British Columbia

B.C. fires: What you don't know about the Martin Mars water bombers

From the Pacific War to firefighting in B.C., here's the storied history of the iconic Martin Mars.

From serving with the U.S. Navy to fighting fires in B.C., just 2 of these planes remain today

The Martin Mars water bomber will be coming out of retirement to join the battle against the raging wildfires burning throughout the province, the B.C. government has confirmed. (Getty Images/All Canada Photos)

The Martin Mars water bomber will be coming out of retirement to join the battle against the raging wildfires burning throughout the province, the B.C. government has confirmed.

While its crew readies it for lift off, On the Coast host Stephen Quinn spoke with Doug Rollins, librarian at the B.C. Aviation Museum in Sidney, for a look back at its storied life. 

A failed long-range bomber

The Martin Mars was originally intended to be a maritime bomber for use in the Pacific War, Rollins said. 

The idea was to build a vessel that could patrol for enemy vessels and submarines by sea, but that would also be capable of launching long-range bombing missions.

However by the time the project was in its production phase, the military's needs had changed and there was a greater need for large transport carriers than for long-range bombers.

The aircraft was then redesigned and re-purposed to carry troops and freight and would later come to be known as the Martin Mars.

Just 2 remain today

Just seven of these cargo seaplanes were ever built, Rollins said, noting that production continued from 1945 to 1947.

The massive air tanker was built as a transport plane for the U.S. Navy in 1946. (Canadian Press)

These four-engine aircraft flew with the U.S. Navy until 1956. By 1959, they were essentially being sold for scrap, Rollins said.  

In B.C., a consortium of forestry industry professionals saw the potential to deploy the retired seaplanes as fire-fighting machines.

They bought four decommissioned Martin Mars that had survived their service with the U.S. Navy to Victoria in 1959, converted them to water bombers and put them to work. 

One crashed into a mountain while fighting a fire, while another one was destroyed by a tropical storm in Victoria, which leaves just two in operation today.

Iconic fire-fighting machine

Each aircraft is capable of carrying 30 tonnes of water, measures 117 feet in length, and has a wingspan of over 200 feet, which rivals some of the largest commercial jets in operation today, Rollins said.

"It's a totally unique machine. It is massive.

"It's a four-engine powerful piston plane that flies low, flies slow, is very visible, and if it's operating in the air, you'll know it. In that sense, it's iconic."


To hear the full interview with Doug Rollins, listen to the audio labelled: The history of the Martin Mars.

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