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1941-1968 ::The Mars Planes and Vancouver Island's Pioneer Water Bomber Pilots

Updated: Jun 11

The planes and their pilots who forever changed how British Columbia forest fires were fought.


1956::With Hula Girls, Speeches and Leis

"1956::With Hula Girls, Speeches and Leis"

Photo Clip: Honolulu Advertiser (1960)

Honolulu, Hawaii


In 1956, Hawaiians were faced with the news that their beloved Martin Mars planes would be honourably retired and possibly scrapped. These colossal flying boats, a familiar sight in Hawaiian skies, had broken aviation records for the US Navy while transporting troops and cargo between California, Hawaii, and the South Pacific during the final days of World War II. In the years after the war, they had continued to serve, safely flying more than 200,000 passengers and carrying more than 20,000 tons of high-priority cargo over a distance equivalent to 23 round trips to the moon.


1956::The Marianas Mars Leaves Hawaii for the Last Time

"1956::The Marianas Mars Leaves Hawaii for the Last Time"

Photo Clip: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin (1956)

Honolulu, Hawaii


For the Hawaiian islanders, the departure of the Mars fleet marked a bittersweet ending to a remarkable era. With hula girls, speeches and leis, a crowd of thousands gathered at the docks of Keʻehi Lagoon and bid the Marianas Mars, the last of these old friends, a fond Aloha! As her engine's friendly roar filled the air, the Marianas Mars flew over their heads towards a new life and purpose on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. 


1913::Glen L. Martin Takes James Irvine For a Ride in His World Record-Breaking Hydro-Aeroplane

"1913::Glen L. Martin Takes James Irvine For a Ride in His World Record-Breaking Hydro-Aeroplane"

Photo: (tbd)


The story of the Mars aircraft is deeply rooted in the birth of aviation, back when world powers believed that if a flying machine could land in water, it could fly across an ocean (such power could rule the airways!). Many of the world's first aviators performed record-breaking feats with such a flying boat,

and at the helm of many inventions was amateur birdman, Glen Luther Martin.


1913::James Irvine and Glen L. Martin Sitting on Martin's World Record-Breaking Hydro-Aeroplane

"1913::James Irvine and Glen L. Martin Sitting on Martin's World Record-Breaking Hydro-Aeroplane" Photo Clip: The Register (1939) Santa Ana, California


Martin was a young automobile salesman from Santa Ana, California, whose daring stunts in his self-made flying machines made him a small-town celebrity. But in 1912, his bravery and skill caught the world by storm when he flew his newly constructed hydro-aeroplane from Balboa to Santa Catalina Island to claim the world's longest cross-water flight, a record previously set by Frenchman Louis Blériot in 1909 when he crossed the English Channel. This feat caught the attention of the US Navy, and within three short years of his first flight over the ranch fields of California, Martin was designing aircraft on a mass scale. One year later, James Irvine, owner of the Irvine Ranch where Martin taught himself how to fly, was invited to be a guest passenger on board Martin's record-breaking machine to view his ranch from above.

"Wonderful! Remarkable! It appeared as if some invisible braces were holding the machine in the air, so steady and solid, yet springy, did it ride!" - James Irvine, Owner of California's Irvine Ranch

1942::The Martin Mars On her Maiden Flight

"1942::The Martin Mars On her Maiden Flight"

Photo Clip: The Sphere (1942) London, England


Decades later, in 1941, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, Martin unveiled his first large-scale flying boat for the US Navy and christened her the Martin Mars, after the Roman god of war. Martin had designed her to be a long-range high-altitude bomber, but within a few short months of service, it was evident that she was more valuable for her transport capabilities. The US Navy grounded their new Martin Mars and reconstructed her from bomber to carrier. Several months later, she returned to the air and shattered world transport records. Within her first year, the Martin Mars set aviation standards that some had considered futuristic and unattainable. With her ability to fly to Europe and back on a single tank of gas and encircle the globe with just five fuel stops, the Martin Mars was the largest and most successful air carrier the world had ever seen. Impressed with such a performance, the US Navy ordered the production of twenty more Mars planes to aid in cargo and troop-carrying operations in the South Pacific. Glen L. Martin modelled these new planes on their smaller 1941 prototype, the Martin Mars. 


