the Cat Pack — 35 years

Philippe Cousteau, Sr.

Philippe Cousteau, Sr. piloting the PBY-6A N101CS

This Cat Pack entry is a special one, as today marks the 35th anniversary of the tragic death of famed explorer and adventurer Philippe Cousteau, Sr.

N101CS on water

PBY-6A N101CS “Flying Calypso”

Cousteau was piloting his newly refurbished PBY-6A N101CS on June 28th 1979 for a trial run on the Tagus river in Portugal, after an extensive period of maintenance. As the crew was performing a high-speed taxi to test for leaks, suddently the great plane nosed over and cartwheeled. One of the wings was ripped off, its engine separated from the structure with the propeller slicing through the cockpit. The copilot lost an arm, Cousteau was killed instantly. He was the only fatality in the accident.

N101CS crash scene - wing

N101CS crash scene – wing

The cause of the accident has never been clearly determined. The prevailing theory at the time was that the plane hit a hidden sandbar or coral reef that the crew couldn’t detect and avoid in time. Some point at a nose wheel door failure, a notorious weakness of the PBY amphibians that caused many similar accidents. Finally, others point at pilot error, theorizing that the crew imprudently let the plane go into a vicious porpoise and didn’t realize it until it was too late.

N101CS crash scene - cockpit

N101CS crash scene – cockpit

Philippe was the son and heir-apparent of explorer and pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. An accomplished diver, sailor and pilot, he followed his father’s footsteps and explored the seas with him on the famous vessel Calypso, and later acquired the PBY flying-boat to reach the places they could not reach by sea. With it, the Cousteau team had completed an extensive survey of the Nile river a few months before. He was 38 at the time of the crash.

To finish this note on a bit of a bright side, his children Alexandra Cousteau and Philippe Cousteau, Jr. picked up the family tradition, and co-founded the organization EarthEcho International, dedicated to raise awareness on environmental issues.

“I’ll never be able to fill my father’s or grandfather’s shoes, but hopefully I can stand on their shoulders and reach farther.”
–Philippe Cousteau Jr.

Not to worry. With such an heritage, you’re doing great.

Philippe Cousteau (December 30, 1940 – June 28, 1979)

Philippe Cousteau (December 30, 1940 – June 28, 1979)
photograph by Bill McDonald, 1975

2 Responses to “the Cat Pack — 35 years”

  1. Prof B E Smith says:

    Dr. Forrest Morton Bird (qv wikipedia) once said to me “the PBY that Phillipe Cousteau was flying when he died was mine, you know.” Does anyone know if Bird donated N101CS to the Cousteau Society or did I misunderstand what he was saying? (Bird definitely owned and modified another PBY to four engines and flew it for many years – it still exists but may not be in flying condition.)

    • raph says:

      Hello, and thanks for your comment.
      The ex-Bird Innovator is indeed still extant but in prolonged storage as it’s slowly being rebuilt by its current owner. It no longer has the two extra engines that made it so recognizable and it will need a lot of work before it can fly again.
      It’s the first time I hear of a connection between Cousteau and Dr. Bird. There have been – debunked – rumors that the Cousteau PBY had been a clandestine CIA vessel in earlier years, but nothing I had seen mentioned Bird at all. This will be interesting to investigate…

Leave a Reply