The Rainmakers

March 5, 2008 by Graham Chandler
A Martin Mars water bomber at rest on the water. [PHOTOS: JIM MUMAN]

A Martin Mars water bomber at rest on the water.

They sit, majestic, on the quiet surface of Sproat Lake on the road from Parksville to Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. Waves gently lap their hulls and turn the sunshine into dances on the underside of their massive wings. Two monstrous red and white flying boats, the largest ever in service, are the queens here. But that moniker is shattered whenever their four Wright R3350 engines roar with life. “They’re certainly not belles of the ball,” says Wayne Coulson, Chief Executive Officer of The Coulson Group, whose company Coulson Flying Tankers is the airplanes’ new owners.

Indeed not. As serene and graceful as they are these two Martin Mars flying boats—named the Hawaii Mars and the Philippine Mars—have been workhorses for more than six decades: first during United States Navy service—hauling freight and passengers 4,000 kilometres across the South Pacific—and then bombing forest fires. Many people think the planes ought to be in museums by now. In fact, when they came up for sale in early 2007, “of the 25 offers submitted, we were the only operational offer,” says Coulson.

A photographer (right) snaps a picture while standing on one of the aircraft’s massive wings. [PHOTO: JIM MUMAN]

A photographer (right) snaps a picture while standing on one of the aircraft’s massive wings.

And why not? An anachronism they may be, but considering their age these noble birds are in pristine condition. Conceived as long-range flying dreadnoughts in an era when Emperor Hirohito was menacing the South Pacific, these two are the only examples remaining on earth.

Originally armed with tail, nose, waist and top turret guns along with massive fuselage and wing root bomb bays, the Mars series were designed for combat theatres. But they never saw action; the low and slow-flying juggernaut apparently deemed too much of a sitting duck for battle duty. But their unprecedented lifting power favoured long-range transport, once capable of carrying 301 passengers and seven crew.

The largest flying boat ever truly flown, the U.S. Navy declared them scrap in 1956. Howard Hughes’s famed Spruce Goose was larger and flew once, but it stayed in what is known in aviation circles as ground effect—the cushion of air within half a wingspan of the ground which adds to lift.

The last four Martin Mars languished until 1959 when a prescient Canadian water bomber pilot named Dan McIvor spotted their golden value fighting forest fires. Soon they were converted and flying with the TimberWest Company. One was subsequently destroyed in a flying accident and another while on the ground during a hurricane. The surviving pair has fought in every fire season since 1964.

On the day of my visit to Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni, the planes are on “green” time. As Captain Steve Wall explains, the BC Forest Service uses a scale of alerts: green, blue, yellow and red. “Green means we’re stood down. Blue is accompanied by an hourly increment, for example a Blue 3 means we have to be airborne in three hours from a phone call. Yellow means we have to be airborne within half an hour. And red is an immediate departure.” He says they are really not capable of a true red. “It’s not like being on the apron at an airport where the pilot can just walk out, start up and leave. We have to do a little boat ride and then a little motoring around the lake.”

Wall says when the airplane is warmed up in advance, “we can be airborne in 15 minutes.” On yellow and red days they fire up the engines in the morning and run them until they are warm. “It takes a half hour,” he explains. “In the summer if we warm them up around 10 a.m. that holds us till about 8 p.m.”

Mars pilot Hugh Fraser undertakes to show me around one of these floating palaces. We arrive by boat (these birds don’t have wheels) three storeys beneath a wing. The first thing I notice coming through the door is a spiral staircase to the flight deck. But he first shows me inside the cavernous fuselage. We step over bulkheads and through oval shaped ship-like sealing doors to arrive at the heart of this airplane’s mission: the water tanks. Smaller than I expected, there’s still 10 feet of headroom above me. But 6,000 Imperial gallons of water, weighing in at over 30 tons, doesn’t take up much volume. Over the tanks, Fraser points out a large rectangular air duct open to the outside. “That’s to let air out as the tanks fill with water,” he explains, “and to let air in when we dump it.”

