Henry Zovar zoomed through the flight simulator with some impressive maneuvers.
Facing the video screen and grabbing the “wheel,” he leaned way back to lift the plane off the runway and then stood up to encourage it to new heights.
Clearly, this 7-year-old could take on the real deal.
He looked out the front window of the PBY Naval Air Museum and spotted a big, broad silver and blue airplane with tiny wheels and a big white star painted on its nose.
Time to ask his mother and grandmother if he could get real close to see a real plane.
“Our problem is we don’t always have someone to take over the front desk so I can take you over there,” Richard Rezabek explained to Joan Johnson, who was visiting the Oak Harbor museum with her two daughters and two grandchildren.
Rezabek is the chair of the board of trustees of the PBY Museum Foundation. It formed in September 1998 to plan a space dedicated to the seaplane’s significant role during WWII and to document its contributions to Whidbey Island.
Over the years, the museum grew to include displays of all regional aviation military history, particularly Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. It originally was housed at the base and three years ago moved to its current location at 270 SE Pioneer Way.
The foundation’s ultimate goal is to build a hangar-style structure along State Highway 20. Several sites are being considered.
But its more immediate concern is having enough people to fill its posted hours Wednesday through Sunday. While there are added hands-on activities for visitors, sometimes there’s not enough expertise to safely operate the new features.
One example is the new night vision room. Wearing goggles in total darkness, visitors can learn how military pilots orient themselves at night.
“But we only have two volunteers who know how to operate it,” Rezabek said, “so it’s off limits a lot of the time.”
Help is needed manning the front-counter cash register and gift shop, sorting and logging artifacts, and wandering the display area to answer questions.
Entirely run by volunteers, the museum’s steady and stalwart volunteers dwindle every year because of death, disability and relocation.
“Now we have between 20 to 30 regular volunteers,” said Winthrop Stites, who came up with the idea for the museum. “But they are all over age 70, many are retired Navy. We do have several young people from the base, but we’d love to have more.”
Rezabek, 86, said he realizes the younger generation will have a large learning curve when it comes to knowing WWII history and explaining items on display to visitors.
“If they’re younger than I am, then it will take awhile,” he joked.
Rezabek did scare up a replacement so he could lead the Johnson family across the street to the museum’s centerpiece, a PBY- 5A Catalina.
Rezabek pointed out its unique fixtures: fixed wings to fly and a hollow hull to float.
“It didn’t need a runway and it could stay up for hours and hours,” said Rezabek, whose 33-year Navy career ended when he retired as a W-4 Warrant Officer at NAS Whidbey Island.
Johnson’s daughter, Jennifer Zovar, hoisted her two youngsters up to look inside the float portion of the “flying boat.”
She also read a large sign explaining the PBY-5A Catalina.
The initials describe its purpose: P-Patrol, B-Bomber, and Y-the letter identifying the plane’s manufacturer, Consolidated Aircraft Company. The number “5” means it’s fifth in a series and “A” means it’s amphibious.
“I didn’t even know this museum was here,” said Zovar, who lives in Bellingham. “My father retired as a Navy pilot. For Veterans Day weekend, we thought this would be a good thing for all of us to see.”
Stites remembers the moment when he decided that a plane vital to the United States during WWII deserved its own museum.
Visiting in 1997 what he knew simply as the Seaplane Base, Stites headed for the airplane hangar of his Navy days.
“I couldn’t believe what was inside — the Navy Exchange,” he said. “So I asked a cashier standing there, ‘Do you know what use to be here? PBYs.’
“She looks at me and asks, ‘What’s a PBY?’
“So I explained they were the seaplanes in WWII. I thought if someone working on the base doesn’t even know, that’s troubling.”
Stites, 92, worked as a flight engineer on the PBY-5A Catalina planes that were once a regular sight in the skies and waters of Whidbey.
The seaplanes did reconnaissance flights up and down the Pacific Coast. They were also patrol bombers, locating and attacking enemy transport ships in order to disrupt enemy supply lines.
The seaplanes were loaded with 4,000 pounds of bombs, depth charges or torpedoes. Its typical eight-man crew consisted of a bombardier/nose gunners, pilot, co-pilot, radioman, navigator, flight engineer and two waist gunners.
“During the war, everybody knew about the PBYs and what they did,” said Stites, who served at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and Naval Air Station Jacksonville between 1943-46.
Really long (63’ 10”) with a wing span of 104-feet, the planes could hold plenty of fuel, allowing them to be up the air for 16 to 20 hours and fly a patrol range of 2,500 miles.
The PBY-5A Catalina became particularly valuable on search and rescue missions. The seaplanes are known for saving thousands of aircrew downed over the ocean during WWII.
“Seaplanes were all phased out after the Vietnam war,” Stites said.
Although he retired from the PBY Naval Air museum board in 2013, he has a hard time staying away.
“Yes, I still volunteer from time to time,” Stites said, getting ready to leave for the day.
“I volunteer to give these guys trouble.”
For more information on volunteering at PBY Naval Air Musuem, stop by, call 360-240-9500 or go online at www.pbymf.org/contact-us/volunteer.