Gwen. was written on the envelope. That’s all. It arrived without notice, no postmark, no return address, just stamped in bold red ink . . .
Aha! My DVD copy of “Return of the Catalina” had arrived!
Top secret indeed. The exploits of those few brave men who in 1943 flew the “Black Cats of the Double Sunrise Service” – the Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats – non stop for 32 hours across enemy territory have never been officially recognised. This is despite their success in breaking the Japanese air blockade of Australia, reconnecting us with “the Empire”. In 2011, a group of intrepid enthusiasts embarked on an ambitious project to lift the veil on this time in history and preserve the memory of those original air crew by bringing one home to Australia.
Original black and white film footage and maps set the background history – Singapore has fallen to the Japanese and Australia is cut-off from Britain (Feb 1942). Cut forward to present day, and we meet 93 year old Rex Senior, the First Officer and Navigator on the first Double Sunrise flight, which departed Perth on 10th July 1943. Rex gives us a first-hand account of the trip and its precious payload.
Next we meet the volunteers from the Qantas Founders Museum of Longreach Queensland who came up with this scheme, former pilots and engineers, all determined to get recognition for the WWII unsung heroes.
All of the Catalinas used in the Double Sunrise Service were scuttled after the war. A search for a similar craft leads the team to Spain where they discover a sad and sorry looking 1945 model, painted bright yellow/orange, which in more recent times was used as a water bomber. The DVD shows the restoration in fast-speed, months flick past in a few seconds, then hooray! It is test flight time.
“Nothing could possibly go wrong!”
It’s a line Captain Ross Kelly uses optimistically several times throughout the documentary, with more than just a touch of the famous Australian sardonic wit.
Surprise, surprise – things go wrong! . . .who’d a’ thunk it?
Flat tyres, refuelling dramas, misfiring engines, limited brakes and catastrophic engine failure . . . it’s all there, but the team stay dogged, even though it takes an epic two years until the Captain can announce “objective complete”. (The Catalina has since been re-painted into its wartime camouflage and is on permanent “no-fly” display at Longreach, although visitors can sit in it and have a simulated flight noise and vibration experience.)
There is a poignant piece near the end of the documentary, where Rex Senior flies up to Longreach to meet the return, and takes one last turn in the Captain’s seat. “It feels good to be back in it,” he says. His closing comments on the experiences of the wartime crews will be a must hear for the aviation enthusiasts who follow this blog. [Vale Rex Senior (1910 – 2015)]
The documentary is available in both DVD and Digital Download. As well as the main trailer, there are some other interesting clips on YouTube. Even if you don’t buy the DVD, do yourself a favour and watch the official trailer (and I’m happy to supply translations for Australian colloquialisms if required 🙂 )
I first came to know of the documentary on Warbirdsnews.com. This site is jam-packed with articles related to the history, technology and heritage of aircraft and the various museums which restore, preserve and protect them. it is professionally presented and well worth following for enthusiasts.