She's the only one of her kind — a Catalina flying boat that is fitted to carry passengers — in the world. And last week the Wandering Witch was in Kaitaia.
She was flown north, after two false starts last year, by members of the New Zealand Catalina Preservation Society, and was joined a little later on Friday morning by three Yaks, which announced their arrival from Pauanui by flying low and in tight formation over the airport before touching down.
The visit was made in support of a Kaitaia Aero Club open day on Saturday, and the Catalina, built in Montreal in 1944 for service with the Royal Canadian Air Force (but now sporting traditional RNZAF colours), was the star of the show.
Pilot Brett Emeny, from the Catalina Group of New Zealand, said the RNZAF had three squadrons of Catalinas during WWII — Edmund Hillary was a navigator aboard one of them — and the planes had collectively established a proud record.
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It was a Catalina, he said, that had found the Japanese fleet before the Battle of Midway, and earlier located the Bismark, subsequently sunk by the British Navy.
"These were things that changed the course of the war."
Their extraordinary range — the equivalent of Auckland to Darwin non-stop — had made them formidable submarine hunters, attacking with cannons, bombs and/or torpedoes.
The Wandering Witch had accumulated 16,000 hours in the air over the last 76 years.
Uniquely fitted out to carry 16 passengers, with two pilots and two cabin crew (she carried up to nine crew during the war), she was decidedly cramped by modern passenger aircraft standards, but the seats were comfortable, and each passenger who took off from Kaitaia had a turn in the 'blisters' towards the rear, which gave them an extraordinary view of the world below them.
Meanwhile little was known of ZK-PBY's history between 1947, when she ended her life with the RCAF, and 1955, when she popped up as a civilian aircraft in Costa Rica. She returned to Canada, and was operated by a number of owners in various transport roles, but by the late 1980s she was in storage in Nevada. In 1988 she was bought and refurbished for tourist flights down the Nile by the the Catalina Safari Company, based in Harare, and in 1994 she made her last epic flight, from Zimbabwe to New Zealand, which seems destined to be her final home.