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PBY Catalina flies in Friday
The age of the PBY Catalina flying boats has been just a distant memory of an aging Navy community in Oak Harbor.
But that’ll all changing on Friday.
Fresh memories will form as one of the 21 remaining airworthy PBY Catalina aircraft descends upon the waters of Crescent Harbor at about 1 p.m., a sight unseen for approximately six decades.
“We’ve been on it for 11 years,” said Win Stites, PBY Memorial Foundation president and founding member, of the fly-in project. Stites led the dedicated group of foundation volunteers who made this rare vision a reality and praised Whidbey Island Naval Air Station commanding officer Capt. Gerral David for his help to get a PBY on the Seaplane Base for a one-week stay.
Stites knows the PBY inside and out. He patrolled the North Pacific for a year and a half as a flight engineer. While on tour he controlled the raising and lowering of wingtip floats and engine gear and monitored fuel consumption, oil pressure and engine instrumentation.
Stites describes the famed PBY Catalinas as the “workhorse of the beginning of World War II.”
After the Navy lost most of its fleet at Pearl Harbor, it turned to the PBY, he said.
Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, Calif., and Navy factories in Philadelphia and New Orleans produced most of the 3,272 PBYs, and a small number of “Cats” originated from the Boeing facility in Vancouver, B.C.
The PBY may be one of the most versatile aircraft to grace the skies, said Jim Siggens, PBY Memorial Foundation member. The Marine Corps rigged bombs under the PBY’s wings, converting the seaplanes into bombers for the battle of Guadalcanal, and the U.S. Army Air Corps used the PBY to ferry “some of the top brass” from island to island before the Seebees constructed airstrips.
“This plane has been used by everybody for pretty much everything,” he said.
Siggens and a NAS Whidbey film specialist will be in the air filming the PBY’s arrival. The members of the PBY Memorial Foundation hope to use the footage for a documentary video.
The plane’s owner, Bud Rude of Spanaway, said these special “amphibian” airplanes continue to provide important services today. They fly passengers into remote destinations and drop water on forest fires.
“It’s very, very unique unto its own,” he said.
Rude earned his wings as a commercial pilot in 1948, but is wasn’t until much later that he learned to fly the PBY from retired Navy pilot Pat Cozier.
“It’s an airplane and a boat all tangled up in one,” he said with admiration. “To operate in the open sea - as they call it - there’s very few planes that can do that. It’s one of the ruggedest planes every built.”
The PBY-6A that will fly into Oak Harbor Friday was one of the last PBYs to roll off the production line, Rude said.
Built in 1945, the last year of PBY production, it served the Navy until 1956. Leo Demars bought the retired plane and used it to fight forest fires along the West Coast, according to “Consolidated PBY Catalina, the Peacetime Record,” by David Legg.
Rude purchased the PBY “N 85 U” in 1983 for his company, Flying Fireman, Ltd., based out of Victoria, B.C. Two years later, he moved the plane to Washington, where it’s been used to fight fires ever since.
“In 15 years it’s never missed a fire,” he said of the plane’s impeccable safety record.
Fred Owen, Rude’s longtime friend, will pilot the PBY during its flight into Crescent Harbor Friday.
“It’s really an honor to fly it,” Owen said. “It’s full of history.”
Owen never flew the PBY during wartime combat, but he’s spent thousands of flight hours in the air as a commercial pilot and battling fires in eastern Washington.
“I’ve come full circle,” he said of his aviation career, which began at the age of 17 when he went to work for Rude as an air service pilot in Alaska. Owen eventually turned to commercial planes, but now he’s back to working for Rude as a PBY water bomber.
The airplane requires a crew of two for “fire combat,” Owen said, and carries up to 1,700 gallons of water.
“In many cases, if the fire is close to the water source, we can make drops every four to six minutes,” he said. “Land-based planes can’t do that.”
This particular plane may return to the Seaplane Base for good if the PBY Memorial Foundation can raise enough money to purchase it. Rude said the plane is for sale, at a price tag of just under $0.5 million.
The PBY Memorial Foundation has its eye on this and other PBYs, said Stites, but the major hurdle is funding.
The foundation has already secured three historical education grants and is in the application process for a fourth, he said.
“Historic education is badly needed,” Stites said. “You don’t think about saving wartime equipment until it’s too late.”
Stites said the foundation has also searched for a PBM or PB5M — two other planes that later flew out of the seaplane base — but there’s none left.
The foundation’s greatest aspiration is to have a PBY on permanent display to serve as a memorial to the Seaplane Base and all the crewmen who served on the PBY from WWII and beyond. It’ll be an honor to have such a display at NAS Whidbey, he said.
“It’s my old base and it feels like home.”
POW, MIA ceremonies
The PBY Catalina fly-in is only part of Seaplane Base activities Friday.
Whidbey Island Naval Air Station will hold a National Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day service at the POW/MIA Sentinel Memorial Fountain on the Seaplane Base, Sept. 18 at noon.
The service will honor U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, whose missing remains were recently found and returned, and all those still labeled as POW and MIA.
In addition to raising the POW/MIA flag, Electronic Attack Squadron 129 will perform a formation fly-by, Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Philip King will give an invocation and the NAS Whidbey Island Honor Guard will render honors with a 21-gun salute and Taps. Speaker will be Lt. Cmdr. Brian Danielson, a member of the National League of Families for POW/MIAs who helped excavate the remains of a missing service member in Laos.
In a related activity, there will be a POW/MIA motorcycle rally Friday at 9 a.m. the CPO Club on Ault Field Road. All riders are welcome to join the rally.