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31st of May1986

After a transatlantic flight, a Consolidated Vultee PBY5A Catalina was approaching Plymouth Harbour, Devon (England) on this day in 1986. It was the second aircraft of two to make the flight, commemorating the first transatlantic flying boat arrival on the 31st of May 1919 and the 75th anniversary of US Naval Aviation. Onboard a crew of four and 3 passengers.

The aircraft just after the left-wing hits the channel marking buoy. (Source; ©Mick West)

Royal Navy patrol craft had marked out a "Landing Strip" 1220 x 122 meters (4000 x 400 feet) in Plymouth Harbour. The Royal Navy had also searched the area for floating debris and kept the "Landing Strip" clear of maritime traffic. The visibility at the time was good below the 1500 feet (450 meters) cloud base with a north-westerly wind at 5 knots. That gave a crosswind component of ~3 knots from the right for the landing.

The aircraft arrived over Plymouth Harbour approximately 50 minutes after the first Catalina had made a safe water landing. Video recording of the landing showed that the aircraft touched down 460 meters (1500 feet) from the start of the landing area, after an extended flare which saw the aircraft fly level over the water for about 200 meters (660 feet). The touchdown was smooth, with a normal pitch attitude and wings level. Some 3 seconds after the touchdown and 1 second after the bow settled in the water, the aircraft sharply yawed to the right and an increase in engine power was heard. Immediately the rudder was deflected fully to the left but the aircraft continued to yaw to the right. The yaw was halted when the aircraft's yaw was ~40º right of the heading at touchdown.

The aircraft is being towed to shallow water (Source: © Unknown)

During this time both deployed wingtip floats remained clear of the water. As the aircraft yaw was corrected the right-hand wingtip float hit an inflatable buoy without causing any (apparent) damage. Immediately afterwards the left-hand wing struck a shipping channel buoy which tore off the outboard 9 feet, including the left-wing wingtip float. This caused the aircraft to violently pivot to the left, which resulted in the aircraft hull momentarily leaving the water before the aircraft impacted the water hard on the lefthand nose section. The aircraft came to rest and slowly filled with water. In less than a minute, rescue boats reached the aircraft taking the passengers and crew on board, after which they towed to a suitable area to beach the aircraft. A short while later the aircraft sunk in shallow water.

The aircraft approach to landing, showing the nose landing gear doors closed. (Source © Chris England)

The Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) was alerted and they started an investigation into the landing accident. In their report, accessible by clicking here. the AAIB do not provide a possible cause or contributing factors. They only give a short description of the findings. When the aircraft was inspected both nose landing gear bay doors were missing from the aircraft. A search by divers for the missing doors was unsuccessful. It was evident that the doors had been ripped off during the landing. It was not possible to determine the cause for the doors being ripped off and when it happened during the landing incident. Video evidence showed that the doors were fully closed at touched down.

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