Why is the Iconic Martin Mars Not Fighting Fires?

A serene giant, the Hawaii Mars floats on Sproat Lake. The proud aerial fire-fighter is possibly nearing the end of her flying days, but she still has great potential for further operations. (photo by Rob Frolic)
Aircorps Art Dec 2019


This summer’s wildfire season has been particularly brutal so far in the U.S., even in comparison to the catastrophic blazes of previous years. The same is true for Canada as well, which has experienced a significant increase in major conflagrations from British Columbia on the east to Ontario. On July 14th alone, there were reportedly 226 wildfires burning out of control across the nation. Given such dire circumstances, one might imagine that all hands would literally be at the pump, with as many aerial firefighting teams in action as possible. But this is not the case… at least not for the Martin JRM Mars water bombers which the Coulson Group once fielded each year in British Columbia and elsewhere.

Many have wondered why such a powerful asset is sitting on the sidelines when it could be playing an important role in quashing fires from the air, like other smaller and less capable aircraft in the Coulson fleet. But according to British Columbia’s Wildfire Service, the Mars “is a retired aircraft that hasn’t been used in B.C. since 2015.” What this banal statement fails to address, however, is that it was the very same BC Wildfire Service that brought about this situation. They declined to renew the aircraft’s firefighting contracts that year, and in subsequent years… essentially forcing the type’s withdrawal from operational use.

A distant view of Hawaii Mars framed by the wing of Philippine Mars on Sproat Lake. (photo by Rob Frolic)

Instead of including the ‘big guns’ like the Mars, the Wildfire Service prefers to contract fleets of far-smaller float planes like the AT-802F Fire Boss, which is based upon the well-known, single-engine Air Tractor crop-duster. While the Fire Boss is certainly more nimble, can coordinate in numbers over a fire, and safely drop near firefighting personnel on the ground (which the Mars cannot), it only has the capacity to deliver a minuscule amount of water in any one pass in comparison to the Mars. This is not to say that the Mars would be appropriate in every situation – especially in treacherous terrain or where the local bodies of water cannot handle a flying boat of the JRM’s bulk, but surely there is a place for both aircraft types?

Indeed, the Mars packs a far more powerful punch in just one pass than even eight Fire Boss float planes could flying in formation; indeed it can deliver 7,200 gallons of water in seconds – enough to cover 4 acres of land – in comparison to the 819 gallons a lone Fire Boss provides. Comparing their capabilities can perhaps be summarized with the analogy of trying to douse a campfire with a teacup of water, versus a garbage can. Yes, you can scoop up water with a teacup more easily, and probably dump it more precisely than with a garbage can, but how many trips would it take to extinguish the fire were that even possible? Perhaps this argument is overly simplistic, but it seems fair for all but the biggest conflagrations which no aircraft could do much to suppress.

