Documentary on the Martin Mars air tankers

This seven-minute documentary on the Martin Mars air tankers appears to have been produced years ago, but it is very well done.

Philippine Mars
Philippine Mars after being repainted with the original design, July 17, 2014. (Screen grab from Coulson video.)

The two Martin Mars aircraft, the Philippine Mars and the Hawaii Mars now owned by Coulson, were converted to water scooping air tankers and are not amphibious like the CL-215/415 — they always have to land on water. The huge aircraft, which no longer have contracts to fight fires, can carry 7,200 gallons of water which can be mixed with gel concentrate to drop on fires.

The Philippine Mars is being traded to the Pensacola Naval Museum located in Florida in exchange for two C-130 Hercules aircraft currently located at the Museum, which will become a significant parts supply for the company’s firefighting C-130Q, according to an article Wayne Coulson wrote in a May, 2014 newsletter.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Jim.

26 thoughts on “Documentary on the Martin Mars air tankers”

  1. I had the privilege of working with the Hawaii Mars on several different occasions while I was with CDF over the years, both with Forest Industries, Flying Tankers, and with the Coulsen group. This video is an excellent synopsis of the airplane as an air tanker, which in my opinion was one of the more effective tankers to date, and the air crews and maintenance personnel were some of the most professional I have ever worked with, as were the companies who owned the planes at the time.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that its capabilities were ever well understood here in the U.S. by either CDF or the USFS, and for that reason I don’t believe it was ever used to its fullest potential. It was a tool, unlike any other, for most of us who were working with conventional aircraft and tank drop systems at the time.

    First, it had a tank capacity that far exceeded any conventional tanker. With a large fuel load, as I recall, it could deliver roughly 5,000 US gallons to the fire. As fuel was burned, its payload increased to almost 7,000 US gallons approaching VLAT status.

    Second, it was dropping a suppressant, usually in the form of straight water, or foam, or a gel compound. So tactics using this aircraft meant going direct on the line as opposed to indirect as with most retardants.

    Third, the Hawaii Mars has a series of doors, not unlike most of the tank systems that evolved in the industry in the 50’s and 60’s as opposed to the new constant flow and pressurized systems that exist in the newer tankers now, which are designed to produce long straight, continuous lines. Its most effective drop profile was all doors in a salvo mode, enveloping the fire, which would cover roughy a 4 acre area with a coverage level of 10 or more it seemed.

    I remember trying to use it on a 4-5 acre emerging fire in San Benito county in the conventional method of splitting the load and using a series of doors, as in the old S-2 piston aircraft. After several failed attempts at using it the conventional way I decided (actually I think that the air crew suggested) to try enveloping the head of the fire, which was burning in heavy brush on the lower one-third portion of a 30% slope and it was outrunning the crews trying to flank it with hose lays. It was poised to be a million dollar plus fire if we didn’t catch it on this go. The Mars crew lined up with the head, flying from the downwind, started the drop just in the green and opened all doors, more or less a salvo drop carrying it to the heel. The drop completely enveloped the head and most of the flanks. They were using foam at the time, which can’t be used now. It completely knocked the flaming front down, and killed much of the fire on the flanks. It looked like snow on the ground. I remember the IC commenting that there was hardly anything left on fire to mop up. The Canadians had that figured out already, and had been using it that way in Canada for years. There wasn’t a large air tanker in the US fleet that could match it’s capabilities though, in that regard, (P-2, P-3, C-130, or any of the DC products) since they were all dropping retardant at 3,000 gallons or less.

    I’m really sorry to see them being retired now, but maybe it’s time. Keeping the old round engines in parts and running is getting harder every day. And not unlike most of us, the airframes aren’t getting any younger. It is a tribute to the companies and crews who flew and maintained those aircraft for so long as one of the most effective air tankers ever, in a long list.

    1. Well said Dan. I worked with the the Mars in Elisinore the year after I retired from Cal Fire. It was a first class operation. Your description of how Ops did not understand how to use it effectively was excellent. It is an old bird and probably ready for retirement (like many of us) but I was impressed with its performance and the crews that managed her. Sometimes old school beats new tech.