1945::The Flight Path of the Mars Flying Boats in the South Pacific

"1945::The Flight Path of the Mars Flying Boats in the South Pacific"

Clip: (tbd)


On July 21, 1945, the Hawaii Mars became the first of twenty Mars planes launched with an official christening in the presence of its maker, Glen L. Martin. Just two weeks later, while the B-29 bomber Enola Gay was on its way to drop a bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, thus beginning the age of atomic warfare, the Hawaii Mars crashed on Chesapeake Bay when its US Navy pilots were attempting to land their first test flight. Though the plane was quickly recovered and used for parts, the US Navy used the event to reduce its order from twenty Mars planes to 11. The order was further reduced to five when, two days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, confirming that the war's end was near. Within the following year, all five Mars planes, the PhilippineHawaii 2MarianasMarshall, and Caroline, were launched and named for the South Pacific Islands, where scenes of WW2 military combat had occurred.


1950::The Crash of the Marshall Mars

"1950::The Crash of the Marshall Mars" Photo Clip: The Sphere (1950) London, England


In 1950, on a routine flight, the Marshall Mars was forced to make an emergency landing after one of its engines caught fire. The crew escaped without injury before a series of small explosions burned the plane down to the waterline. After a short career of breaking numerous transport records, the Marshall Mars sank to the ocean floor, reducing the Mars fleet to four remaining aircraft. In 2004, the Marshall wreck was discovered on the sea floor just outside Hawaii's Ke’ehi Lagoon, home of the Mars flying boats.


1959::Marianas - the First of Four Mars Planes to Arrive at Patricia Bay Airport on Vancouver Island

"1959::Marianas - the First of Four Mars Planes to Arrive at Patricia Bay Airport on Vancouver Island"

Photo Clip: Times Colonist (1959)

Victoria, British Columbia


Years after the Second World War, a select few Canadian pilots traded in their Lancasters for a different kind of bomber. They joined British Columbia's Forest Industries Flying Tankers (FIFT), who had rescued the world-famous Mars flying boats from a California scrapyard. The massive planes had been sent there after the company had failed to acquire the entire fleet from their Hawaiian guardians. In 1959, however, with a deal finally in place, the withering Mars fleet was flown to Vancouver Island to be repurposed. FIFT engineers believed that the Mars craft, previously used for cargo and passenger flights, could become the world's largest and most efficient amphibious aircraft used for fighting fires from above. Many pilots agreed and relocated to Vancouver Island to become part of the team tasked to convert the Mars fleet into scoopers of water. 


1960::The First Martin Mars Waterbomber Test Flight - Sidney, British Columbia

"1960::The First Martin Mars Waterbomber Test Flight - Sidney, British Columbia"

Photo Clip: Vancouver Sun (1960)

Vancouver, British Columbia


By 1960, the first Mars water bomber was ready for its first test flight. From the shores of Sidney, British Columbia, reporters and onlookers watched as the plane skimmed the ocean's surface at 75 mph and scooped as much as 7,000 gallons of water. This was ten times more water than the smaller crafts used for firefighting at the time. With a full load, the plane's four distinguished pilots flew back around and dumped the water within view of the awed spectators. Some called it a logger's dream as it was apparent that this new plane meant an end to the days of hauling hose from the nearest lake to an unpredictable and often unreachable forest fire. The test flight was an enormous success. In the years that followed, however, two of the pioneer test pilots who had helped convert the massive plane into a water bomber would perish doing what they had initially set out to do: fight BC forest fires.


1961::The Crash of the Marianas Mars

"1961::The Crash of the Marianas Mars"

Clip: Nanaimo Daily News (1961)

Nanaimo, British Columbia


Only one Mars aircraft, the Marianas, had been converted for the trial run. Engineers hoped that if she could prove her worth in her first year, they could reconstruct the remaining three planes for service. In her first fire season, the Marianas fought fires in a way that had never been seen before and proved herself worthy of her repurpose. However, as the first anniversary of her Sidney test flight drew near, the Marianas crashed near Englishman River Falls on Vancouver Island while battling a fire.

1961::Inquest Results for the Crash of the Marianas Mars

The pilots were flying too low and had held back their water drop after seeing men on the ground below. Fearing they would hit them with the dump, they flew past their target area and failed to clear a tree in their attempt to turn back around, resulting in a tragic crash on the mountainside. Sadly, all four pilots of the Marianas Mars perished in that fateful flight, including one of the four test pilots.


