A moment of nostalgia with the mars water-bombers
Those of us who have lived on the Island for a while and traveled to Tofino via Port Alberni may remember seeing a huge red plane floating on Sproat Lake. For the longest time she was the go-to water-bomber on the Island and in B.C.; and often on loan to California to combat the forest fires there. Most of us know her as the “Hawaii”, a Mars water-bomber, a four props retired U.S. Navy transport plane built by Martin Mars, and at that time the largest water-bomber to fill her tanks with Sproat Lake or Shuswap water to be dropped on forest fires. She and her sister, Philippine, a black Mars water-bomber, were purchased by the B.C. forestry to assist the firefighters. They are retired now and still reside at the tanker base in Port Alberni. Both planes are now owned by Coulson Aviation.
A few weeks ago my husband and I reacquainted with the two ladies. It was a bittersweet reunion, as we reminisced about seeing the Hawaii Mars on the lake in all her glory and splendour. Both earned their retirement and are well taken care of by the new owners. They are even heated in the winter to prevent moisture from aging the planes. It may be that the Philippine Mars has to relocate and we worry that the Hawaii Mars may disappear too. That would be a pity as they are a piece of local history and were an intricate part of forest firefighting, an iconic symbol of safety and relief for firefighters. They are worthy of being in an aviation museum, of being shown off to the people, spoken about by the people of Port Alberni, those who water-skied under her wings, those who remembered her roar when she took off to fight another fire! These two old ladies are a part of Port Alberni’s fabric that needs to be shared with the younger generation.
We were fortunate to also see the newer forest fighting planes. The ones that were retired as passenger planes and rebuilt to become firefighters in California, Australia, and other countries. They are not as much water-bombers anymore, but the more versatile fire retardant spreading planes that aid in the combat against forest fires, and ensure safety and relief for the ground force.
Each retired passenger plane that comes in undergoes a complete metamorphosis or a body rebuild and facelift fit for a lady. Each plane has her knowledgeable crew that pampers her and remakes her to her fullest potential. And what a sight she is when the crew is done with her! She sits on the tarmac in all her glory as she goes through her last detailed check, ready to take off for her destination to join the firefighting crew. She looks sharp and represents the work of a dedicated crew.
We enjoyed this trip up-island; our visit with the “old ladies” at the tanker base and with the newer members of firefighting bombers and their crews at Coulson Aviation. “Happy Landings!” Here is wishing that the B.C. Government will finally add you to their forest firefighting base!
Judy van der Boom