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.
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.
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
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.
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!