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Whidbey PBY returns to the Seaplane Base

The PBY Memorial Foundation’s new PBY seaplane lands at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Friday, June 25. The historic aircraft was transported to Whidbey via helicopter from a property near Skagit County Airport.  - Submitted photo
The PBY Memorial Foundation’s new PBY seaplane lands at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Friday, June 25. The historic aircraft was transported to Whidbey via helicopter from a property near Skagit County Airport.
— image credit: Submitted photo

After a 67-year absence, a PBY 5A Catalina seaplane can once again call Whidbey Island Naval Air Station home.

The flying boat, which was stationed in Oak Harbor in 1945, arrived at the Seaplane Base Friday, June 25, from a location near Skagit County Airport.

The local nonprofit group PBY Memorial Foundation purchased the plane earlier this year from Spring Valley Bank in Skagit County, ending a 12-year search for one of the historic aircraft.

Seeing it land safe and sound at a parking lot near Simard Hall was for many foundation members, especially those who served on PBYs during World War II, a deeply personal and meaningful occasion, said Richard Rezabek, chair of the foundation’s board of directors.

“We had one of our members kissing the airplane,” Rezabek said.

Adding to the emotional homecoming was the perilous journey the aircraft undertook to get to Whidbey Island. The PBY was not airworthy and had to be transported with a Chinook heavy-lift helicopter. Thankfully, the transport of the 16,500 pound seaplane went swimmingly, Rezabek said.

“It was a precision maneuver,” he said.

The flight from Skagit County to Whidbey only took only about 25 minutes but the transport was complicated. A special harness had to be designed for the aircraft and foundation members had to arrange for the temporary closure of Highway 20 and another small farm road in Skagit County.

The entire transport was also a closely guarded secret, Rezabek said. The foundation had specific instructions from the Navy not to publicize the airplanes arrival. According to NAS spokesperson Kimberly Martin, Capt. Gerral David, the commanding officer of the base, gave specific instructions to keep the arrival under wraps. The plane was going to be dropped off on base property and he couldn’t allow the swarms of people that showed up to see another PBY come in at Oak Harbor Marina in 2009, Martin said.

According to Jim Siggens, a foundation member who played a key role in the aircraft’s purchase, this PBY has an interesting history. Built and then stationed on Whidbey Island in 1943, the seaplane went on to serve two tours in the Aleutian Islands campaign of WWII being flown by Lt. j.g. Norwood Cole.

Where it went and what it’s done since is still somewhat of a mystery as the plane’s logbook was confiscated, and lost, by the U.S. Marshal’s office about 15 years ago. Apparently, one of the previous owners had been using the aircraft to run drugs.

Although the plane was also confiscated in the bust, it ended up in the hands of an oil company that used it in the Gulf of Mexico. It was later damaged in an accident in Montana and from there it was disassembled and trucked to Skagit County, where it has remained for the past 10 years.

“It’s a convoluted situation is what it is,” Siggens said.

But whatever its past, the foundation owns the aircraft free and clear. Over the next few years, the group hopes to spend about $150,000 on a three-phase restoration. The first phase will be largely cosmetic work, such as new paint, tires and the installation of side gunner blisters and a nose piece.

Phase two will see the restoration of the cockpit, while phase three would be total refurbishment. How long it takes could depend largely on the number of volunteers the foundation gets to help do the work, Rezabek said.

People interested in working on the plane can leave a message at the PBY Memorial Foundation museum by calling 240-9500.

A dedication for the plane will be held Saturday, July 10, at 1 p.m. at Simard Hall on the Seaplane Base. Speakers will include base commander Capt. Gerral David; Norwood Cole’s wife, Phyllis Cole; and several foundation members.

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