1962::The Wreck of the Caroline Mars at Patricia Bay Airport, Vancouver Island

"1962::The Wreck of the Caroline Mars at Patricia Bay Airport, Vancouver Island"

Photo Clip: The Vancouver Sun (1962) Vancouver, British Columbia


The Mars water bomber project remained in limbo for several months after the Marianas Mars tragedy at Englishman River Falls. Ultimately, however, after weighing the enormous benefit that the Marianas had brought to British Columbia in her short year of service, the decision to continue on with the remaining three planes was decidedly worth the risk. The conversion of the PhilippineHawaii 2and the Caroline forged ahead. But on October 13, 1962, tragedy struck the Mars fleet again. 

2005::Hawaii Mars 2 landing in Sproat Lake on Vancouver Island

Just months after the Caroline Mars conversion was complete, she was torn to shreds on the tarmac of the Patricia Bay Airport when Pacific storm Typhoon Frieda directly hit the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The Caroline lay in ruin and was eventually dismantled and used for parts. The remaining two water bombers of the dwindling Mars fleet, the Philippine and Hawaii 2, were given a fresh coat of red and white paint before being sent proudly into action from their new home at Sproat Lake near Port Alberni, Vancouver Island.


1967::The Flying Firemen

"1967::The Tragedy of The Flying Firemen"

Photo Clip: Times Colonist (1967)

Victoria, British Columbia


Several years later, a company called The Flying Firemen was developed using Canso planes. It was the baby of one of the pioneer test pilots of the Marianas Mars. Business was going well for the pilot who, by 1967, had several planes fighting fires throughout British Columbia. That summer was a hot one though, and by July, almost 300 fires were raging, 23 on the island and lower mainland alone. All fires were in control except for one. The fire on Skirt Mountain in Victoria, BC, began on a Sunday afternoon and spread quickly. The Flying Firemen were called in to help while hundreds of spectators gathered to watch from the Goldstream and Millstream neighbourhoods at the base of the mountain. It was a tough battle, but the firefighters were slowly gaining control. People with cameras snapped photos and cheered for The Flying Firemen's Canso plane as it approached the fiery mountaintop with its water dump. To their horror, however, the plane suddenly disappeared into the smoke, and a fireball lit up the sky. 


1967::Tragedy On Skirt Mountain

"1967::Tragedy On Skirt Mountain"

Clip: Times Colonist (1967)

Victoria, British Columbia


Tragically, both pilots perished in the crash, including the Marianas Mars pioneer test pilot in his own Canso plane. It was to have been his last flight of the day. A Mars water bomber was called into service when the crash re-ignited the mountainside fire, causing it to burn out of control again. Days passed before the fire finally began to smoulder. Eyewitnesses gave their accounts of the tragic event, and those with cameras shared photos of the pioneer pilot's Canso plane in its final moments before disappearing into the smoke on Skirt Mountain. 


1967::Crash on Skirt Mountain, Vancouver Island

As upset as they were to have watched the plane crash, witnesses kept taking photos, hoping they might help to record the event. Some said the plane's wing struck a tree, while others said they saw one of the wings disintegrate before the plane disappeared into the smoke. One year later, a similar fatal crash occurred nearby in the Sooke Hills when two more firefighting pilots lost their lives. It was to have been their last flight of the day. In a terrible twist of fate, one of the two pilots who had perished in that crash was supposed to have flown on the fatal Skirt Mountain flight the previous year but had been swapped out at the last minute by a different pilot. 


2022::The Flying Firemen Memorial Park

"2022::The Flying Firemen Memorial Park"

Photo: Private Collection (2023)


The remaining Mars water bombers, initially stored for conversion at Patricia Bay Airport in Sidney, BC, and later stationed more centrally on Vancouver Island at Sproat Lake, served the island and province for many years. And just like the Hawaiian Islanders before them, Vancouver Islanders came to love and appreciate the planes and the pilots who flew them. In 2022, a new neighbourhood was developed on Skirt Mountain, and a peaceful park was dedicated to the pioneer firefighting pilots who had perished in the Skirt Mountain crash. 


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