After walking aft to the inside of the empennage underneath the aircraft’s massive rudder pin, we head forward and up the spiral staircase to the deck. Deck is an apt word here: it is over 20 feet from the back of the pilot’s seat to the flight engineers’ station. In between sits the original radio officer’s seat and navigator’s table, big enough to set a dinner for six. Twenty-hour plus stints across the Pacific needed a lot of maps and gear in the 1940s. And the planes often flew with more than one flight engineer.

I sit beside Fraser in the right seat as he talks about flying the plane. Fraser, one of just three pilots current on the Mars, has over 1,400 hours on this type over the past 30 years—probably the longest-time active pilot on them. “A hundred hours a year is a high average on this airplane,” Wall told me earlier. “There are years where you’ll do one fire and there are years where you’ll do lots.”

Not just any pilot will do. For the Mars, you need “coastal mountain experience, float experience,” explains Wall. So recruiting new pilots will get harder. There’s just one company left in Canada that runs boats, he adds. That’s Pacific Coastal Airlines who run the Grummans and that’s where he came from. “There aren’t really any more boat drivers,” he says, “at least with hair.” He notes that the last pilot they qualified came with 4,000 hours on Canso flying boats.

The instrument panel in front of us is basic, reminiscent of an old Lancaster except for the new GPS navigation system—no LCD screens here. Although they are certified IFR (instrument flight rules) and the pilots have their instrument rating, the Mars are seldom flown IFR.

I ask Fraser to talk me through the experience of flying this other-world machine. Turns out it is a team effort with the flight engineer. For takeoff, he says the pilot applies power until the airspeed is high enough for rudder control then with a “you have the power” passes that responsibility to the flight engineer. For the rest of the flight, the throttles are his.

This calls for some close co-ordination when it is time to pick up water for a bombing run. “To do that,” explains Fraser, “you put the airplane in ‘step’—between 60 and 70 knots. At 60-70 knots you lower your probes and ram pressure forces the water into the tanks. You’re not airborne. You’re actually a high-speed boat at that speed, drawing maybe two feet of water.” Once the probes are lowered the lumbering bird takes on one ton of water per second. As it gets heavier the engineer must gradually advance the throttles to maintain airspeed. “It takes about 30 seconds for a full load (6,000 Imperial gallons) and 20 seconds for 4,000 gallons. You then raise your probes and accelerate to takeoff speed.”

I thought it must feel a bit odd, being the pilot in charge with hands off the power. Wall had said it wasn’t disconcerting, but it is unusual. “It’s all training,” he told me.

Fraser says with the Mars, “everything happens so slowly it’s not like you have to be there jerking this and pushing the throttles up. When you push the throttles up you have to wait awhile before anything starts to happen. When you turn the controls it all happens slowly; with manual ailerons, she rolls very slowly. Everything is slow on this airplane.

“You get used to it. You’re programmed to do it. Some people do have difficulty though—not having commands at the tip of their tongue.”

They do give themselves lots of room on a water pickup. “We need about 3.5 miles at a density altitude of 6,000 feet,” says Fraser. (This is because adequate aircraft lift and power depend on specific levels of air density). “Realistically we need about four or five miles of clear lake surface with a reasonable approach. But you don’t always need a direct approach. There are all sorts of ways to get in, for instance you can come in sideways.” This would entail turning in from the side of a lake or side-slipping onto the approach.

Loaded up, the plane and its crew head toward the fire, led by a spotter plane familiar with the fire and the Mars’s capabilities. “Generally, the spotter plane will give us the lead-in,” adds Fraser. “As he (or she) leads he will describe where the fire is burning…. He’ll show us where he wants our load to go by dipping his tail down. Then he’ll peel off and watch the run.”

Fraser points out two important switches on the plane’s yoke. “A disposable load is a nice thing,” he adds. “If you get into trouble the flick of a switch and you get rid of it.” And if that doesn’t work, one final option: a red “panic” lever on the console that releases the hydraulics and dumps everything.

