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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Catalina group hoping for “light at the end of the tunnel”

After more than 16,000 hours spent tirelessly restoring a 1943-built flying boat, Bill Anderson and his team are hoping ‘Our Girl’ will soon find a home amongst the history books once more.

The fate of the amphibious aircraft, built for the US Navy, and widely acclaimed for its use during World War Two, will be decided later this month.

Rathmines Catalina Memorial Park Association president Mr Anderson and his team of 17 say they are optimistic a final conclusion was nearing.

“The restoration team volunteers are the heart and soul of this project,” Mr Anderson said.

“They’ve worked tirelessly at this for four or five years. They need to see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

The Catalina has been undertaking an extensive restoration after it was located in 2013 being used to transport oil exploration crews from a runway in Puerto Rico.

The iconic flying boat, the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, had not flown for over 10 years when it was purchased and transported to Newcastle by sea.

Restoration crews are hoping the iconic aircraft will eventually be stored within a hangar at the Rathmines RAAF Base.

“Rathmines is it’s natural environment,” Mr Anderson said. “It’s where she belongs.”

The fuselage is currently located on a property in Kilaben Bay.

“If the work is to continue, that is the wings are attached, the aircraft will need to be moved to a lockable building for completion and static display,” he added.

“Our view is that on special days we could wheel the Catalina out and play appropriate music and show it off in all its glory.”

RAAF Squadron 11, based at Rathmines during World War II, has been assisting with the restoration of the tail and one of the engines.

“The level of community and business support is amazing,” Mr Anderson said.

Working 15 to 20 hours, three days a week, he says his team, including many former tradesmen, do it because they love the project.

“In January, it’s 38 to 40 degrees in here and in winter it’s three or four degrees,” he said.

“They just get on with it. Now what we want to do is go to the Rathmines Park in a building where at least guys can work and complete the project.”

After ongoing community consultation in 2019, Lake Macquarie City Council is expected to announce its plans later this month.

“In May this year, we completed and submitted a 60-page business plan on the goals and sustainability of the project.

“Council has advised that this document has to be externally reviewed and we continue to await an outcome.

“These blokes deserve to see some reward for their effort.”

Rathmines Catalina Memorial Park Association Secretary, independent heritage consultant, and WW2 enthusiast, Laraine Nelson, said significant Catalina memorabilia was also in need of a permanent home.

“They’re kept in a storage container onsite but they need to be displayed properly.

“There are flying log books, release papers and a whole group of items that could go across once we get a building that they could be displayed in.

“Lake Macquarie City Council has put a few of our items on display at the Rathmines Community Centre but we’d love to see them all together.

“It’s an important connection.”

Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association president Bob Cook toured the Kilaben Bay restoration space last month with a dozen keen historian and self-confessed “plane spotters”.

The group assembled with the common goal of promoting the region’s wartime heritage amongst tourism circles.

“Our project, which we call ‘Fortress Newcastle’, is the story of Newcastle and the region’s contribution to the Second World War both industrially and militarily,” Mr Cook said.

“Newcastle is one of the most significant places in the whole of Australia for the military’s history.

“It’s a story we don’t tell enough. We want to gather the stories and display them in the one place as a package and get our region to be more proud about this part of our history.”

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