  2. Well said! I remember being assigned as a helco on a fire in Kern County. “Worked’ the Mars as (with) a helicopter on that branch. The retardant droppers didn’t want it (Mars) on their side of the fire. Not one issue occurred during the next three days. The pace was interesting, three load an hour six hours a day, no stopping. I think the helicopter folks felt comfortable with this stranger intruder. The ground crews where getting their monies worth. Some one on the ground coined the identifier as “Big Gulp”. So that was how we did it. “Big Gulp’ is three minutes out” Its going to snow.

  3. CDF (Cal Fire) invited guests to their annual three day Aviation Workshop in Sacramento. LA City, County, Ventura, Kern County, F.S. City of San Diego, if you where interest in fire aviation this was a must. One invitee was Forest Industries Flying Tankers, Martin Mars folks, first time. I can still hear the old timers howling, “we’ll never use something like that down here.” FIFT came in force, CEO, Pilots, Maintenance, P.R. person. After an evening of socializing many questions where answered. The rest was history in the making. The next summer the Mars was located at Lake Melones (Angels Camp, Ca.) on a CWN
    contract. The Mars was dispatched almost daily to new threating evolving fires throughout the State. Was this the predecessor to the VLAT?

  4. Any idea when they are going to fly the traded Mars to Florida? I understand that it might make a over night fuel stop in CA – is that correct? Or has it already been flown to FL? ANYBODY

    1. Joe, the fuel stop. I thought that was interesting. How do you load 6000 gallons of av gas into the Mars regardless of where you ended your daily operations (lake of course)? FIFT had it all dialed in, safe, efficient and professional.

    2. Joe, Coulson is expecting to fly the Philippine Mars to Florida in the spring. Originally they were shooting for last month, October. With a 14-hour range, they could fly non-stop, however going over the Rocky Mountains without deicing capability would have been problematic, so they planned to land at Lake Elsinore in southern California to refuel, then fly direct to Pensacola from there. I don’t know if they still plan to stop at Lake Elsinore next spring.

      1. Bill, Thank you for the info. I had photographed the Mars at Lake Elsinore the 2 times that they flew out of there. Just a beautiful aircraft. I’m sure they will do a documentary on the flight to Florida, it’ll be historical especially in US Navy markings.

  5. I made several treks to Port Alberni to see the Mars, the first in 1980 and the most recent in 2014. Best visit was in September 1985 when both aircraft were dispatched to attack a fire on Vancouver Island. At the time FIFT also operated three helicopters and a Grumman Goose bird dog. FIFT was formed when the major logging companies to protect their “first growth” timber reserves on Vancouver Island and the lower BC coast. Through the 1960s-1980s the cost of operating the Mars could easily be measured against the value of first growth timber it could save on a mission. The operating economics started to change as the logging industry clearcut the old growth forests and the local environmental movement pressured the provincial government to preserve more of the ancient forests that remained. Forestry companies started to drop out of the FIFT consortium as logging activity on the south coast of BC declined from the mid-1980s.

    What year did FIFT operate from Lake Melones in California?

  6. The province of BC announced at there evaluation off the 2014 fire season that cost’s were significantly reduced due to firefighting efforts .They also concluded it was there largest loss off timber due to fire’s since 1958 .Apparently the precious resource with all the jobs and income and material it provides for building material is not worth the effort . The aircraft still have lots off life left in them so why not use them .I guess only Dan Macgivor new the value off putting out a fire ,I’m not so sure the BCFS ever will .

    1. Hey Mark, your incessant condemnation of the fire professionals is growing tiresome. The old adage of “walking a mile in their shoes” is still relevant today. The Mars would not have made any appreciable difference in the outcome of this past fire season, if that was your point?
      If you have specific questions, this forum is a good place to ask them. Plenty of agency staff, aerial firefighting pilots and air attack personnel read these pages and if you have an honest desire to know the whats and the whys behind a certain decision, perhaps somebody in the know will be able to enlighten you.
      If you simply want to fire anonymous darts because you harbor a grudge against the Forest Service for whatever reason, few people will bother to listen.
      Now…is there a question you have about why the province decided to contract a multiple-plane amphibious waterscooping group instead of renewing the sole-source contract with the Martin Mars?

  7. My apologies Chris for my incessant condemnation of the BCFS ,would ordinary condemnation be acceptable for you. Dan Ward spelled it out as did Dan Mcgivor in the vid on using the aircraft .Give Flying Tankers Vancouver Is. and BCFS the mainland and I will be happy . I do have a question, How did so much timber go up in smoke when the Premier of the Province writes the BCFS a blank check.

