PBY Catalina glides to new downtown Oak Harbor location

Gerral’s Girl finally got an escort through downtown Oak Harbor.

The PBY Catalina vintage aircraft, affectionately named after former base commanding officer Gerral David, made the short but painstaking journey from the Seaplane Base to its new home on Pioneer Way recently.

“Everyone is excited to have it downtown,” said Wil Shellenberger, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation, Monday. “We’ve had a lot of feedback right away from people who want to see it and go inside.”

The move ran smoother than expected, but was far from a cake walk.

Carefully planned maneuvers over lamp posts, under power lines and in between trees and planters had to be taken carefully to prevent any damage to the nearly 70-year-old aircraft. The move, which started just before midnight Saturday, Jan. 24, was complete around 3 a.m., two hours ahead of schedule.

“The move went better than expected,” said Shellenberger. “Basically none of the obstacles took as long as we thought it might.”

The Catalina was towed by a small, but powerful, tractor through a fencing opening on the Seaplane Base, down through the pedestrian walkway at Skagit Valley College, along Pioneer Way and left on Bayshore Drive, and then through the Wells Fargo parking lot and around to its new home next door to People’s Bank.

Early on, the volunteer crew had to fashion a temporary bridge out of wood planks to raise one tire, and one wing, to clear a lamp post on the college’s campus.

“A hard landing would be worse than that,” joked crew leader and PBY Memorial volunteer George Love.

Gerral’s Girl, a nickname that has been shortened to GiGi over the years, was one of the PBYs stationed at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in 1945, first arrived in June of 2010 by helicopter. Volunteer research later discovered that the aircraft’s nickname during the war was originally Radar Rachel, and had a “very fetching young lady painted on the nose,” Shellenberger said. Oak Harbor’s PBY Catalina was one of the first of its kind to be equipped with radar which was used to detect metal objects in the ocean, such as submaries.

The father of Oak Harbor resident John Hughes flew the PBYs around the Atlantic during World War II when they would go on patrol for 12 hours at a time. Before his death, Jack Hughes shared fond memories about the two years he flew the aircraft in combat and is the reason why Hughes became a volunteer a few years ago. Jack Hughes was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Hughes was there to observe various stages of the aircraft transfer on Saturday.

“It’s a small museum but it’s amazing how much its grown,” Hughes said.

The move of the PBY Catalina marks the completion of the memorial’s transition off base allowing additional accessibility to the community.

The aircraft is part of a larger collection now housed across Pioneer Way in the former Whidbey Furniture Building that includes historical items from all U.S. wars in addition to flight simulators.

Patty Henry was there to see the aircraft moved, mostly because the museum has had an important influence on her son, Alejandro, a 16-year-old who also volunteers there.

Describing her son as formerly “troubled and shy,” Henry said the museum, and its associated volunteers and veterans have taken him in as one of their own.

“It’s a great community thing they have going there,” Henry said. “The men and ladies are just amazing.”

Shellenberger said the organization continues to look for volunteers, both to help within the museum and to help restore and maintain the PBY Catalina and other artifact that will join her in the outdoor display.