ABOUT this time of year, preparations are usually in full swing for the Catalina Festival on the western shore of Lake Macquarie.
Alas, that won't the case next month, or even this year, because it's been postponed owing to the coronavirus crisis. Instead, the festival, an important community fundraiser for a special project, has been postponed until May 2021.
Had the event, with its spectacular air show, been held it would probably have been the 13th Catalina Festival. It now seems 13 is indeed unlucky.
The popular annual festival is one of the largest on Lake Macquarie, but it's at the crossroads. Without a lot of help, sooner rather than later, the future of the event may be threatened.
Normally, the festival attracts thousands of flying boat enthusiasts and their families to Rathmines, the site of a major RAAF base in World War II and once home to more than 3000 personnel.
The festival helps raise funds to restore a rare, intact 1943 Catalina flying boat for public display on the former air base grounds. The aim is to house the lake's own PBY-5A 'Cat' (Catalina) in a permanent hangar at Rathmines to honour the 332 airmen who lost their lives in flying boat operations during World War II.
It would also be a fitting tribute, as the former Rathmines RAAF base (1939-61) was once the largest flying boat base in Australia.
The slow-flying, long-range Catalinas, often better known as Black Cats in WWII were legendary, being used as patrol bombers (PBY), as convoy escorts and for rescue missions.
The volunteer group, the Rathmines Catalina Memorial Park Association (RCMPA), now owns one. It was spotted for sale on eBay in Puerto Rico for $20,000 in 2013. Exposed to the weather, it faced a slow death by decay. Instead, the RCMPA bought it and Terry Woolard - now the association's volunteer coordinator - helped dismantle the ex-US Army amphibious warbird to be shipped in pieces to Australia to live on as a static display.
Now dubbed 'Our Girl', the aircraft is carefully being reassembled at Kilaben Bay where the fuselage has been re-sheeted. But six years on, progress has slowed on the giant 63ft (19.2m) long seaplane without extra volunteers, more sponsorship and a firm commitment about the future.
Now dubbed 'Our Girl', the aircraft is carefully being reassembled.
RCMPA president Bill Anderson says relocating the fuselage and 104ft (31.6m) centre wingspan from Kilaben Bay to Rathmines would give the project a much higher public profile and boost restoration. RCMP members are in talks with Lake Macquarie City Council to erect a permanent centre/museum, in a building costing at least $500,000, on the site of an original RAAF hangar.
"Talks with lake council are going really well and I think we're pretty close to a decision," Anderson says.
"But there some controversy where the centre should be located and whether it should cost $1million to $2million or even $6million, probably over many council budgets. But once this health crisis is over, we'll be going full speed again on the restoration.
"The volunteers are highly motivated, but asking when will we get a hangar. There's overwhelming public support and a slight divide over where the hangar should be. We just need certainty.
"The hangar needs to be (erected) in the next year, not in five years. I'm sure I'm not going to commit three to four days per week on this restoration project for the next five years without some certainty. I believe my committee is of the same view."
Anderson, a former Qantas pilot for 40 years, said the RAAF's No 11 Squadron based in Edinburgh, South Australia, thought so much of the future Rathmines concept that they restored the Cat's tail and one of the aircraft's engines.
He said the project's workforce, largely consisting of retirees, decided to close the Cat rebuilding site on March 23 "for obvious reasons".
"We keep in touch now by phone and newsletter and the feedback is terrific. The workers are delighted they're not forgotten," Anderson says.
One advantage now is that the Cat restoration project has a key benefit for donors.
"One bloke turned up and said to us, 'Do you need a forklift?". We did and we could issue him a tax-deductible certificate," Anderson says.
Meanwhile, Hunter aviation historian Bill Hitchcock, 91, of Dudley, remembered visiting Rathmines RAAF base in its heyday as a young air training corps cadet.
"It was an amazing place. And I once was even briefly allowed to get behind the controls of a Catalina back in 1944. It was on a training mission over the lake that day to bomb a target being towed by an RAAF crash boat south of Pulbah Island," Hitchcock says.
"The dropped practice bombs gave off white puffs of smoke. The Cat controls were heavy and the aeroplane noisy.
"It was a real thrill looking back now, but you'd get pretty sore legs and arms flying one. They went on 24-hour wartime flights. That's why they needed co-pilots.
"I hope they get a permanent Catalina centre at Rathmines. They deserve it. Next year, 2021, will coincide with the RAAF's 100th anniversary."
A future permanent Catalina aircraft on display at Rathmines wouldn't be unique, however. On the shores of Lake Boga, south of Swan Hill, in Victoria, an impressive, restored aircraft in a hangar already exists as a tourist attraction.
The inland site held the RAAF's No.1 flying boat depot in WWII, a top-secret repair base. And while Rathmines has the potential to be a bigger tourist drawcard, another restored Catalina flying boat, from 1944, has had pride of place (since May 2015) at the Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach, Queensland, with the help of a philanthropic trust.
This similar static display honours the Qantas pilots who flew to keep supply lines open between Australia and England in the dangerous days of WWII.
It all makes you wonder, as Anzac Day approaches, doesn't Lake Macquarie deserve something similar, just as grand and soon?