EDITORIAL: Historic airplanes returns to Oak Harbor

The PBY is coming home.

For long-time Oak Harbor residents, those are sweet words indeed. And they’re made possible by the hard work and dedication of the PBY Memorial Association, which overcame long odds to bring NAS Whidbey’s original reason for existence back to Whidbey Island.

For newer residents of Oak Harbor, reaction to the good news probably goes something like this: What’s a PBY, and why the big deal about bringing one home?

To answer that question we only need a bit of history provided by Win Stites of the PBY Memorial Association. The PBY Catalinas were flying boats, built in the glamour days of air travel when airports were few and many were dangerous. Landing on the water made sense, and it also made previously inaccessible parts of the globe accessible. Movies and newsreels from the ‘30s and ‘40s commonly showed movie stars and politicians stepping out of a PBY Catalina into some exotic locale.

By 1939, the heyday of the PBY’s appeared to be ending. The U.S. Navy declared the aircraft obsolete. But World War II came along and changed the Navy’s mind. Production by Consolidated Aircraft Company was ramped up, and by the end of the war the Catalina had flown more endurance flights and sank more enemy ships than any other U.S. Navy seaplane.

PBYs were manufactured in a variety of models, the most useful of which was the amphibian which could land on water or land. The Japanese destroyed several PBYs at Pearl Harbor, but the survivors and newly built planes became bombers, torpedo planes and gunnery ships. The PBYs fought off the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands, saw heavy combat throughout the Pacific, guarded Allied convoys in the Atlantic and was the premier patrol plane of the war.

In December of 1942 Lt. J.A. Morrison brought in the first PBY Catalina to land at the Navy’s new seaplane base at Oak Harbor’s Crescent Harbor. The big flying boats, used as patrol bombers, became a common sight in the skies over Oak Harbor as well as in Saratoga Passage where they noisily churned up water during takeoffs and landings.

The long-absent sights and sounds of the Catalina will be returning to Oak Harbor later this year. The PBY Memorial Association found a PBY at Grant County Airport in Moses Lake and purchased it for $220,000. A loan will have to be re-paid, but plenty of help should be available in Oak Harbor for this historic effort.

Hopefully, the PBY can be flown into Oak Harbor before the end of the year as part of the 60th anniversary celebration of NAS Whidbey. However it gets here, it will go on permanent display on the Seaplane Base.

Many eyes will no doubt tear up when the PBY arrives with all its memories of a bygone era on Whidbey Island. The PBY Memorial Association deserves the community’s thanks and support for making it happen.

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