This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
For those clamouring for a return of the awesome Martin Mars water bomber(s) to cure B.C.’s current forest fire apocalypse, you may very well see it bombing fires here again.. but there are a few really big problems with that idea.
Problem 1: There’s only ONE Mars
There’s only one flyable Martin Mars remaining. Of the seven produced in the 1940s, only four survived long enough to make it to B.C.
The Marianas Mars crashed while fighting a fire, the Carolina Mars was destroyed in a hurricane, and the Philippine Mars was never upgraded to modern avionics / safety equipment and has more recently been stripped to its (mostly) original configuration as an amphibious transport, so that it can be re-homed to a U.S. Naval Museum in Pensacola.
ONLY the Hawaii Mars remains as a possible tool in this fight. Bearing in mind that there were only seven made because the aircraft never really went into production, and three are destroyed, this means that there are few to no spare parts for this beast when it needs them.
Problem 2: Expensive and SLOW to run
The logistics to support the Mars are now very costly and time-consuming. Its flying speed is quite slow (not much faster than a helicopter) and it’s only able to use large lakes to reload its tanks. So the trip time between drops can be excruciating, and the time frames required to reposition, refuel, and maintain the aircraft (it breaks A LOT) are all similarly frustrating.
It uses four ancient 18-cyl radial engines designed in the 1930s which guzzle special fuel that’s no longer readily available, and for which there are virtually no parts being produced.
Problem 3: Gallons per hour
There is simply NOTHING that has the drop capacity of a Martin Mars. However, in most people’s imaginations, the entire volume of the Mars’ huge airframe can carry water and douse a fire of any scope with ease. This is not true.
Less than 10 per cent of the airframe volume of the Mars actually stores water. That’s still a lot, but the measurement that matters is how many gallons of water/retardant PER HOUR can be dropped by an aircraft.
If the Mars has to make a two-hour round trip to reload its tanks from a large lake, most of the advantage of having such a large tank is lost. The Mars was quite a bit more effective when more than one of these birds could be run against a fire, maintaining a higher frequency of drops.
These days, high capacity helicopters like the Erickson Air-Crane, or nimble planes like the Air Tractor AT-802 making short trips to a land-based tanker or a small lake or river can drop more per hour than a single Mars.
Problem 4: Accuracy and safety
A Mars drop (I’ve seen a few) is nothing short of spectacular. However, the volume of liquid it disperses is enormous, and ground-based firefighters need to clear the area when a drop is about to happen, which interrupts their equally important work.
Couple this with the general lack of accuracy and safety considerations of a slow-moving, lumbering 747-sized aircraft and you’re going to contend with difficulty hitting fires with pinpoint accuracy. Tough to hit a spot fire on a steep slope or in a ravine, for instance.
So in short, petitions and news articles aside: the Martin Mars is an awesome firefighting tool, but its usefulness is mitigated by the fact that it’s a 73-year-old aircraft based on an 80-year-old design using engines, which haven’t been produced in more than 65 years and fuel which is all but extinct.
And since there’s now only a single active copy of this plane, it’s now become obsolete. This is an issue of time and requirements passing a great platform by… not an excuse to call out BC’s Liberal Party for fiddling while Rome burns.
That being said, our airborne firefighting force is currently woefully inadequate. Bringing in the aforementioned Erickson Air-Cranes for example would be an excellent start, and they have been used to great effect in wildfires in California and all over the world.
Here’s a great video of the Mars doing its thing on a fire near Powell River in 2013:
I love the Mars.. it’s incredible to watch. But it belongs in a museum. Coulson Flying Tankers knows it. Which is why the Hawaii Mars sits mostly idle today and is why they’re attempting to trade both the Hawaii and Philippine Mars for decommissioned C-130 Hercules aircraft which can be fitted for firefighting.