PBY-Naval Air Museum meets wide approval at grand opening

Steve Richards, executive officer of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, was clearly enjoying himself as he sat in the cockpit of a seaplane simulator.

Richards joined base commander Mike Nortier and other top brass from the nearby naval air station at the grand opening of the PBY-Naval Air Museum at its new location on Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor Friday afternoon.

Following an outdoor ceremony that involved several short speeches and honored volunteers, a large gathering made its way indoors to see the exhibits that have been constructed over the past few months since the museum’s move from the Seaplane Base to the new site inside the former Whidbey Furniture building.

Richards, a P-3 pilot, didn’t take long to find the simulators inside the Adolph “Mickey” Meisch room and plant himself in a seat.

As he took the controls of a PBY and glided over Oak Harbor on a large color screen, he was about to attempt a water landing when a thought occurred to him.

“Are the flaps up?” he said to George Love, the museum’s technology expert who was standing nearby.

“No flaps on the PBY,” Love said. “It’s just landing gear and floats.”

The two simulators, programmed to fly several different types of aircraft, were among the biggest attractions in the museum on a day when about 80 people came for the grand opening.

Some were drawn to other exhibits that evoked a memory or simple curiosity.

Displays included a nose turret from a PBY that invited visitors of all ages to crawl inside.

“Actually, I see more fathers in there,” said Richard Rezabek, chairman of the PBY Memorial Foundation board. “Same with the simulators. It’s typical.”

The museum also features an exhibit that commemorates Navy chaplains. There also are wartime artifacts, including two Japanese rifles with bayonets from World War II.

“These were made by the Imperial Army,” Rezabek said. “Unfortunately, the emblems for the army were scratched off.”

Nortier seemed captivated by the exhibits as he and Patrick McCollough, the base’s command master chief, took their time touring the building.

“He was supposed to be in and out,” Rezabek said of Nortier. “But he was there for over two hours.”

“I think it’s great,” Nortier said. “It’s not just the history of the PBY, it’s the history of PBY and naval aviation, most of it on Whidbey Island all through history.

“It’s a great place for folks to come and see what Whidbey Island has contributed to the nation and our defense for, really, going on 70-plus years.”

Eventually, Richards caught up with Nortier.

He had heard there were flight simulators at the museum and looked forward to trying out a World War II– era PBY Catalina.

“It’s fun to play in there,” Richards said. “It’s a very forgiving aircraft. The first one, I had on the numbers. The second one, I bounced a little bit. I wouldn’t want to do that in a ditch with a P-3.”

It is the goal of the PBY Memorial Foundation to eventually bring the real PBY aircraft currently at the Seaplane Base closer to the site of the new museum. Wil Shellenberger, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation, said negotiations are ongoing to lease property to do that with hopes of achieving that goal by the fall.

The museum had to leave its former site on the Seaplane Base because its five-year lease with NAS Whidbey expired in April.

The foundation’s ultimate plan is to purchase property and build a hangar-style museum in Oak Harbor that will contain aircraft, including the PBY. Its current lease at the Pioneer Way location is for five years.

Now that it’s off base, the museum is able to charge admission, sell items at its gift shop and raise money for a grander facility in the future.

The current location is another step toward reaching that goal, as the general public is now able to gain access to the museum.

Paying close attention to artifacts Friday was Harvey Lasell, a retired naval commander who was an anti-aircraft gunnery officer aboard the USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway in World War II. Lasell, a resident of Oak Harbor and now 98, won the Secretary of Navy’s pistol trophy during his naval career.

At the museum, he pointed to a 5-inch Folding-Fin Aircraft Rocket that was attached to a wall not far from the flight simulators.

“I used to carry something like 1,000 or 1,500 of those on my ship,” he said.

Photos by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

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