Play me! I’m the music for this story!
Gigi is a PBY-5A Catalina “flying boat.” This particular aircraft appears to have been built in 1943 and was stationed here in Oak Harbor in 1945. During her tenure at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, she bounced up and down the west coast from San Diego to the Aleutian Islands (served two tours in the Aleutians) providing a variety of services from being a Patrol Bomber to rescuing sailors. She was flown by LTJG Norwood Cole. Her original nick name was Rachel Radar because she was one of the first aircraft of that era to have radar installed. The PBYs were the first aircraft to have radar installed on board.
The acronym PBY actually mean Patrol Bomber with the third character denoting the company who built the aircraft. In this case, Y stands for Consolidated Aircraft, the company who originally designed the Patrol Bomber. Other companies emulated the design such as Vickers, from Canada, who had the PBV aircraft. Boeing had the PBB, Naval Aircraft Factory made the PBN and the Airforce had their version with the PBOA-10. The desire was to get away from the cumbersome biplane and the result was a much more streamlined aircraft that could do more than just patrol and bomb. The PBY-5A Catalina is the result of various developments and improvements over time. The “Catalina” part of the nomenclature comes from Catalina Island in California.
Their typical armament included .50 machine guns at both waste positions, one to two .30 guns in the bow turret, a single gun positioned on the underside of the aircraft and four bomb racks on the wings for carrying up to 1000-pound bombs. The gunner’s main role, though, was as a “lookout.” The two propellers on each wing were very powerful but very noisy because they were in such close approximation to each other. The PBY was painted black for doing night bombing patrols and because of that, was called the “Black Cat.” She was referred to as “Dumbo” when assigned to be used in air-sea rescue, as was referenced in the movie “Jaws” when Quint spoke about the sinking of the Indianapolis. According to historical sources, the actual model of aircraft that actually assisted in that rescue was the PV-1 Ventura (a Vickers creation). In their time, this aircraft was considered to be the backbone of long distance reconnaissance units.
Currently, there are about eighty PBY-5A that continue to be used as water bombers or air tankers for aerial firefighting, globally.
After years of honorable military service, Gigi went missing for about sixty seven years. Perhaps she served as an aerial water bomber. Nobody knows for sure because her log book was confiscated and lost by United State Marshalls fifteen years ago when she was being used as a “mule” for a drug running operation they busted. Later, an oil company purchased her and used her in the Gulf of Mexico. It isn’t known what she was doing in Montana, but she was seriously damaged while there. She was, then, disassembled and moved to Skagit Valley where she remained for about ten years before being found by the PBY Memorial Foundation, who purchased her.
She isn’t to be confused with the PBY-6A that flew into Oak Harbor Marina in 2009. That PBY is owned by Bud Rude from Deer Park, WA. It was employed up to 2008 or so as an airborne fire fighter. This aircraft flew in and was on display for a few days at NASWI’s Seaplane Base, as a teaser in preparation for purchasing Gigi. I was there when she flew in. It was quite the sight! She demonstrated her agility, scooping up water and then releasing it over Crescent Harbor. This particular model was also featured in the movie “Always.” The most popular scene was when the plane dipped down into the lake to get water and surprised two fisherman in a boat nearby who subsequently abandoned boat, as the plane flew over their heads. Unfortunately, age is taking its toll on these beauties and they’re are being systematically grounded, as a result.
However, Gigi simply wasn’t air-worthy to be flown “home.” Instead, she was transported by a Chinook helicopter in 2010, with the help of Captain Gerral David, who was the Commanding Officer of NASWI at the time. He was very integral in overcoming the many obstacles that were in the way, at the time, in getting her home. In gratitude for his help, Win Stites, the founder of PBYMF re-named her “Gigi” for Gerral’s Girl (G.G.).
For the past five years, she was kept on display up on the hill by Building 12, on the NASWI Seaplane Base. She was moved the end of January to her current home on Pioneer Way, because she was still very inaccessible to the public and posed security concerns for the base. Her current home is directly across the street from the museum so visitors can tour the museum and see the plane all in one stop! She can be seen by anyone simply passing through town, now. She is a wonderful historical landmark complimenting this town’s military history.