An example of an AT-802 Fire Boss dropping its complement of water. (image via Wikipedia)
Coulson Aviation’s Martin Mars dropping its 7,200 gallons of water in a demonstration at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2016. (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)
In a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, Wayne Coulson, Coulson Group’s CEO, seemed to make a similar comparison after his recent overflight of the Mount Hayes fire near Ladysmith, BC: “A few dumps from a tanker like the Martin Mars would have a huge effect on that fire. The B.C. Wildfire Service should be using every tool in the toolbox during the wildfire season, including large tankers like the Martin Mars and Coulson’s converted Boeing 737s.”
With respect to the Mars, Coulson added, “[The Wildfire Service] just don’t want it… and have their own ideas on how to fight fires, and they are the only place in the world who think that way.”
So it seems as if the Martin Mars has seen the end of its firefighting days… at least in British Columbia. Other than the type’s age, it’s hard to see why the Mars is not part of the present-day wildfire-fighting equation in British Columbia. Even considering its age, the present-day Martin Mars has received a lot of upgrades since its time in the U.S. Navy. According the Coulson Group’s description: “The Martin Mars is the largest operational flying boat in existence. In 2007 Coulson Aircrane Ltd. purchased the Hawaii and Philippine Mars to expand its firefighting capabilities, establishing itself as the only operator at the time operating both fixed-wing and rotary-wing firefighting aircraft. The next-generation Hawaii Mars has an EFIS glass cockpit with the ability to stream live data from other onboard indication equipment, including real-time flight tracking, load measuring, aircraft performance, atmospheric conditions, drop reading(s), and drop location data.” Coulson even considered upgrading the type with modern and more easily maintainable turboprop powerplants (in place of the R-3350s it came with) if that would help reverse the decision against the Mars, but to no avail apparently
Hawaii Mars entering the water back in the summer of 2016 to begin preparations for what was billed then as the Ultimate Flying Experience in the weeks leading up to the aircraft’s memorable trip to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for EAA AirVenture 2016. (photo by Rob Frolic) 
Whether the Martin Mars ever fights another fire again is a question for open debate of course. It seems unlikely though – especially the longer the firefighting hiatus extends, since maintaining the aircraft in airworthy condition without water-bombing contracts to support this endeavor would be punishingly expensive. And of course, Coulson has made several moves to find new homes for their two remaining JRMs.
On August 23, 2012, due to Philippine Mars having sat idle for five years, the Coulson Group announced that they would retire the aircraft and fly her to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida where she would become a static exhibit. Coulson repainted Philippine Mars in her original naval livery and prepared the flying boat for her final flight to the museum, which was supposed to occur in November 2012. However, after many delays, the Navy put a hold on the trade deal involved with transferring the aircraft to Pensacola in June 2016, pending the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. And there the story, in public at least, has run dry. To date, we have received no further news about the move – if it is ever to occur. The Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum in Middle River, Maryland – located at the same airfield where the Mars was born – has expressed a keen interest in obtaining a JRM for its collection too. However, as with everything, fundraising will be key for this deserving museum to succeed in such a quest.
Hawaii Mars (in navy blue) and Philippine Mars at Sproat Lake, 2014. Photo by Michael Maclean

So again – what now for the Mars? If the firefighting contract never does materialize, one of the two behemoths will likely remain in Canada for eventual static display. Presumably this will be Hawaii Mars, since it retains in the Coulson livery. And if Philippine Mars, which is now resplendent in its former US Navy scheme, is to find a new home in the United States, then surely that must happen fairly soon too – at least if that final journey south is to be on the wing…

Here is hoping for some positive developments sometime in the near future!

 

 



4 Comments

  1. I am one whom admires the Martin Mars Bomber both for its’ capabilities and the lives and properties it has saved over the years, yes a huge machine of that size will wear out over time which is a normal procedure, therefore maintenance costs must be astronomical.
    However, if they can build cargo carriers which can house over 600 people (eg. afghanistan evacuees ) why can’t more of those giants be dedicated to fire fighting procedures? Money? Nah, the ultra rich can afford that no problem, oh, ‘more’ money, from the military, ahh yes there’s the crunch!!!

    I really wonder tho’

  2. Lets look at it from an aerial firefighter perspective. Some might even say an expert in the field.

    Too Long, didn’t read: The mars is outperformed by all other waterbombers in every situation, for less money, and less negative operational impact. All airtankers in BC have successfully won bids against other competing companies, except the Mars, which was given a direct award each season. There are better aircraft available today.

    The longer version.

    The Martin Mars never takes a full load. Piston engine aircraft, fuel for a 4 hour mission, air density altitude, poor climb rate, and other drop site factors limit the first load to somewhere between 1700 and 2800 gallons and the turn around times quite a bit longer than other aircraft. After each drop the load is increased by 200 gallons. With turnarounds between 17 and 25 minutes, you will never see the Mars take a full 7200 gallons. Emphasis on never. Lets look at a generous example: 17 min turns, 3.5 hour fuel cycle, you will get 12.3 drops. Lets say 13. This scenario doesn’t include the ferry flight to and from the target from its home base, which would chew up fuel/time over fire. Making 13 drops truly a fair estimate for a fuel cycle. Lets also give it a generous 3,500 gallons first drop. The last drop will be 5,700 gallons. Averaged out, that is 59,800 gallons, or 226,343L delivered. That is a decent amount of water, but nowhere near what it constantly gets quoted as delivering. The cost for a mission like this was around $.45 to $.57 a litre delivered in 2013. Take less fuel and have water closer by and you MIGHT get better numbers. This is assuming no airspace congestion, no ferry time, no boats on the water interfering with scooping, and reasonable air density altitude. But that same scenario also benefits all other waterbombers.

