The Martin Mars was built as a long range US Navy Troop and Freight transport aircraft to fly from the continental United States to the Hawaiian Islands. The water bombers located on Sproat Lake have an exciting history. Six of these “flying boats” were built between 1945-1948 and the US Navy retired them in 1956 before selling them to private companies. Four were converted into Water Bombers, and three of which called Vancouver Island home, and two are right in our backyard.

The Philippine Mars and the Hawaii Mars have used Sproat Lake as a resting site for almost 75 years. A unique trait of these bombers is the gel injection system on board; referred to as 1.5% Thermo-Gel, it works alongside water to help extinguish fires. These planes have the ability to hold 819 gallons of gel and can drop about 20 loads of water before needing to refill the gel tank. While they haven’t been used to help fight forest fires in about a decade, these aircrafts have the ability to hold up to 7200 gallons of water with the gel.

How the Martin Mars Water Bombers Operate

The most frequently asked question regarding the Mars is “How do they pick up their water?”. This part of the flying operation is, perhaps, the most demanding in terms of teamwork among the crew. The Captain executes a normal landing, keeps the the aircraft “on the step” and allows the speed to decrease to 70 knots. He then passes engine power to the Flight Engineer and selects the scoops to the “down” position. The ram pressure for injecting the water into the tanks is such that the aircraft is taking on water at a rate in excess of a ton per second. To account for this added weight, the Flight Engineer must advance the throttles to maintain a skimming speed of 60-70 knots to ensure the aircraft remains on the step. Pickup time is, on average, 25 seconds. When the tanks are full, the Captain will have the scoops raised, call for takeoff power from the Flight Engineer and carry out a normal loaded takeoff. Once airborne, the foam concentrate is injected into the water load (normally, 30 US gallons of concentrate into the 7,200 US gallon water load) where it is dispersed and remains inert until the load is dropped. Once dropped, the tumbling action causes expansion which converts the water load into a foam load. This process is repeated for each drop. In other words, this vital team work is carried out, on average, every 15 minutes per aircraft. For a Gel drop , the concentrate is injected during the scooping process to allow even mixing.

Martin Mars Use

Although the primary use of the Martin Mars bombers was firefighting, they also had a couple guest appearances throughout the province. The most noteworthy appearance was at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games held in Vancouver. Although the bomber had nothing to do with the Olympics, it is a part of our provincial heritage, and what better way to bring our heritage to life by dropping 7200 gallons of water over Coal Harbour near the Olympic Rings.

In 2007 Coulson Aircrane Ltd. purchased the Hawaii and Philippine Mars to expand its firefighting capabilities and establish itself as the only operator worldwide to operate Sikorsky S61 Type 1 helicopters and the world’s largest water bombers. Before then these aircraft (Hawaii/Philippine) were operated for the last 47 years in British Columbia by a private consortium of 5 forestry companies.

Since Coulson Aircrane purchased the Mars water bombers, significant upgrades have been carried out on the Hawaii Mars to bring it to higher aviation and safety standards for modern-day firefighting. Coulson’s goal is always to provide a world-class operation that brings the highest level of safety and accountability to its customers in the Firefighting Industry.

Since retiring from firefighting and guest appearances at the Olympics, the Hawaii Mars has taken refuge on Sproat Lake. For a time you could take tours through the planes, but now the best way to view them is from the beach at Sproat Lake Provincial Park, or taking your boat a safe distance from it.

These magnificent sea planes have a colourful history, from wartime flights, fire fighting flights, and guest appearances, the Martin Mars planes are spectacular. Having them in our backyard is definitely brag worthy, so invite your friends to come check them out and learn about their history!


VALLEY VIBEWritten by Megan Warrender & Nicole Brazzale at the Valley Vibe, with references curtesy of Coulson Aircrane Ltd. The Valley Vibe, Port Alberni’s fast growing community and online magazine. The passion here at the Valley Vibe is to showcase the beautiful of our valley for all who live here, and travel through. Working together with many talented writers, we at the Valley Vibe love to explore, discover and uncover secret jewels about Port Alberni and Sproat Lake.