The Martin Mars air tankers make their home at Sproat Lake. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Martin Mars waterbombers’ firefighting days are done

Wayne Coulson said his company still hopes to find a new home for the vintage aircraft

  • May. 21, 2018 10:30 a.m.

The famed Martin Mars air tankers continue to draw interest from potential purchasers, but their glory days as firefighting aircraft are probably past.

Wayne Coulson, CEO of Coulson Flying Tankers, said his company still hopes to find a new home for the vintage aircraft, the last two survivors of a family of giant flying boats built for the Second World War.

“We’re trying to find a respectful home,” he said, describing the aircraft as national treasures in Canada and the U.S. “They were the biggest warbirds built during World War Two, so they have significance to education.”

Typically, as wildfire season gets underway, public speculation arises about whether the Martin Mars — always an impressive sight, as largest air tankers in the firefighting fleet — would be pressed back into service. However, it’s been five years since the B.C. government announced it would not renew its contract for Hawaii Mars. Philippine Mars is no longer considered for active service.

READ: B.C. cities vote against 10-year Martin Mars contract

READ: Martin Mars waterbombers still hold appeal

“I’m kind of thinking those days are done,” Coulson said, noting that more advanced, faster and more powerful turbo-prop aircraft are preferred for fighting wildfire nowadays.

Coulson Air Tankers has maintained the aircraft to ensure flight worthiness, which is in itself a costly undertaking.

“They’ve lived outside their whole lives, but the upkeep is expensive,” explained Coulson. “We’ve had a couple of opportunities to sell them that we didn’t feel were justifiable. We continue to talk to people to find a home for them.”

The U.S. National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., expressed interest a few years ago in the Philippine Mars, but that possibility appears to have lapsed.

“They just have higher priorities where they want to spend their money and time. They didn’t have the budget to build a hangar to store the aircraft,” Coulson said. A hangar capable of accommodating the Philippine Mars would cost about $4 million, he added.

The Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum has also shown interest in the plane.

“It’s the one that has the more significant history. It was the biggest air ambulance in world during World War Two” and saw service during the Korean War, transporting wounded from Asia to California. “It was the biggest warbird ever built.”

Hawaii Mars hasn’t flown since 2016 and what Coulson referred to as “the Oshkosh incident.” The aircraft was scooping water for a demonstration at the fly-in event in Wisconsin when an engine warning light prompted an aborted take-off. The plane hit some rocks on Lake Winnebago, causing minor damage that was subsequently repaired.

Coulson Air Tankers is focused on supporting those efforts primarily in Australia and the U.S. with C130 Hercules and their new Boeing 737, which makes its debut this month as the world’s newest air tanker. The company’s fleet lent support during last year’s California wildfires. Advances have fostered a return of large air tankers.

“Going back five years, you didn’t see huge aircraft flying over peoples’ homes. It just wasn’t done. Systems used today are more precision based. The customers aren’t as risk-adverse about 155,000-lb aircraft flying over neighbourhoods. It’s a significant shift in the last five years. And the effect is significant.”

Anyone hoping that the Sproat Lake air tanker base might reopen to summer visitors may be disappointed. Coulson said there are no plans to resume the openings since summer is the company’s busiest time of year.

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