Exploring the nostalgia for B.C.'s Martin Mars water bomber
'It's a part of the fabric of growing up in British Columbia,' says amateur historian
One of Ian Bell's earliest memories is the awe he felt the first time he saw British Columbia's legendary Martin Mars water bomber.
Bell, now an amateur aviation historian, was at the Sproat Lake air base near Port Alberni with his mother at the time to pick up his dad from a work trip.
While they were waiting for his dad to arrive, Bell saw the enormous Martin Mars, used to fight wildfires, getting pulled out of the water
"To a four-year-old's eyes, it was the biggest thing I've ever seen," Bell said.
"Just to think that we had those things flying around putting out fires actively working every day, all summer long, was pretty impressive."
This past week at the annual meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, Port Alberni put forward a last-minute resolution asking the province to ink a new 10-year commitment to maintain the Martin Mars water bomber. On Friday, that motion was denied.
Port Alberni officials acknowledged that if their motion was defeated, it would probably be it for the Martin Mars. <a href="https://t.co/3rXm4Lmn7j">https://t.co/3rXm4Lmn7j</a>—@j_mcelroy
The signature red and white plane, built shortly after the Second World War, is beloved among many throughout the province. It's best known for scooping large amounts of water and dousing some of B.C.'s worst wildfires.
But wildfire fighting tactics have changed over the past few decades, and the aircraft's services are no longer needed as much as they once were — much to the chagrin of many in the province with nostalgic memories of the aircraft.
Here is some early footage of when the plane was first introduced to B.C.:
Forest industry working together
The massive air tanker was built as a transport plane for the U.S. Navy in 1946, and is one of the largest fixed-wing water bombers in the world, with a capacity of more than 27,000 litres.
Bell says the U.S. Navy produced six of them as prototypes for large scale transport between the West Coast and Hawaii. But when aviation technology progressed, the planes were retired and put up for auction.
The B.C. forestry industry came together to purchase and convert the aircraft in the late 1950s following a devastating wildfire season.
The Martin Mars was seen as a powerful solution to the province's fire woes at the time — and for many, it still is.
"It's a part of the fabric of growing up in British Columbia," Bell said.
The Martin Mars is the best air tanker on earth and how bc is having a hard time putting out wildfires. I think Martin Mars should help out <a href="https://t.co/bLI9vlZwhk">pic.twitter.com/bLI9vlZwhk</a>—@penney_tiffany
Locking in memories
Another driver of the nostalgia, according to Bell, is that the Martin Mars was displayed and flown for years at the Abbotsford Air Show, where huge crowds would gasp in awe as the plane dropped its huge load of water between runways.
"We tend to lock in memories early. And so most people's impression is really made by that," he said.
The province ended its contract with the plane's owner, Coulson's Flying Tankers, to use the air tanker in 2013.
Instead, the province is opting to move to smaller aircraft more suitable to B.C.'s mountainous terrain. (It was used for one month in 2015 to fight wildfires in B.C.).
<a href="https://twitter.com/jjhorgan?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@jjhorgan</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JustinTrudeau</a> Mr. Premier, Mr. Prime Minister Ensure the fires in B.C. are put out by contracting the Martin Mars over CONair <a href="https://t.co/mqgNlCqrfL">pic.twitter.com/mqgNlCqrfL</a>—@PatientsReality
Due to its size, the Martin Mars can only land on and scoop up water from about 113 water bodies in B.C., as opposed to the 1,700 water bodies that other smaller amphibious scoopers can access.
Bell says the province's firefighting tactics now focus less on dousing out fires completely to containing them and keeping them away from structures — leaving them to burn as they would naturally.
"Just swooping in and dousing stuff is maybe not the best way to manage them in the long term," he said.
As much as he's a fan of the aircraft, Bell says it's time for the next stage in its career.
"But it is time for these things to take their rightful position in museums," he said.