When an authentic World War II hero flew into Puyallup’s Thun Field in February, people noticed, although few realized what they were seeing.
“If I’d put a bucket out there and asked for a quarter from everyone who came up to see her, I’d have turned a profit,” said John Schell, a retired pilot who restores old planes as a hobby.
What visitors were seeing was a Consolidated PBY 6A Catalina, an amphibious airplane used late in WWII and nicknamed “Dumbo” after Walt Disney’s film about an elephant.
The PBY (short for “patrol bomber,” with the “Y” identifying the builder) could carry bombs and torpedoes, and flew in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
The seaplane that was just brought back to life at the Pierce County Airport is more than a war hero. It’s about to become a movie star, as well.
Spanaway businessman and pilot Richard “Bud” Rude owned the plane, and at one time at least 15 other PBYs. In their later life, they were used in Canada and Washington as fire bombers — planes capable of scooping tons of water on the fly, then dumping it over wildfires.
When Rude had a chance for the plane to appear in a Hollywood production, he knew just whom to call — his old friend and fellow airplane buff, John Schell.
“Bud called John and asked him if he would supervise getting this aircraft airworthy and repainted with military logos so that it could be used in a movie,” said Linda Schell, John’s wife.
The plane arrived on site Feb. 10. Two days later, John and his son, Kevin, got to work.
There was a lot of metal corrosion that needed fixing. A complete interior and exterior rehab and paint job were needed.
The Schells worked on it nearly every day for about 3 1/2 months.
“Bud and I had been friends for years, and this project meant a lot to him,” said John, who retired as a Northwest Airlines pilot in 1992. “I didn’t take it on to make money. This is a hobby with me, and this plane is a piece of history.”
In April, Rude died at age 83.
“We finished the plane last week,” John said. “It’s going to be flown to Mobile, Alabama, on the 15th.”
There, it will appear in an upcoming Nicolas Cage movie, “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.” It’s set to begin filming next week.
The Indianapolis was a Navy cruiser that delivered parts of the first atom bomb to the Pacific island of Tinian, then was hit on July 30, 1945, by two torpedoes from a Japanese sub. The ship, with a crew of nearly 1,200 men, sank in 12 minutes.
More than a fourth of those aboard went down with the ship. Just over 800 men went into the water and, three days later, had not seen a rescue boat or plane. Hundreds of them drowned, or fell victim to shark attacks, exposure or salt water poisoning.
What does Rude’s PBY have to do with all this?
On the fourth day after the Indianapolis sank, a plane spotted men afloat in an oil slick and notified Navy command. The first plane dispatched to determine what was needed on site was a PBY flown by Navy Lt. Adrian Marks and his crew.
The PBY was built for landing in calm waters, and Marks had standing orders not to land in high seas. But when he saw more than 300 sailors floating below him, he took a vote from his crew, then landed in waves 12 feet high.
In the minutes that followed, the crew pulled sailors out of the water and “stacked them like cordwood” in the floatplane, Marks said later. When the PBY was full, he ordered other men to be tied to the wing with parachute cord.
In all, 56 men were saved that night, and Marks radioed the precise location to ships coming from shore.
When the ships arrived, they rescued those still in the water and on the PBY — only 317 sailors from the original crew of 1,197.
After the rescue, that PBY had to be sunk. The weight of the men on the wings had damaged her too much to fly again.
Now, Rude’s PBY will stand in for that long-gone aircraft. John Schell, 79, and son Kevin, 53, consider it an honor to have renovated it.
One irony: Neither has flown in it.
“I’ve flown since I was a kid, and dad soloed when he was 15,” Kevin said, “but these planes require very specific licenses. And you can’t fly as a passenger because only crew members are allowed, and there’s room for only six of them.”
One consolation: On the tail, in small lettering, John Schell printed his name, his son’s, and those of three students from Clover Park Technical College who volunteered to help.
“They just showed up to see the plane and asked if they could work on it,” John said. “I paid them a little. It was a lot of work.”
Once the plane is gone, John will start looking for another project. He and Kevin already have one in mind.
“We’re going fishing,” John said.