime.
Built in March 1945, it was in and out of storage with the military before it was purchased by a private company in Manitoba, Canada, which converted it into a water bomber to fight forest fires. It went back into storage and was later bought by the government of France before coming back to the U.S. and being put in storage yet again.
The Commemorative Air Force, a Texas-based nonprofit that restores and preserves World War II-era combat aircraft, acquired the plane in February 1994. For several years, it was housed and flown out of the group's hangar in South St. Paul.
But in May 1998, high winds from a storm flipped the aircraft onto its back and destroyed the wing and part of its tail, Parks said.
In fall 2009, the Lake Superior Squadron 101 took a wing from another PBY and mated it to the hull.
The restoration, which is ongoing, will continue to be time-consuming and expensive.
Parks said the cost to complete the project could run as high as $200,000. Besides the wing work, both engines will need to be overhauled at an estimated cost of $55,000 each.
The National Naval Aviation Museum describes the Catalina as one of the most recognized planes in the world, with its parasol-mounted wing and retractable stabilizing floats that fold upward to become wingtips in flight.
Between 1936 and 1945, 4,000 Catalinas were built and the planes earned a reputation as a workhorse of naval aviation. It was involved in almost every major operation in World War II and figured significantly in defeating the U-boat menace in the Atlantic. It also was used extensively in civilian service.
The U.S. Forest Service retired its last PBY in the early 1980s. It is estimated that 30 of the planes are still airworthy, according to the website Warbird Alley. If all goes well, one more will be back in the air in about three years.
"The original plan was to fly it in 2013, but you run into stuff and you've got to fix it," Parks said. "It's all a labor of love, though."
The Commemorative Air Force's Lake Superior Squadron 101 has a museum in Duluth at 4931 Airport Road. The museum is free and open to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Anyone wishing to donate can go to cafduluth.com or to the group's Facebook page.