    1. Now Chris…that just makes way to much sense.I would also like to see just how much was spent on the fireboss aircraft in BC this past season so a fair comparison can be made to the mars versus all 4…Or was it 3… fireboss aircraft.Ideally we would have all of these tools at our disposal.

      1. The cost comparisons and rationale behind the decision to contract a multi-plane amphibious waterscooping group were made public by the BCFS and were available on this website. Do a search for past threads on the subject.

        The all-in costs for the new FireBoss group for the 2014 season have not yet to my knowledge been completed, and they are certainly not yet in the public domain. You can rest assured it will be done, but I hope you’re not expecting to form an opinion on how the Mars may or may not have been more cost-effective, as there is no way to quantify what didn’t happen. For example: the province realised some cost-recovery by deploying the FireBoss group out of province, which would certainly NOT have occurred if the Mars were still in service.

        If you’re suggesting that the province contract the Mars and FireBoss groups, could you also provide some advice on how to convince the provincial Treasury Board to approve the funding for both groups, given that limited taxpayer money is being stretched to fund other small projects (health care, education) and the government is madly attempting to balance a precarious budget.

        I believe

        1. Well honestly from what was witnessed…I already made up my mind on which aircraft I would rather see working for my tax money.I agree with Mark on several points.He seems well informed as to what our province could actually use and what works operationally.No one can argue the fact the mars has done a safer job.I also believe you can easily work out an equal cost comparison , cost versus time used and divide…pretty simple.As far as dividing resources…I think we do that already.The least our government owes the mars is to build a museum here for it after it protecting our province for over 50 years..and sadly it looks like both will be sold out of Canada.

          1. More importantly, the BCFS has also made up its mind on what aircraft it feels is the best bang for the taxpayers’ buck, and has made its decision. They have more direct, comparable observation-based data than anybody else.

            I hate pulling the ‘ours is bigger than yours’ card, but I think Mark’s experience with aerial firefighting management in BC pales in comparison with many readers on this forum.

            Your allusion that one aircraft is safer then another is flawed. Are we comparing number of accidents in Canada? (Mars: 1, FB: 2). Number of fatalities? (Mars: 4, FB:0). Number of accidents per thousand flight hours? (hoo boy…gonna say the FireBoss has lower numbers). Let’s keep in mind that all Mars/FB accidents have been ruled as pilot-caused (most recent investigation not yet complete), so your point may well be moot. There have also been two FireBoss incidents (1 no damage, 1 minor skin damage on float) as a result of mechanical failure. Not sure how many times the Mars has shut down an engine in firefighting operation. Lots.

            Bryan, the government does not owe the Mars a a single thing. For almost its entire career, the Mars protected private – not Crown – land. There were cost-recovery missions in the 90s and early 2000s when the Mars was owned by the forest consortium in which the Mars assisted on Ministry wildfires. In that respect it’s no different than any of the thousand helicopters that do the same thing. When it was sold to the current owner, the private-land contracts were finished and the Mars enjoyed several years of sole-source work in which it was paid a guaranteed number of hours and did not have to compete for a contract with any other operator. This became a very sensitive issue when those other privately-owned airtanker operators began to wonder about their opportunities for a similar arrangement. The BC government (and for a year, the USFS) paid the bills to keep the Mars in operation for at least seven years. No government is in the business of building and funding museums for privately-owned objects, no matter how much we may admire them.

            Personally, I’d like to see the Hawaii Mars remain on the BC coast in a Spruce Goose type hangar, but but that’s purely a sentimental wish. It will instead eventually be delivered to the highest bidder and/or whoever can provide more of what the airplane’s owner wants. Or it will be left in place to rot. That’s hard business.

    2. Mark, it might be preferable to ask questions instead of condemning a decision about which you have very limited real knowledge. I understand you have been lobbying the government to keep the Mars in service since before Coulson bought the operation. The BCFS’ decision to move away from the Mars was not taken lightly, but was at the end of the day, an economic one. The government reached the same conclusions as FTI in the mid-2000s when they put up the Mars for sale: it no longer made financial sense to operate the Mars due to host of variables including the value of the assets being protected and the emergence of more effective fire suppression strategies.

      I’m not sure if you’ve ever been a wildland firefighter Mark, but those of us who are understand that money does not extinguish fires. Ask the professionals in other provinces, in all the US states and throughout the globe why they continue to have damaging fire seasons if all they needed to do was issue a cheque to combat them?

