Keeping Aviation History Alive in Rathmines

Catalina Flying Boats used to be a common sight anchored off Rathmines on the western side of Lake Macquarie.

By 1941, it was the largest RAAF flying boat base in the southern hemisphere, which probably explains why it’s still considered the home of the Catalina.

Penny Furner has had long association with the aircraft and the former base.

 “My father was CO here from 1946-49 and 56-59 so I spent six years of my life here.

…Not that I could remember them because I was a teenager and the last Cat left I think in 51’ and we didn’t come until 56’ but of course when I was born, my dad flew mum down to have me in a Cat”.

At its height, the Rathmines RAAF base had nearly 3,000 personnel from 1944-45 and you can still find links to its important past at the site.

Furner is also the President of the Rathmines Catalina Memorial Park Association, which runs the annual Catalina Festival now in its eighth year.

The HARS Catalina Flying Boat puts on a display over Lake Macquarie, NSW as part of the 2014 Rathmines Catalina Festival

The HARS Catalina Flying Boat puts on a display over Lake Macquarie, NSW as part of the 2014 Rathmines Catalina Festival. Photo: David White

The organisation’s been working hard to get a museum built on the former base and has been working with other organisations to make it a reality.

“We liaise with the other organisations. We were part of an MOU (memorandum of understanding) which was VH-CAT at Bankstown but that was dissolved because we were waiting a long time for VH -CAT to come and unfortunately you know it’s taken a long time for them to get it airworthy.

 So we thought, well we have to a hangar here, we had to have a Catalina, you can’t have a hangar without a Catalina so we had to go and put in a business plan, which we’ve completed for a hangar”.

Furner is hoping that building can start sometime next year but acknowledges that the group will need DA approval and it’ll be up to the Lake Macquarie City Council to give the green light.

Furner also has another reason for wanting a hangar as the Association recently bought its own Catalina from Puerto Rico.

 “It’s back in Australia. We spent three months over there pulling it apart and shipped it home. It all arrived, the last of it arrived in April this year and the boys are slowly putting things together.

They’ve built a new instrument panel for it and it’s purely for static display but we need a hangar to put it all together.

Our aim is to build a hangar for it and one for the VH-CAT based at Bankstown, so hopefully we can provide them with somewhere to go when they get it flying”.

VH-CAT at Bankstown Airport is still being restored to airworthy condition but its hoped it will also be based at Rathmines once completed.

VH-CAT at Bankstown Airport is still being restored to airworthy condition but its hoped it will also be based at Rathmines once completed. Photo: David White

It’s been an interesting journey for Furner and she’s regularly finding out more history of the area.

“A fellow came down and introduced himself, he came from Brisbane and he was looking for somewhere to give his Dad’s memorabilia and he came over to me and he said “I’ve got this’ and we got talking and he said his name was Bill Atkinson and his father was here and I said, ‘oh that’s great my Dad was also here’.

He asked me my name and said he couldn’t believe it. His mother was on the beach when a shark took my father’s leg and she actually wrapped his leg up. It was amazing he just came out of the blue.”

Furner’s father, Group Captain Attie Wearne continued his career.

“After the shark took his leg, he was only nine months ‘til he flew. Took his own squadron in Darwin, 20 Squadron and he said if Bader* can do it with both legs missing, I can do it so give me a go and they did”.

Furner says it’s great to see a Catalina flying as part of the Rathmines Catalina Festival.

“Oh it’s just fantastic. I mean if we can have both of them, VH-CAT as well, it’ll be wonderful but it’s so hard. They’re 70 years old and it costs a lot of money to keep it in the air. But they’ve got to do it. The government has to realise that there’s only 15 left in the world and only seven flying apparently so there’s not many cats at all”.

The Association hopes the Rathmines Catalina Festival will continue educating the wider community about its significance to Australia’s wartime and airtime history.

You can find more photos of the 2014 Rathmines Catalina Festival here.

* Read more about Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader KBE DSO and Bar DFC and Bar DL here

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