The Navy’s first air-to-air kill of WWII wasn’t scored by a fighter

For fighter pilots, air-to-air kills are the ultimate bragging point of skill. The Navy's first of WWII was recorded by a flying boat.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
navy flying boat
U.S. Navy photo

For fighter pilots, air-to-air kills are the ultimate bragging point of skill. Shooting down an enemy aircraft demonstrates superior aviation and combat ability. However, not all air-to-air kills are scored by fighter planes. In fact, one bomber shot down five enemy planes during the Korean War to become an ace. Moreover, the Navy’s first air-to-air kill of WWII was recorded by a flying boat.

wwii flying boat
The PBY Catalina offered operational versatility in both the Pacific and Atlantic (U.S. Navy)

The Consolidated Model 28 was flown by the U.S. Navy as the PBY Catalina. “PB” stood for Patrol Bomber while “Y” was the Navy’s manufacturer code for the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. The Navy first took delivery of the Catalina in 1936. By end of WWII, the PBY was the most numerous aircraft of its type with 3,300 built.

pby catalinas
Holder crewed PBYs in the Pacific before transitioning to PB4Ys in the Atlantic (U.S. Navy)

With its exceptional range and ability to land on water, the PBY served in a multitude of roles from anti-submarine warfare to search and rescue. Armed with three .30-caliber machine guns and two .50-caliber machine guns, the Catalina was also a capable gun platform. It flew convoy escort missions and could defend itself during patrol bombing sorties.

sailor with m1919
A sailor carries an M1919 machine gun into a PBY Catalina (Library of Congress)

On December 10, 1941, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines was well underway. As part of the invasion, airstrikes hit American facilities at the Cavite Navy Yard. Japanese bombs sunk or damaged numerous American ships and submarines during the attack. Lt. Harmon T. Utter and his PBY crew tried to fly to safety but were jumped by three Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 fighters.

flying boat nose turret
The nose turret of the PBY contained two its three .30-cal machine guns (

Fast, agile and armed with machine guns and cannons, the Zero was more than a match for America’s fighter planes at the start of WWII. Utter’s slow and large PBY, laden with torpedos and bombs, was an easy target for the Japanese fighters. Still, the Catalina’s gunners manned their weapons and fought back. The bow gunner, Chief Boatswain Earl D. Payne, wielded twin .30-caliber machine guns and managed to shoot down one of the attacking Zeros. From a flying boat, Chief Payne scored the Navy’s first air-to-air kill of the war. Despite damage taken from the Zeros, Utter nursed the PBY to a safe landing in heavy seas and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

PBY flying boat
A PBY at anchor (U.S. Navy)

The rugged and versatile PBY served the U.S. and its allies throughout WWII. After the war, the flying boat remained in military service around the world until the 1980s. Even into the 21st century, the Catalina continues to serve as a waterbomber in aerial firefighting operations.