Over the course of nearly three decades, what began as an effort to erect a simple memorial has resulted in the foremost museum of naval aviation history in the Pacific Northwest.
Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum held a column raising ceremony on Monday celebrating the commencement of construction of the new museum facility at 545 Ault Field Road in Oak Harbor. Construction is expected to last around a year, with a grand opening tentatively planned for late summer or early fall of 2024.
The museum’s new home will be big enough to accommodate the significant growth it has experienced over the last nine years, former Executive Director Wil Shellenberger said. With all the museum’s recent success, Whidbey residents might not know that it came from humble beginnings.
“We describe our beginnings as a coffee klatch,” Shellenberger said during a presentation on the museum’s history at the Oak Harbor Library Aug. 17.
According to Shellenberger, the museum began as the PBY Memorial Association. The association comprised 14 veterans who had flown PBY-Catalinas, World War II era amphibious patrol bombers that operated out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. These veterans had a simple goal — to erect a monument to their fellow PBY pilots who had flown in World War II.
The association became the PBY Memorial Foundation and was officially incorporated in 1998. When Whidbey residents learned of the group’s efforts, they began sending in donations of items, including military paraphernalia owned by veteran friends or relatives. The 14 foundation members decided they wanted to set up an exhibit of the items they received.
The exhibit’s first home was the old gas station on Pioneer Way, Shellenberger said. The owner of the gas station made an agreement with the veterans that if they fixed the building’s roof and maintained the facility, they could use it for their exhibit. The foundation moved in in 2004.
The exhibit remained there until 2008, when it transferred to Simard Hall, an old administrative building on the naval base. There were several old buildings on the base at the time that base leaders wanted to tear down, but because these buildings were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, they could only be torn down if there were something on base to preserve history. The base offered a space to the PBY Memorial Foundation.
The exhibit, now located on base, was called the Command Display. Shellenberger said it could not be designated as a museum because rules allowed for only one museum on base, and a display at the Officers’ Club had already been allocated museum funds.
The exhibit remained on base until Department of Defense officials decided to remove non-military entities from military bases. The foundation also needed to relocate in order to further grow.
In 2014, the PBY Naval Air Museum opened at its current location on Pioneer Way. The iconic PBY Catalina that stands outside of it joined in 2015.
Shellenberger recalled that getting the seaplane to its home at the museum was quite a feat; in the middle of a misty night, several streets in downtown Oak Harbor were temporarily closed to make room for the aircraft, which was brought from the seaplane base, through the Skagit Valley College campus and down Pioneer Way.
After nine years of growth at its current location, the museum is ready to expand again, Shellenberger said. What started out as 14 veterans with a dream of a small memorial has grown into a historic and educational facility worth $3.5 million with over 8,000 objects in its collection. In 2020, the museum rebranded as the Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum.