“What is that?”
My student and I were on downwind to Runway 16 at Pierce County/Thun Field (KPLU) in Puyallup, Wash., when he uttered this phrase. “It looks like something out of World War II!” he exclaimed as we saw the high-wing boat-hulled aircraft make its final approach.
And he is right. The “that” in question is a 1945 PBY, an amphibious Patrol Bomber (the PB) built by Consolidated Aircraft. During their military service, many of the PBYs were used for patrol and to rescue sailors and aviators from the ocean. Many were kept in the military until the 1980s, then released to become water bombers for fire fighting.
This particular PBY belongs to Bud Rude of Spanaway, Wash., and it’s set to star in a movie with Nicolas Cage about the rescue of sailors from the USS Indianapolis during World War II.
The USS Indianapolis was the ship that delivered the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. It was on the way home between Guam and Leyte Gulf when it was torpedoed in the dead of night by a Japanese submarine and sunk. Approximately 900 of the 1,196 men aboard went into the sea. Very few life rafts were launched, but most of the survivors had lifejackets.
Because the delivery of the bomb had been a top secret mission, the location of the ship was not readily available — even to the Navy — so rescue was delayed. The men became easy prey for sharks.
The survivors were spotted by accident by Lt. Wilbur C. Gwinn, who was flying a PV-1 Ventura bomber on routine patrol and reported seeing many men in the water. A PBY under the command of Lieutenant Adrian Marks was dispatched to lend assistance and report.
When Marks’ crew dropped life rafts and supplies to the men in the water, they saw the sharks attacking the men. Marks decided to violate the standing order not to put down at sea. He landed the large seaplane and began bringing survivors aboard. Those who couldn’t fit into the hull he had strapped to the wings with parachute chord. Marks’ PBY remained on the surface of the water until a ship, the USS Cecil Doyle, came to pick them up. A total of 56 men were saved. Marks was very nearly court-martialed for violating the standing order.
The sinking of the Indianapolis and the rescue were lost in the pages of history until 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie “Jaws” came out. The shark hunter in the movie, a man named Quint, was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis. In the movie, he explains his hatred of sharks stems from that experience.
That experience will soon be captured in a major motion picture, “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” which will begin shooting soon in South Carolina. Cage has been cast as Capt. Charles Butler McVay, captain of the Indianapolis. The movie, directed by Mario Van Peebles, is set for release on Memorial Day 2016.
The PBY that will star in the film is being readied for its trip across the country by father-son team John and Kevin Schell. The airplane is undergoing annual inspection.
John Schell notes that this particular PBY came out later in the war, at the end of the production run.
“I imagine it kicked around the country for awhile before they turned it into a water bomber and that was 20 some years ago,” he said. “The airplane is still certified as a water bomber.”
Schell, who has been involved in aviation since the early 1950s, holds several pilot certificates including type ratings. “I also have an A&E certificate. When I went to school, you got an A&E certificate, now they call them A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) certificates.” He also has an IA, so he can sign off the work.
He’s worked with his son on several large aircraft annuals and restoration projects over the years, but this is the first PBY they have worked on — and it appears to be the first one that many people have seen in person, judging by the amount of attention it has been getting since arriving at the airport, which is located about 20 miles south of Seattle.
“We should be charging admission of 25 cents! We’d be millionaires by now,” says the elder Schell.
“I had a DC-3 that I resurrected some years ago,” he recalled. “That project was similar to this one. They are just airplanes, although they may seem gigantic. You just have more of it than you do the smaller ones!”
Kevin Schell noted that most of the restoration to battle-ready status, such as the addition of gun turrets, will likely be done by Hollywood.
“I am sure they are going to use Computer Graphic Imagery or CGI for that,” he said.
For the project, the Schells have the help of a small group of students from the Airframe and Powerplant program at Clover Park Technical College, which is located directly across the runway from the Schell hangar.
“We did not go looking for help,” John Schell notes. “Some of the kids came over here and asked if they could volunteer to work on it and I said no, I am going to pay you. They are under contact to me.”
Five students are working on the project, doing everything from stripping paint and degreasing the airframe to finishing floorboards.
“I plan to make my living doing aircraft restoration, so this is an incredible opportunity for me,” explains Josh Kaiser, a second-year student in the A&P program. “We work on it outside of class time.”
“I’m very excited to be working in this,” said David Major as he masked off the instrument panel for painting. “It’s very satisfying to know I worked on something this old. I’m looking forward to seeing it in the movie.”
The Schells are happy to have the young helpers working with them, because not only does it get the job done quicker, but it’s also a way to reach the next generation.
“Most of these kids’ parents weren’t even born when World War II was going on and these kids don’t even know what these airplanes were,” John Schell explains.
The plan is to have the airplane’s annual finished by May.
“We are working six days a week,” Kevin Schell said. “We will be burning the midnight oil.”
“It is airworthy now,” the elder Schell notes. “We’re now working on the cosmetic aspect of it.”
When the airplane is finished, it will leave Washington state to be repainted in the colors of Marks’ PBY, then it heads to South Carolina for filming.