      1. Thanks Chris for pointing out that the rest of us are all stupid . The Mars operation was put up for sale after shareholders for Weyerhaeuser bought Macblo then went on a hatchet job shutting down 9 off 10 mills they also said were not in the fire fighting business so they pulled the funding for flying tankers. The Mars was designed to put out fire’s on its own before it turned into a forest fire and that it did well .It was not designed to lay down fire lines and support a fire crew on the ground which is the only way the BCFS would use the aircraft thus not realizing the full potential off the aircraft . As for the blank check thing , one would think the money would go towards more equipment ,bring in more aircraft or more personnel it may even top up your pension. Above you mention for 7 yrs the Gov payed the bills for Coulsons Mars Operation so they don’t owe anything.That may be true but in return Mr Coulson was generous enough to give the aircraft to the Province for fire fight duties at the cost off doing the maintenance plus fuel ,can you name another contractor that was that generous .As far as comparing the Mars operation to a helicopter there are no comparison’s ,airtankers are done for the year after the fire season, helicopters move to another job and are not sole sourced . You mention the mars seems to have numerous engine failures but they also make it back to there base with there aircrew for repairs . Turbines also quit even if they are more reliable however in the mountain s the probability off the aircrew returning in a single engine air tanker are slim and none and that is a safety issue imposed on aircrews by the BCFS and yes I have been lobbying the gov to keep the Mars going because they put out fires and the operation works .

        1. The Mars, like any firefighting aircraft, works best when supported by ground crews. No aircraft in the history of aerial firefighting has extinguished a fire – that can only be done by people with hand tools. The Mars has worked with ground crews (timber company, Ministry and/or contract firefighters) since it was introduced to BC a half century ago, so I’m not sure why you feel that the fundamental philosophy of its use changed? It didn’t.

          Weyerhaeuser bought MacBlo in 1999. The Mars flew under the FTI (Flying Tankers Inc) banner for another seven years after the MacBlo sale once TimberWest stepped in and funded the lion’s share of the operating costs. At that point, FTI became very active in promoting the Mars to the BC Ministry (and other agencies) because it found that they simply weren’t experiencing the large fires on their private land holdings on the BC coast and the cost-benefit equation didn’t work. The Ministry used it on a few fires here & there, but aside from 2003, not enough to keep the enterprise profitable, as there weren’t enough coastal fires on Crown land either. TimberWest announced it was no longer funding the Mars operation in 2006. Coulson bought it the following year. Coulson did a great job in updating the support equipment and turned the Mars into a truly mobile, self-supported operation. For the first time in its history, the Mars was not anchored to the west coast. It was easy for an agency – any agency – to make one phone call and have the Mars team look after all the logistical details. But that came with a (hefty) price at the same time as the emergence of less expensive, more flexible aircraft that outperformed the Mars. Despite your assertion, the Mars was NOT offered to the province “for the cost of maintenance plus fuel”. Perhaps somebody told you the ground support equipment was obtained for free and the pilots & mechanics preferred not to get paid? Regardless of what was included and what wasn’t, the cost of the Mars was….too high. Period.

          The Mars no longer made financial nor operational sense to keep flying. Every dog has its day and some are lucky to be kept around long after they would ordinarily be put to sleep.

          Let her be. Remember her fondly. She is not coming back.

        2. Very well said Marc..Its nice to see posts from someone smart and educated on here…You are entirely correct…this tanker was made to work without ground crews…and used in any manner with or without , does a fantastic job.Out performing all others.As for engine failure…Id much rather 3 out of 4 windmills turning than 0 out of 1…anyday.

          1. The Martin Mars, working the same fire alongside a group of four FireBoss aircraft, delivers less product for more money in a given time. The performance has been directly compared, observed and verified several times over since 2009. In British Columbia, smaller aircraft are able to use many more scooping sources and basing locations than the Mars.

            When the Mars goes unserviceable, you lose all ability to deliver product. When a FireBoss goes unserviceable, you still have three more.

            The Mars is a fantastic airplane, but its operational firefighting days are over, having been usurped by better technology on cheaper, more flexible platforms. Eventually, the same fate will await the FireBoss and every other airtanker we see flying today.

    1. I think perhaps somebody was confused about the definition of “amphibious”. The contract specified aircraft that could operate ON water, not under it.

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