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Martin Mars bomber coming to Victoria's B.C. Aviation Museum

Getting the huge firefighting plane from Sproat Lake to the airport in North Saanich presents several hurdles.
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The Martin Mars Hawaii drops water onto a fire. COULSON GROUP OF COMPANIES

Update: The provincial government will provide $250,000 to help preserve the Martin Mars water bomber.

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The famed Martin Mars bomber, a massive water tanker aircraft used for fighting fires for more than a half-century in British Columbia, is expected to make its last flight this fall when it will be flown to North Saanich for a permanent display in the B.C. Aviation Museum.

The province will announce details of the plan at noon today to fly the bomber from its base on the shores of Sproat Lake in Port Alberni.

Richard Mosdell, the aviation museum’s project lead on procuring the Hawaii Mars — the last aircraft of its kind, confirmed a deal has been struck with the plane’s owners, the Coulson Group of Companies, the province and the aviation museum to bring the bomber south.

But specific details will be made by the province, he said.

The Hawaii Mars has not flown any firefighting missions since 2015 and has been sitting idle at Coulson’s Sproat Lake Air base since its retirement.

Lana Popham, minister of tourism, and Josie Osborne, MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim, will gather with representatives from the B.C. Aviation Museum and Coulson Aviation to make the announcement and tour the Hawaii Martin Mars water bomber.

The announcement is also expected to include preparations to get the big plane airworthy and other logistics for the move, including assembling the necessary pilots, engineers and other specialized crew.

Mosdell said Wednesday that tentative plans will see the Hawaii Mars make its last flight in the fall from Sproat Lake down the east coast of the Island. A flight plan would be issued in advance so thousands of people who have come to know the plane can witness the flight along the route and its landing on the waters of Patricia Bay on the Saanich Peninsula.

The aviation museum and Coulson CEO Wayne Coulson have been in talks about the Hawaii Mars for more than two years.

The discussions were initiated by Mosdell, a Port Alberni native who grew up around the plane and now owns a martial arts studio in Royal Oak. He said he contacted Coulson after the bomber was put up for sale in aviation marketplaces at $5 million, though no offers emerged.

Mosdell connected the museum and Coulsen with the idea of preserving the plane. Mosdell was added to the museum’s board and given the lead to continue negotiations and link up the province about how it could help in the acquisition, and draw up a plan to bring it to the museum on the lands of the Victoria International Airport.

“People just love this plane and they’ve come from all over the world just to see it,” said Mosdell, noting that when he worked in forestry, lumber customers from Japan specifically wanted to see the Hawaii Mars bomber. More recently, German tourists had their faces pressed against the fence at the Coulson yard craning for a closer look, he said.

Last July, B.C. Aviation Museum president Steve Nichol told the Times Colonist the museum planned to make the Martin Mars a centrepiece of its collection of B.C. wildfire aircraft, which already includes an A26 Douglas Invader and Convair 580. The Mars would be the first firefighting water “scooper” for the museum.

The museum said there are future plans to build a new hangar for all three.

Nichol said the Hawaii Mars bomber “would be one big jewel — make that a boulder — in our crown at the B.C. Aviation museum.”

But getting the Hawaii Mars to the airport presents several hurdles.

It’s the largest fixed-wing water bomber in the world, with a wing span of 200 feet and a body 120 feet long, so trucking it isn’t an option considering the plane’s sheer size. Even if the wings were taken off, it’s a long and difficult route with bridges and power lines, and the costs to transport and reassemble would be prohibitive.

A temporary flying certificate would have to be approved by Transport Canada and the aircraft would require several checks to be prepared to fly again. It would then have to be flown to Patricia Bay and hoisted onto a barge.

Nichol said changes may have to be made to some of the docks and infrastructure at the coast guard base at Patricia Bay to barge the big plane to land, where it would have to be fitted with wheeled dollies to be rolled out of the ocean, put into a cradle and trucked across West Saanich Road and Victoria International Airport property to the museum.

Weather would play a role in both the flight and softness of the soil over airport lands.

The Martin Mars bombers are water planes and have no landing gear.

Mosdell said Wednesday the plan remains essentially the same.

Only seven Martin Mars were made by California-based Glenn L. Martin Company, all for the U.S. Navy as ocean patrol and long-range transports during the Second World War. Most were used for naval cargo on the San Francisco-Honolulu route until 1956.

The last four, sold as scrap, were bought by a B.C. forestry consortium and later converted to water bombers. One Mars crashed while firefighting near Nanoose Bay in 1961 with the loss of four crew. Another was critically damaged in a storm.

The remaining two Martin Mars bombers were acquired by the Coulson Group in 2007 from Timberwest and its subsidiary, Forest Industrial Flying Tankers. The Philippine Mars, painted blue and white, was retired in 2012 and isn’t considered airworthy. The red and white Hawaii Mars had its last fire season in B.C. in 2015, when it secured a 30-day contract with the province.

The massive water tankers fought fires in British Columbia and other provinces for more than half a century. They were the largest fixed-wing water bombers in the world.

Coulson, which fights fires in several countries around the world, has used the Martin Mars bombers as templates for firefighting tanking systems on newer aircraft, including CH-47 Chinook helicopters and C-130 Hercules and Boeing 737 planes.

The Coulson fleet is composed of the largest volume of large air tankers worldwide and the crews now work in the U.S., Australia, Chile, Argentina and South Korea.

dkloster@timescolonist.com

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