PBY will come home

Photo by Ron WallenThis PBY in Moses Lake will be flown to Oak Harbor to be put on public display, thanks to the PBY Memorial Association. -
Photo by Ron WallenThis PBY in Moses Lake will be flown to Oak Harbor to be put on public display, thanks to the PBY Memorial Association.
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Some time late this year if all goes as planned, Oak Harbor residents will again see the distinctive shape of a PBY flying over the city.

The plane, beloved by many, is coming home, and it will take many city residents back in time to the ‘40s and ‘50s.

With the purchase of the airplane, after years of planning and effort, an Oak Harbor non-profit group is one giant step closer to opening a museum that would commemorate an important part of U.S. Navy history on Whidbey Island, as well as perhaps draw more tourists to the area.

The PBY Memorial Association now has an airplane for its planned museum, which could possibly be located near downtown Oak Harbor. Even before the museum is built the PBY will be on display, accessible for public viewing.

The $220,000 World War II-era plane is currently located at Grant County Airport in Moses Lake, said Win Stites, a PBYMA board member. It was part of a fleet of four PBYs owned by Robert Schlaefli, now a retired pilot in his 80s.

“He owned and operated them for a number of years, water-bombing and firefighter planes,” Stites said. The fleet of four planes is “the greatest gathering of PBYs since World War II,” Stites added.

The PBY Memorial Association learned about the four planes nearly four years ago, when the fleet came up for sale, advertised on a Web site.

“One of our members, Daryl “Doc” Strader, has been on our search committee,” Stites said. “He knew Mr. Schaefli and was able to tell him about our museum. Doc’s the one that broke the ice for us, about three-and-a-half years ago.”

At first it didn’t look possible that the PBYMA would be able to purchase one of the planes. The Web page advertised that all four planes were offered for sale as a fleet, including spare parts, for a total price of $3.5 million. Schaefli was reportedly firm in his decision to sell the planes, all or nothing.

Then, there came a break.

A representative of Schaefli recently sent a message to the PBYMA.

“We got an email from them about a month ago that he was going to sell them individually,” Stites said.

The asking price was $285,000 each, and the PBYMA offered $220,000, which was accepted. However, none of the group’s members had that kind of cash lying around.

“We had a deadline to meet. An impossible deadline,” Stites said. They had to come up with the money within 10 days.

The PBYMA applied for a loan from Whidbey Island Bank, Stites said, and the bank completed the loan process in record-time.

“Whidbey Island Bank put this together in one week’s time,” Stites said.

The loan is backed by two community members and business owners, Ron Wallin of P&L General Contracting and Carl Kreig of Kreig Construction.

Stites and other members of the organization went to take a look at the four planes, to decide which one to buy. Adolph Meisch, a retired Navy chief and aircraft mechanic, went along to check out the aircraft.

The group learned that one of the planes has a claim to fame. It was used in the movie “Always,” starring Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfus, which was about forest firefighters.

However, the “Always” plane would have needed a lot of reconstruction in order to become an appropriate historical museum piece.

Meisch picked a plane that had already been totally rebuilt, had the firefighting water tanks removed, and had already been stripped of its paint.

“The plane was really the most cost-effective purchase we could get,” Stites said.

It will take between three and six months, Stites estimated, to get the plane operational. The group might be able to fly it to Oak Harbor before the end of the year.

Stites, who was a flight engineer on PBYs during World War II, was based at the Seaplane Base from May to October of 1945. He is excited that the purchase of the aircraft coincides with the 60th anniversary of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Eventually, the members of the PBYMA hope to erect a hangar that will serve as the museum building, housing the PBY and other memorabilia. The group also hopes to purchase other historical aircraft that had been based at the naval air station. But, the PBY will always be the focal point.

“This base was built for them in 1942,” Stites said.

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