Wilbur Watson – Rabaul 1941 – repair to A24-12.
A Cat With a Broken Back!
The story of the recovery of RAAF PBY Catalina A24-12 from Rabaul to Rathmines.
As written by W.E. Graham.
From the collection of “Wilbur’ Watson, held by the Rathmines Catalina Memorial Park Association Incorporated.
It was about one week before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and thereby officially entering the war in the Pacific. A24-12, an RAAF PBY-5 Catalina, returning from patrol made a heavy landing coming in to the A.O.B. at Rabaul.
The Captain of the aircraft was Sqdn. Leader Davies, who was subsequently lost with the rest of his crew some weeks later at Kavieng.
(A24-11 crashed on take-off, Kavieng Harbour, 15th January, 1942.)
First inspection of the Catalina’s hull indicated serious damage, the repair of which was beyond the scope of the engineering members of the crew and their limited facilities.
A signal to Port Moresby requesting technical assistance was sent off immediately and a work party under W/O Jack Morris and Sgt. E.A.Watson was hastily despatched to the scene in a C Class Short Empire Flying Boat, piloted by F/O Norm Fader, complete with beaching gear and other equipment considered necessary.
The damage was bad alright – the aircraft had a broken back – and things looked very grim. Fortunately, the water she was taking was controllable.
Where to repair and more importantly, how to repair was the next consideration.
It so happened, that not far from the A.O.B. was a small tidal creek which looked to be the most likely place for the purpose intended.
The beaching gear was quickly installed and with the help of native labour from the local prison, A24-12 was manhandled ashore sufficiently enough for the hull to be completely out of the water at low tide.
‘Wilbur’ Watson was a member of the permanent RAAF and also an aircraft specialist with a great deal of knowledge and experience with flying boat hulls.
A man of particular resource, Sgt. Watson had earlier made a hull repair virtually under water on A24-3, which had the misfortune to strike a nigger head whilst taxyng on the water at Buka Passage.
A24-12’s condition became an immediate challenge to Watson, who believed he could install a false keel into the ship and make it airworthy enough to get back to a repair depot for permanent repairs.
With the assistance of a tradesman carpenter serving with the Army Garrison at Rabaul, Wilbur mounted a solid flitch of 12”x3” Oregon in the hull above the broken keel, extending from the bulkhead separating the Navigator and Engineers compartments, back to the Tunnel.
He then caused chine pieces to be made and fitted into the hull and fixed these firmly with timber struts back to the false keel.
Skin repairs were made where necessary and sprung rivets were replaced the hard way. Subsequently the hull was made as watertight as possible.
All in all, it looked a good workmanlike job.
The big question was how she would fly? Was the structural damage such that it would seriously upset the trim and make any long flight a hazardous proposition?
Well, the only way to find out any of these things, was to put the aircraft back into the air and give it a thorough workout.
We heaved and struggled to get the craft out of the creek – again with the help of natives – and after about 20 minutes she was afloat and being towed to the re-fuelling buoy by the marine section tender.
The skin repairs were good. No water was being taken and the lie of the aircraft was such that no one would have suspected it had been so badly damaged.
The crew came aboard to carry out the usual pre-flight checks and sufficient fuel was taken on for a local flight.
With the skipper aboard and ready to go, the engines were wound up for a start. They clicked without fuss and A24-12 was taxying, warming up the donk’s preparatory to takeoff.
The water in Rabaul harbor was quite still, almost glassy, with little or no breeze. These conditions are not unusual in that part of the world in December.
Ashore, we watched and waited. The final engine run-up had taken place and the Cat was now being positioned for takeoff.
A flurry of spray, the tail went down and then the howl of the engines responding to full throttle reached us. The moment of truth was at hand. A few moments more, she was on the step and then gracefully coming unstuck, rose gently into the air.
The pilot flew carefully gaining height, and then put the big flying boat into a low climbing turn as he lifted her higher up into the sky.
He made a couple of passes over Rabaul township and then turned in for a landing.
The second moment of truth was imminent. After all, it was this sort of event that caused all the trouble in the first place.
In she came, gradually losing height, lower and lower in a well controlled descent, down onto the step and finally settling right into the water. A perfect landing.
The Captain reported that the ship flew normally, no undue trim was necessary and in his view, completely airworthy for a long flight. All concerned heaved a sigh of relief.
It was originally intended that the machine should proceed to Port Moresby for more effective repairs prior to going on to Rathmines. However, after the test flight and the response to the repairs both on the water and in the air, it was so ordered that A24-12 should fly direct from Rabaul to Rathmines non-stop.
This flight was accomplished without incident.
On arrival at Rathmines, the engineering group on base was so impressed with the ingenuity of Sgt. Watson’s system, and the quality of the workmanship, that it became the standard repair procedure for damage of that nature sustained by Catalina aircraft.
Ironically, after months of hard work by the riggers of 2 F.B.R.D. culminating in the permanent restoration of A24-12’s hull, she was moved from the hangar without engines, on beaching gear and picketed on the old wooden slipway at Rathmines.
Work for the day had been completed and at about 7.20pm, the base was struck by a violent storm. It didn’t last long and property damage didn’t amount to much, but sadly, the strong winds lifted A24-12 off the slipway and she finished up in the water, on her back – written off!
The following account was told by a neighbour, and close friend of Wilbur’s in Rathmines, in 1976.
Wilbur moved out of Rathmines in 1986, due to illness.
Ernest Arthur ‘Wilbur’ Watson. 28th August, 1914 – 12th August, 1993.
“One of the many”
Joined the RAAF on the 15th August, 1938.
Was known as Wilbur, a name given to him by an RAAF instructor at Point Cook, whilst undergoing his initial training., due to his knowledge of aircraft and flying, (after Wilbur Wright).
He was posted to Rathmines on the 1st March, 1940, whilst the base was being constructed, and apart from 14 months service in New Guinea, (1941/42), remained at Rathmines till discharge on 7th September, 1947.
When A24-12 arrived at Rathmines from Rabaul, Wilbur’s effort on the repair was viewed with amazement.
Bert Jones, an Engineer on the base at the time, and who took over the repairs on A24-12 at the base confirmed the description of what Wilbur had done.
As well as the main spine he put in this plane, he made frames to attach it firmly to each bulkhead it passed through. Bert told that Wilbur had attached a note requesting the framing be removed carefully, so that it could be used again if required, but the problem was, no one could work out how to do so without cutting the main beam! (What was not realised, was that Wilbur had, with some help, forced the aft end of the craft upwards to facilitate feeding the beam in!)
This verified the story as told by Wilbur, years later.
Wilbur said the hull, aft of the step, where the break had occurred, was not quite in line after the temporary repair so there was a twist in the hull, putting the tail plane at an odd angle, but the pilot was happy to give it a go. Fortunately, no Health & Safety in those days. (Strengtheners were placed in the hulls of other Cats at Rathmines subsequent to this, to lessen the likelihood of further heavy landing damage.)
After the storm, and the boat being declared not repairable, A24-12 was used for airframe fitters to practice their skills on, so it did do further useful service.
Wilbur carried out other clever repairs to aircraft under challenging conditions. Wilbur blamed his first repair, patching a hull of a Cat underwater on a buoy at Buka for his CO keeping him in New Guinea so long. He remained in New Guinea till the Japanese approached the area, with the responsibility of demolishing equipment when they came into view, before making his way back to RAAF Rathmines.