PBY Catalina pilot who was in Hawaii to mark the end of WWII died from coronavirus

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: November 17, 2020

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HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Several vintage plane crew members who came to Hawaii to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II were infected with COVID-19, including one pilot in his 80s who later died.

Alfred "Fred " Owen, a pilot with one of two vintage PBY Catalina flying boats that were shipped to Oahu for events around the Sept. 2, 1945, anniversary of the war's end, succumbed to the virus after returning to the mainland, being hospitalized, released and hospitalized again, officials said. He died Oct. 5.

The Washington state resident, who was in his 80s, flew the Princess of the Stars with fellow pilot Peter Houghton in Hawaii dozens of times taking military, VIPs and media from the Honolulu airport to Kaneohe Bay prior to a series of aerial flyovers tied to the anniversary.

"It is with a heavy heart and trembling fingers that I write this, " Soaring by the Sea Foundation, set up to support flights by the historic aircraft, said Oct. 9 on Facebook.

"The day of our departure from Hawaii one of our crew tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolated in Hawaii until medically cleared to return home, " the post said. "Upon return to the mainland, three more of our crew tested positive."

Owen was a "father, brother, friend and mentor, " the foundation said. "It has left a terrible hole in our hearts, the hearts of his family and in the heart of his aviation family."

Pilots Owen and Houghton, airplane owner Coy Pfaff and Owen's son, Jayson, who flew another Catalina in Hawaii for the 75th anniversary, all tested positive for COVID-19 starting Sept. 5 and then more than a week later, said Tony Vericella, executive director of the 75th World War II Commemoration Committee in Hawaii.

He said he believes it's unlikely that all the cases originated in Hawaii.

Additionally, a female public affairs officer who may have been at Wheeler Army Airfield at the time of the anniversary events also tested positive, but the individual had no official connection to the arrival of the historic aircraft there prior to and for the airshows, Vericella said.

No other COVID-19 cases occurred with the crews of 14 vintage aircraft that were shipped over on the Navy amphibious assault ship USS Essex for the event, he said.

The COVID-19 cases—and Owen's death from it—were recently brought to the attention of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Pfaff and Vericella confirmed the positives for the virus.

Vericella said there was "no such thing as a foolproof plan " to keep everyone safe from novel coronavirus for the 75th-anniversary events.

"So I think that everything that could be done, we did, " he said. "It's just that, as we told everybody from the very beginning, there's no such thing as 100 % safe, totally safe."

The planning committee pared down event after event, eventually leaving the aerial parades and sparsely attended commemoration on the fantail of the battleship Missouri, site of Japan's official surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

About 46 World War II veterans and a like number of family members from the mainland were prepared to come, but on Aug. 21 the planning committee made the difficult decision to limit attendance at the ceremony to aging veterans who lived in Hawaii.

Some still criticize the group for holding the observance at all with COVID-19 running rampant.

Pfaff, the airplane owner, tested negative for the virus and quarantined for 14 days in San Diego before sailing over with the Catalina on the Essex—meaning he likely picked up COVID-19 in Hawaii.

All of the warbird crews—some of whom arrived on commercial flights—were tested either before or after arriving in Hawaii, Vericella said.

Before Pfaff could return with the plane on the ship to San Diego, he was tested again, and found to be positive Sept. 5, Vericella said. Vericella said there is ambiguity when and where the others caught the virus, however. The Essex sailed on Sept. 6.

Houghton tested negative on the same day that Pfaff tested positive, Vericella said. Houghton left Hawaii on the 9th and then tested positive in Oregon the week of the 14th, he said.

"They really didn't test (positive ) until eight or nine days later than (Pfaff ), " Vericella said of the others. He added that "they could have gotten it on the mainland ; they could have gotten it on the commercial flight going back home."

That doesn't rule out catching the virus in Hawaii.

"It seems like because of that length of time in between " Pfaff's positive and travel before the other tests, that's "unlikely, I would say, " Vericella said. Houghton did not comment, and Jayson Owen, said to be still recovering, could not be reached.

Soaring by the Sea Foundation said Oct. 9 on Facebook that two of the crew had recovered. Fred Owen, the pilot who died, was a retired Delta pilot who was previously active fighting fires in the Pacific Northwest with Catalinas.

Before Pfaff's family bought the Catalina, Owen and Houghton commuted back and forth to France where the plane was kept before it was moved to Oregon.

Soaring by the Sea said on Facebook that Owen was the man "that we all should strive to be—loving, generous, honest, humble."

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