In spite of the fact that it has been about five years since the massive Martin Mars has assisted firefighters on the ground by dropping 7,200 gallons of water, the unique nature of the huge flying boat remains vividly in the memory of those who worked with it, under it, or were a part of the air crew on the seven aircraft that were built in the 1940s. It is hard to forget the sound of those four 18-cylinder 2,500 hp radial engines. They could typically carry 32,000 pounds of cargo, 133 troops, or up seven Willys MB Jeeps.
Don Hoover worked on Martin Mars crews while he was in the US Navy, serving as 2nd or 3rd Engineer on the last four that were still in service when the U.S. Navy shut down the program in 1956. He said his tasks included setting power, wing checks, weight and balance, fuel transfers, tracking fuel vs. time/distance, and assisted in attaching mooring lines. A common configuration was for 40 passengers, from all branches of the military and dependents. Cargo consisted of anything from medicines to aircraft engines. Some of the more memorable flights, Mr. Hoover said, were when they lost an engine after taking off from Hawaii, and the time they replaced an oil strainer in flight after departing from NAS Alameda at San Francisco Bay.
(Philippines Mars conducting a Jet Assisted Take Off. U.S. Navy.)
H e said he also remembers the time they used Jet Assisted Take Off rockets at Kihi Lagoon in Hawaii as they departed with 92,000 pounds gross weight on the way back to California.
All seven of the Martin Mars had names–
- Old Lady , delivered in 1942. The prototype; was scrapped in 1945.
- Hawaii Mars I , delivered in 1945. Sank in the Chesapeake Bay in 1945 and was scrapped.
- Marshall Mars , delivered in 1948. It was destroyed by an engine fire and sank April 5, 1950 off Diamond Head, Oahu, Hawaii.
The four Martin Mars below were retired by the US Navy in 1956 and sold in 1959 to Forest Industries Flying Tankers, a consortium of British Columbia forest companies, who converted all four into 7,200-gallon firefighting air tankers with retractable scoops on the hull to refill the tanks while skimming across the surface of a lake.
- Philippine Mars , delivered in 1946. Still exists at Coulson Aviation near Port Alberni, BC. It has not been used on a fire since about 2007. The livery has been restored to the original Navy colors. Internally it is still in airtanker configuration with the tank and probe system.
- Marianas Mars , delivered in 1946. Crashed into Mount Moriarty near Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, on June 23, 1961. While working on a wildfire the water drop mechanism failed, leaving the aircraft unable to climb quickly enough to clear a mountain. The crew of four were killed.
- Hawaii Mars , delivered in 1946. Still exists at Coulson Aviation near Port Alberni, BC. After being acquired by Coulson it was on contract to fight wildfires for BC until 2013 but was rarely used. It was last operated commercially in 2015 to train Chinese flying boat pilots and also worked on a 30-day firefighting contract that year with British Columbia.
- Caroline Mars , 1948. Using a special configuration, it set the record for passenger lift on February 25, 1949 when it carried 218 men from NAS North Island, San Diego to NAS Alameda on San Francisco Bay. On October 12, 1962 while parked on its beaching gear onshore at the Victoria International Airport on Vancouver Island, it was damaged beyond repair by Typhoon Freda when she was blown 200 yards across the airport.
In 2007 the two that had survived, Hawaii and Philippine, were sold to what is now Coulson Aviation, based near Port Alberni, British Columbia. The Hawaii Mars was used to fight fires in BC, and in 2008 and 2009 the US Forest Service used it on call when needed contract assignments in California at Lake Shasta and Lake Elsinore. In 2011 it received a 20-day contract to fight fires in Mexico.
“We have a team working on getting [the Hawaii and Philippine Mars] back in serviceable condition and have big plans for them for the end of 2020 or early 2021”, Britt Coulson of Coulson Aviation said December 5 2019. “We have not released what our plans are yet.”
The first two minutes of the video below has some excellent shots of the Hawaii Mars dropping on a small fire near Powell River, BC in 2013.