The load is usually dropped from 100-150 feet. How does it feel to lose 60,000 pounds in about three seconds? Wall explains it to me. “You get a pitch-up, but you’re ready for that. And the pitch-up helps you get away from the ground faster. But you try to minimize it to reduce the stress on the airplane. As you’re letting the load go, you’re pushing forward on the controls—that only lasts for three or four seconds.” He says the water load sits right on the centre of gravity and on a descending run you’re accelerating fast. But, “you’re trimmed into level flight. So when you release you need quite an aggressive forward control motion to counteract vertical acceleration. Then it comes nicely back to your previous neutral trim setting.”

Beside me, Fraser points out another aspect of the pitch change the pilot feels on release. “The low pressure area behind the load of water sucks the tail down. So it’s not so much the weight change that you have to overcome—it’s the pitch change. You see these World War II bombers dropping massive amounts of weight but they’re nice streamlined bombs and everyone is in formation. Well, you don’t get that with a water bomber. With streamlined bombs the air closes in behind them so there’s no (or very little) pitch-up (compared to dropping tons of water).”

For some types of fires, there’s just no alternative to the Mars. The BC Forest Service contracts several different water bombers during the fire season, including Air Tractor 802Fs, Conair Firecats (converted Grumman S2Fs), Convair 580s and Lockheed Electras (L-188s), but certain situations demand the Mars. “When you get a very volatile situation like ponderosa pine and bunchgrass—what we call a C7—in 40 degrees Celsius, a water drop will evaporate in 15 minutes,” says Jeff Berry, manager of Aviation Operations for the BC Forest Service. “So by a second turnaround it’s dry.”

What Berry likes about the Mars is the Thermo-Gel they mix with its water load. Unlike the familiar red-dyed, long-term retardant commonly used for forest fires, the gel works by encapsulating the water droplets. He says the Thermo-Gel was prototyped by the previous Mars owners three years ago, and made operational by the new owners. “The Mars can do 16, 4,000-gallon drops using that gel.” Berry says the Mars costs them just over $17,000 per hour, “but it’s excellent value for the money.”

It was the gel advantage that attracted Cal Fire (of California) in September 2007 to call on Coulson to help fight the fires raging in hot and dry San Diego County. For the Mars, it was a homecoming. “It had flown out of San Diego in 1945,” says Coulson.

En route they hit two ducks, causing some vertical stabilizer damage, but repaired that overnight. Logistics weren’t a problem—the Mars team is completely self-sufficient with a parts and servicing trailer replete with crew lounge and kitchen that Coulson purchased from a NASCAR operator in California. They travel with their own refuelling tanker truck too.

Coulson says their San Diego performance was a total success right from the start. “After the first drop on the Harris fire, we heard on the radio ‘bull’s-eye—where the hell did the fire go—bring that Mars back ASAP!’. Our four-acre wet blanket worked great.” He adds that those 15 days in California earned them as much as a whole 90-day season in Canada. Earlier the Greek government had expressed interest in the Mars bombers for their devastating fires and they were prepared to fly out of Halifax directly to Greece, theoretically nonstop because the Philippine Mars carries 32 hours of fuel.

Fraser and I climb out of the flight deck by the wing root—past another bulkhead door that leads inside the wing—a place where the engineer can stroll in flight. On long droning Pacific runs, if an engine hydraulic pump or generator failed in flight, the engine could be shut down, allowing an engineer to replace the part 8,000 feet over the Pacific.

Emerging out of an upper hatch into the sunshine, we walk out to the port wingtip where we jump up and down, entertaining ourselves watching the starboard wingtip move in unison nearly two-thirds of a football field away. And so it goes without saying that the wings are both flexible and strong.

Wall had told me there are about 22,000 hours on each of these airframes. “In their 45 years as water bombers they’ve accumulated about 2,000 hours each,” he says. But he adds the company has accelerometers and strain gauges installed at critical points—part of the monitoring and recording process for old airplanes. “Water bomber flying is the hardest thing on any airplane.”

So the promise appears that the Mars will be here for some time yet. Coulson has opened a Mars museum at his base to attract some of the million or more tourists that pass by each summer to stop and look and maybe buy a ball cap. And Sproat Lake will be a retirement home for a Mars: the purchase deal committed Coulson to keeping at least one of them here.

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