    All water delivery requires immediate ground support. Especially during extreme fire events like 2017, 2018, and 2021. Airtankers don’t put out fires. Crews do. During those 17 to 25 minute turns, the fire gets back up, and continues to do its thing. The crew has to get out of the way for another drop. Smashing the canopy, dead snags, and creating more work for the sawyer. You cant drop adjacent to a dozer putting in guard and you cant drop next to crews without the threat of bodily harm.

    The Martin Mars never had to compete for a contract. It was given a direct award. Which is completely unfair and antithetical to the government tender process for airtankers as demanded by the taxpayer. Every single airtanker operating in BC/Canada has gone through a competitive bid process. This seems important doesn’t it?

    We could go on in more detail about what makes this outdated if you want to debate it. Safety; ground safety, flight crew safety, and airspace management. Resource draw; dedicating a birddog and air attack officer to lead a plane that rarely sees fire action is a waste of already thin resources. Environmental concerns; fueling on the water, old piston engines leaking on our pristine lakes. Terrible fuel burn. Aircraft dependability; one aircraft means if something goes mechanical, you lose all your air support. Replacement parts. Length of unserviceability’s. Logistical support; it takes a small army and multiple trucks/buses to support the Mars. Only to be limited to where it can be moored. Just another operational weak link in the chain.

    If the Martin Mars is still so valuable, why isn’t California, Australia, or any number of other fire fighting agencies using it? California has no problem throwing money at aviation resources, and has already seen the Mars in action, so why aren’t they interested?

    Because all these agencies have come to the same conclusion. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze. The aircraft cant deliver what it promises and creates more challenges than results.

    The Mars not flying isn’t political. It’s not personal. It’s operational. Every mid to high level person in government that dealt with this aircraft, the company, and the contracts… is gone. Retired. Moved on. Gonzo. Political parties? Changed multiple times over the years. Who is next?

    The AT-802’s are always thrown out there as the go to comparison. It shouldn’t but. Ok. Lets look at the Firebosses. They have shorter skim requirements, less time on the skim, can use smaller lakes, have better climb rates, provide more accurate drops, can work next to dozers and crews, and are more agile. So their turn times are always better. Sure, smaller loads, but a lot more drops per fuel cycle. With 4 to 6 firebosses in the circuit, and a circuit time of around 7 minutes (4 is great, 10 is less great). It is easily within the normal operation to deliver 200,000 to 300,000L in a fuel cycle. At a cost of $.12 to $.27 per litre delivered, depending on turn times. If one aircraft has an unserviceability, you still have air support. The airtractor is still in production with plenty of parts and support available. They can land at any airport, fuel anywhere, take fire retardant, or be quickly moved to another base where they are needed. These aircraft have their limitations too (fire behaviour, VFR conditions, lake swell) but are far more valuable to the ground crews than the Mars. Although we really shouldn’t be comparing the two.

    The Mars was an impressive tool. It had its day, then had another day as a firefighting aircraft, its just not that tool anymore. Articles like this, essentially written with one perspective, only acts as a source of disinformation and fueling the obsession some folks have with this aircraft. Not to mention the distrust it cultivates. Aviation professionals speaking these facts lately are faced with threats and intimidation from well intentioned but ill informed Mars supporters.

    There are purpose built firefighting aircraft that will put both the Mars and 802’s to shame with little effort. Canadair/Bombardier CL-215/415/515’s. A new 802FB costs 3-4 million. A CL-415, 45 million or more, and a new CL-515 still in production will be even more expensive. A 4 pack of CL-415’s can deliver 250,000L to 375,000L per fuel cycle consistently.

    But yeah, until next year, when the same people for the same reason will ask, Where is the Mars.

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