Catalina Estate Mystery By Bob Piper

After World War II and into the 1960s a drive to Sirinumu Dam, in the cool heights above Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, always meant passing a mysterious and derelict Catalina flying boat beside the road. Some stopped and pondered while others just drove slowly past. Where did it come from, who did it belong to and what were the circumstances of a flying boat sitting among the banana fronds in a rubber plantation far from the coast?

Books, articles and stories always speculated as to its origin. Subsequent letters to editors in magazines and newspapers also failed to solve the mystery or produce a single photo of the aircraft wreck. The landmark was so significant that the area became widely known as Catalina Estate and is still recorded on current maps by that name.

Just recently American wartime historian Edward Rogers was studying the U.S. Navy records for their VP101 wartime Catalina squadron and may have stumbled on and solved the mystery of our aircraft. The diary recorded that:

At about 1645 hours an Australian Army post about 50 miles north east of Port Moresby heard a plane roar overhead apparently in distress. A few seconds later it was heard to crash.

The diary also recorded (perhaps a little over dramatically) that the plane was totally demolished, wreckage scattered over an area of 550 yards. Engines were found 200 yards apart (broken off and spun away), the CO2 bottles (to extinguish fire) for the engines had been discharged. Every evidence on the starboard (right) engine condition pointed to a fire in this position while in the air.

The main lead to the left magneto was burned and completely fused as a result of high temperature. The starboard firewall, oil tanks, fuel tank and after portion of the engine were charred. The probable cause of the fire was a short circuit in the ignition harness.

The plane was on fire in the air as evidenced by the entire path made on the ground. With his starboard engine on fire and instrument flying conditions prevailing there was no choice for the pilot but to attempt an emergency landing.

The plane cut through heavy timber and dense undergrowth, causing complete (nearly complete?) destruction of the aircraft and scattering wreckage through the area. The crew, who were all killed, were:

Pilot: Lieutenant Edgar Brown Graff
Co Pilot: Chief Pilot Elbert Lee Rafferty
Amm2c Roger L. Bomstad
Amm2c Phillip E. Plotts
RM2c Rudy N. Acosta
RM2c Charles R. Holden

A propeller blade from the flying boat was at one stage in the Port Moresby Museum. It was inscribed at the top with a comment to the crew who lost their lives and included a 5th Air Force insignia on a background of blue. Obviously it had been done during World War II by someone who cared.

Any aircraft that cuts a swathe through jungle and scrub for 550 yards is actually in a shallow descent and attempting a forced landing. A current aviation map of the Port Moresby area revealed that 50 miles north east of Port Moresby is a position almost on top of Catalina Estate.

Is the Catalina estate mystery now solved? Does any reader have a photo of the old flying boat wreckage or the propeller blade at the museum please?

Contact: Bob Piper on mars55@tpg.com.au