After a routine day of classes at the South Hill campus of Clover Park Technical College, aviation maintenance students saw something different at the Pierce County Airport at Thun Field.
It was a PBY Catalina, an amphibious aircraft from the 1930s and 1940s and one of the most widely used seaplanes of World War II, desperately in need of some repair.
The plane was owned by pilot Bud Rude, who owned at least 15 other PBYs at one point. Rude was offered the opportunity for his most recent project to make an appearance in the upcoming WW II flick, “USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” which stars Nicholas Cage.
Rude asked his old friend, John Schell, if he would help get the plane ready for its film debut. Schell instantly agreed, and the plane flew into the Pierce County Airport in February.
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Fortunately for Schell and his son, Kevin, the plane caught the attention of CPTC students Christian Vannoy, Dave Caylor, David Major, Josh Kaiser and Kody Kruml. As the students were admiring the plane, the younger Schell offered the students an opportunity none of them could pass up.
“He asked us if we were doing anything after our schooling, and asked if we wanted to work on the airplane with them,” said Vannoy, an Emerald Ridge High senior and CPTC Running Start student. “We saw the opportunity as an amazing one. We were able to work on the airplane outside of school and get a lot more experience out of it as well.”
While the students had their work cut out for them, they instantly put their heads down and got to work.
“It was challenging at the beginning, looking at just how much we had to get done and knowing how much time we had to do it in,” Kaiser said. “We knew it was going to be a lot of work. It wasn’t in great shape. It was pretty dirty, and there was paint peeling off everywhere.”
Vannoy says that despite all of the work the crew had to do, he still thought the aircraft was a beauty.
“Looking at it, and then being asked to work on it was a crazy experience,” Vannoy said. “(Kevin Schell) had us immediately take instruments out of the instrument panel. I was expecting to just clean the entire thing instead of using a screwdriver and unbolting things.”
John Schell said asking the students for help was easy; they knew they were going to need help the instant they agreed to the project.
“They wanted to volunteer, and it’s better just to pay them a little bit because how many students have extra money to spend?” he asked rhetorically. “Not very many. We ended up giving them so money. It’s only fair to do that.”
Both Schells were impressed with the caliber of the students’ work. After all, John Schell knows firsthand; he used to teach at the college in the 1950s and 60s.
“They did a good job,” the 80-year-old said. “They repainted and redid the interior, and they redid the whole outside, too.”
Caylor enjoyed that the Schells instantly trusted the students, and gave them independence during the three-month project.
“It was cool to work with people that are just stoked about working on airplanes,” Caylor said. “I couldn’t pass it up. We probably won’t be asked to work on something like this ever again.”
Now that the project is completed, the students gained hands-on experience restoring a pertinent item to aviation history — all before graduating. For student David Major, he was offered a job as a result of his hard work.
What will he be doing? Restoring more airplanes, of course.
“It’s enforced all of the knowledge I’ve been learning at Clover Park and cemented it in,” he said of the experience.