EUGENE, Ore. — Eugene received a special piece of military history over the weekend when one of the last operating models of an airplane used in World War II landed at the Eugene airport.
Nearly 100 adults and kids of all ages gathered around the west runway of the airport Saturday morning to watch a historic Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina fly in and end its long trip from where it was found in a Paris museum. While many spectators were from the Eugene area, a few were from countries such as Spain and Germany.
The new owner of the plane, local resident Stu Barr, looked on as the amphibious flying boat taxied toward the crowd. He spoke excitedly about the historical significance of the aircraft.
“Basically, I’m a history buff,” he said.
His family already owns a few other planes, so this is the newest addition to the fleet. One of his grandsons found it in a museum during a trip to Paris and immediately called his grandfather to talk with the then-owner of the plane. The transaction was made over the phone, and so they began preparing the Catalina’s travel to the United States.
When it was flown out of France, Barr said the goodbye was one of major fanfare. “It’s a piece of World War II history that means so much more to Europeans than Americans,” he said. “They really wept when this airplane left Paris.”
There are 20 planes in the world of this type that still fly, but this plane is one of only three of this specific model still flying, said Jennifer Pfaff, Barr’s daughter.
The flying boat can land on land and water and has a history of being used not only for search-and-rescue but also for surveillance during the war.
“It rescued 138 of our guys that got their ships sunk,” Barr said. “[The pilot] put all of ’em he could inside the hull and the rest of them up on the wings and used it like a boat and taxied toward the fleet and saved their lives. That was this plane.”
The plane also was used in a movie made about the life of Jacques Cousteau, the famed underwater explorer from France, Barr said.
Being an old plane, it operates much differently from newer ones. It requires two people to pilot it and has two massive propellers. After stepping out of the cockpit, one of the pilots, George Perez, described it as a “muscular airplane.”
He and fellow pilot Peter Houghton took the plane along multiple stops from France to Scotland and Iceland just to make it to Eugene.
“You have to have a lot of licenses to fly it,” Barr said. “You’ve got to have a boat license, you’ve got to be able to read buoys and everything the marine guys have to know to run a boat on the water.”
The pilots also require a handful of additional credentials to their pilot licenses to pilot this type of aircraft.
“So the guy that flies them is a high-rated pilot,” Barr said.
Former pilot Erhman Giustina also looked on with excitement as the plane came around. At 98 years old, Giustina said he never flew this model of aircraft, but he always dreamed of being a pilot since he was young.
“It was [Charles] Lindbergh,” he said. “He was the hero that I came after. He flew, and I wanted to fly … I learned to fly early in life, and was based on the Pacific Coast, all the way between Seattle and down to L.A.”
He said at the time he was a pilot, the World War II was “beginning to be ended.” On Saturday morning, he was just excited to see what the old plane would look like.
There aren’t any hangars big enough in Eugene to house the plane, Barr said, so the family is having one built to fit the historic beast. It will be here in Eugene all summer long, but eventually the family plans to use it as a “dive vessel” in Mexico.