British Columbia·FROM THE ARCHIVES

Exploring the nostalgia for B.C.'s Martin Mars water bomber

The signature plane best known for scooping large amounts of water and dousing some of B.C.'s worst wildfires is no longer used in the province, much to the chagrin of many with nostalgic memories of the aircraft.

'It's a part of the fabric of growing up in British Columbia,' says amateur historian

The massive Martin Mars water bomber 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. (Canadian Press)

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."

A Martin Mars water bomber dwarfs a crew preparing the plane for another evening of work as a pleasure boat full of onlookers glides past on Shuswap Lake near Salmon Arm, B.C. Wednesday, Aug. 12, 1998. (Chuck Stoody/Associated Press)

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. 

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.:

The iconic B.C. plane first came to B.C. in the late 50s. 1:27

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. 

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.).

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. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.