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Bellingham man's sorrow spurs effort to honor Navy fliers

A Bellingham man stricken by the death of his nephew in a Navy training flight hopes to build a memorial in Oak Harbor to honor him and others who have died in connection with the Prowler aircraft.

Phelps McIlvaine, a vice president at Saturna Capital Corp., is the uncle of Will McIlvaine.

The younger McIlvaine was a 24-year-old flight officer aboard an EA-6B Prowler based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, near Oak Harbor, when the plane crashed in a field by the small town of Harrington, west of Spokane. The crash during a low-altitude training run on March 11, 2013, also killed the plane’s instructor pilot and student pilot. A Navy investigation later judged the crash to be the result of pilot error.

Phelps McIlvaine and his family knew Will from family gatherings, and from visits with Will after he was stationed at Whidbey Island in June 2012. Will grew up in the Denver area and attended the same college-preparatory school in Massachusetts that his uncle attended. He excelled at math and science, sang, played the bagpipes, and studied Arabic. His uncle described him as someone who could meet any challenge, yet found the time to help others, all while keeping his sense of humor.

“You liked him the moment you met him,” Phelps McIlvaine said. “He was handsome. He was fun. He could accomplish anything he put his mind to.”

While attending a memorial service for Will at the U.S. Naval Academy, McIlvaine noticed a tall obelisk memorial outside the church and decided to pursue a similar Prowler memorial for Oak Harbor.

The EA-6B Prowler supports other aircraft and troops by jamming enemy electronic equipment.

“If there isn’t a Prowler, the mission doesn’t go,” Phelps McIlvaine said.

Will McIlvaine, whose eyesight brought an end to his childhood dream of flying jets, was learning to operate the Prowler’s jamming devices.

The Prowler, described as a “tenacious, enduring workhouse” by the Whidbey News-Times, first arrived at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in 1971 and was soon deployed in the Vietnam War.

Phelps McIlvaine had already begun working on his idea of a memorial when he learned the Navy was well on its way to closing its 44-year history with the Prowler and replacing it with a newer and faster plane, the EA-18G Growler. The ceremonial last flight of a Prowler at the Whidbey base is scheduled for June 27, part of a three-day “Sunset Celebration” for the aircraft.

The Marines plan to stop using the Prowler in 2019.

The public memorial planned by McIlvaine would stand about seven feet tall and be made of mahogany granite. It would honor his nephew and the two pilots, and include a panel with 44 other names on a Prowler memorial on the grounds of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

The proposed site for the memorial is a concrete lookout on Oak Harbor’s waterfront, just east of downtown. That area is where the city and community recently installed a “Walk of Honor,” with a series of metal banners honoring service members. The intricate, patriotic banners were designed by Bellingham artist Jody Bergsma.

In addition to the names on the obelisk, Phelps McIlvaine said the memorial will have a scannable address to a website where Prowler veterans and their families and friends can post photographs and stories about their Prowler experiences. McIlvaine hopes the memorial and website will remind people now and in the future about the Prowler crews and support people who helped defend the country.

“People should know their stories,” he said.