It was just a blip on Hollywood action movie fans’ radar screens when Nicolas Cage’s camp announced that a plane used during the filming of his latest movie, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016), was unintentionally destroyed. According to Tyler Rogoway, “After four days of being half sunk and rocked by the surf on a sandbar near the Florida-Alabama state line, the Catalina PBY Flying boat was pulled from its resting place and towed out into deeper waters towards a salvage barge. An attempt to lift the aircraft aboard the barge via a crane caused the aircraft to crumple, destroying it totally…” But for fans of the PBY (P=Patrol, B-Bomber, Y-the military’s designation for the company that manufactured it-Consolidated) Catalina, the news was tragic.
I emailed David Legg, editor of the Catalina News of The Catalina Society, Crew Chief of a G-PBYA based out of the UK that he and his crew fly all over Europe, and keeper of the Survivors list about his interest in the aircraft, “I have been involved with our operation from day one, 30 years ago and I have a bit of an obsession with this wonderful aeroplane. My interest extends to researching the history of all 3,281 examples built in North America and the 24 in the USSR. A by product of that research is that I maintain an ongoing list of surviving Catalinas worldwide which I keep-up-to date, not just for my benefit but for other interested parties too.” I wondered how many of the (approximately 100) Survivors could still fly, “Defining airworthy is a rather subjective activity but I would say that the number of Catalinas that fly with any degree of regularity is less than twenty and more likely around twelve now. You will get wildly different figures if you Google it but don’t trust all that you read!”
The destroyed N85U, based out of Spanaway, Washington, flew into the Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor in September of 2009.
Oak Harbor aircraft aficionados are likely familiar with the PBY Catalina. In April of 2010, the PBY Memorial Foundation, after “More than 11 years, 136 newsletters and 282 members later,” purchased a PBY for permanent display. “Our initial mission was to preserve the PBY and all seaplanes once based at the seaplane facility on Whidbey Island. We now include all aircraft that have been based and flown from NAS Whidbey Island from 1942 to the present day.” The dedication ceremony took place in front of Simard Hall, the PBY Museum’s original location, on 10 July, 2010 (I was there). A quick walk down a quiet street used to take museum-goers to the plane. This seemed like the perfect symbiotic relationship between the PBY Museum and the Navy, in which the Navy allowed the museum free use of Simard Hall to house their exhibits and some space to display the plane in exchange for the positive PR it provided: information not only about the PBY but also Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. But all good things must come to an end and when someone complained (see comments by SGS) about this arrangement, museum and plane were sent packing.
Fortunately, they found a new home about a mile away that provides easier access for non-military folks and relocated it in January of this year.Unfortunately, the situation is far from perfect. The museum is on the north side of the street but visitors must cross Pioneer to see the plane, situated on the south. This necessitates that a volunteer be present to allow visitors access to the fenced area surrounding the airplane, currently without its wings while awaiting repair of an aileron. More importantly, according to their financial information, the museum must come up with “$3,375 with an annual increase” plus utilities per month to cover the building’s lease, or about $60,000 per year. But that is another story…
I visited the museum both when it was on-base and, a few weeks ago, in its new location. A friendly, well-informed volunteer greeted visitors, collect admission, handed out museum maps, directed folks to the guest book and gave out TripAdvisor stickers while reminding them to provide feedback. She mentioned that guests should return to the desk after touring the museum to obtain a token allowing access to the plane display across the street. As luck would have it, I arrived at the same time as two gentlemen. One proudly proclaimed that he had been born in 1935 in Oak Harbor and observed the base being built. The other’s son had been a flight surgeon during four tours in Afghanistan. We chatted a bit as we viewed the displays.
When I’d had my fill of the exhibits, I entered the 12-person theater to watch a 25-minute video entitled In Defense of Their Nation with the other visitors. The man next to me mentioned that he knew several of the interviewees featured in the film, including long time resident, journalist and book author Dorothy Neil. It was excellent. Bonus points for getting to sit next to this particular guy.
After the film, I checked out the simulator room where interested visitors could attempt to fly a plane. They must be pretty popular because a sign on the wall asked visitors to limit their time to 15 minutes when busy. Afterwards, I obtained my token and carefully crossed the busy street where a well-informed volunteer named John greeted me. His father had flown the PBY. I spent about ten minutes reading the display signs and getting a close look at this remarkable airplane. Make no mistake: the PBY Catalina an integral piece of Whidbey history. The PBY Museum, located at 270 SE Pioneer Way, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Learn more about the museum and the PBY at the PBY Naval Air Museum site.
For a preview of the museum, check out their video: