‘Gerral’s Girl’ gets her wings back

Adolph Meisch, a former PBY flight engineer, sits before
Adolph Meisch, a former PBY flight engineer, sits before 'Gerral's Girl' on the day work crews reconnected the planes wings.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

The feathers of one of Oak Harbor’s most beloved birds were significantly brightened this week.

“Gerral’s Girl,” the affectionately named PBY-5A Catalina flying boat that returned to the Sea Plane base this summer after a 67-year absence to serve as an educational display, has been sitting with her wings clipped since her arrival.

On Thursday, Nov. 4, she got them back when work crews from the PBY Memorial Foundation and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron 9 gingerly eased them back into place.

For many there, the chance to see the historic warbird with its wings spread in all their glory was a special occasion.

“It’s actually going to look like an airplane again,” George Rose, an excited foundation member, said just before work began at about 8:30 a.m.

“This is 10 years in the making,” Richard Rezabek, chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, said about the plane’s return and the restoration of the aircraft’s wings. “To me this is history.”

The flying boat’s wings were removed before its journey from a location near Skagit County Airport to Whidbey Island this past June. While its arrival marked the end of the foundation’s 12-year search for one of the famous planes, it was just the beginning of a lengthy and expensive planned restoration.

Over the past four months, association members have been able to complete several big projects, from preparing the wings for reattachment – that includes

reassembling pieces such as the ailerons and gap fillers – to making the aircraft watertight for the coming winter. But most of their time has been spent assessing the old PBY, said Will Stein, the foundation’s restoration team chief.

“The aircraft’s in great shape,” he said. “It could easily be made airworthy.”

Stein, a retired Air Force flight engineer who has spent countless hours working on C-130s, has a personal connection to the World War II era plane. His father was a PBY pilot, which makes the chance to wrench on one extra special. It’s also historically fascinating.

“You step inside and it’s the 1940s,” Stein said. “You start humming Glenn Miller songs.”

For others, looking at the plane is a trip down memory lane. Adolph Meisch, 83, is a retired Navy chief petty officer who spent more than 2,000 hours flying around in a PBY between 1944 and 1957. The former flight engineer served with VP-91 on Whidbey Island before flying two tours in Adak and Kodiak, Alaska with VP 62 during World War II.

Meisch never saw combat, but seeing the plane begin to take shape brings about mixed emotions. It may have been over 50 years since he worked on a PBY, but it seems like just yesterday that he was losing tools over the side to a watery grave.

“It’s a good airplane but it’s not easy to work on,” he laughed.

It brings out a few funny memories too. While he was stationed on Whidbey Island, he went on a flight with two pilots over the Christmas holidays that he would never forget. Apparently, the two men “were still celebrating” when they took the controls. Subsequently, their landing was a little rough.

“They took us through some trees, and I mean through some trees,” he said.

By the time the crew was back safely on the ground, someone was there waiting for them and Meisch said he never saw the two pilots again.

All in all, Meisch said the flying boat has earned a special place in his heart. Knowing that one is being preserved on a base that was specifically created for the historic aircraft is a satisfying feeling, he said.

“It’s good to see it’s finally happening,” he said. “And it’s good to see Oak Harbor recognizing it.”

According to Rezabek, the foundation’s restoration efforts will likely continue for several years. There is talk about returning the aircraft to flight-ready status, as well as discussions of housing it permanently in a new hangar. Either option will be expensive, however, and will depend greatly on community support.

While companies such as Diamond Rental, which provided scaffolding for this week’s wing mounting for free, have been invaluable to the foundation’s efforts, Rezabek said monetary donations are always appreciated. They can be mailed to P.O. Box 941, Oak Harbor, or people can call 240-9500 to learn more about the foundation or to volunteer.

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