Martin Mars finishes fire contract in Mexico, next stop Discovery Channel

Martin Mars and Firewatch 76 at Lake Elsinore, California
File photo of the Martin Mars and Firewatch 76 at Lake Elsinore, California. Photo: Coulson Flying Tankers

Updated at 1:12 p.m. MT, May 19, 2011

On Wednesday, May 18, the Martin Mars air tanker completed their 20-day contract in Mexico and will be heading back to their home at Sproat Lake near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. They expect to stop at Lake Elsinore, California for fuel, and to arrive at Port Alberni on Friday. At this link to Google Maps from July, 2005 imagery, you will see the two Martin Mars aircraft floating peacefully in the lake. The giant plane has been working on a firefighting contract with the Mexican government, based at Lake Amistad reservoir near Del Rio, Texas.

Wayne Coulson, the CEO of Coulson Flying Tankers, the owner of the Hawaii Mars and the Philippine Mars, told Wildfire Today that after sitting for a day due to strong winds, the Hawaii Mars on April 30 began flying an average of 6.5 hours a day with up to 10 loads each day until May 15 when they ran out of targets. They flew 104 hours of operations on the assignment dropping exclusively water with 1.5% Thermo-Gel, with excellent results, Coulson said.

The Martin Mars is the only fixed wing platform in the world that has an onboard gel injection system. It can hold 3,100 liters (819 gallons) of gel which gives the Mars the ability to drop approximately 20 loads of water with gel before reloading the gel tank. The aircraft can carry up to 7,200 gallons of water.

Coulson described the gel injection system to us. When scooping on a lake to reload the water tank, the Martin Mars:

..ingests the water into the tank at 200 gallons per second and injects gel at the elbow in the tank causing extreme shearing of the gel that cannot be duplicated by any other gel injection system giving us the ultimate mixing of product.

I did the math for those of us that are familiar with water pumping operations, and 200 gallons per second works out to 12,000 gallons per minute. That amount of water could fill 24 large fire engines each minute.

Coulson described one of the ways they used the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, called Firewatch, which has mapping and infrared imaging capability, and works with the Martin Mars serving as a lead plane, as well as other functions.

The S-76 was the key to our success going into another country that doesn’t speak English.

Firewatch has two screens with a HD 14″ [TV monitor] in the front and a HD 26″ [TV monitor] in the back so what we were able to do is communicate with the customer using the video images.

We worked on 8 different fire complex’s and what we would do when the Mars was ordered up we would pickup the IC and usually two other members and fly the targets using the camera to identify where the loads were to be dropped then call in the Mars and execute.

Our primary missions were specialty targets protecting ranches and livestock so every drop counted and the results good or bad were instant using the camera.

The Martin Mars has sophisticated hardware and software that keeps track of many different parameters while flying a mission. It can instantly provide the actual costs of the drops after the crew inputs the contract daily and hourly rates and the cost per gallon of the fuel and gel. For example, during a 25-day period in 2009 in California it worked on 6 fires, flew 36.33 hours on the fires, made 40 drops (of water and gel), dropped 193,758 gallons, for a total cost of $3.52 per gallon dropped, including the cost of the gel, fuel, and contract charges. That works out to 0.9 hour per drop, with each drop averaging 4,843 gallons.

In June the Martin Mars will begin a 90-day contract working for the province of British Columbia.

The Alberni Valley Times published an article about the aircraft May 19, 2011.

Martin Mars to be featured on the Discovery Channel

The Martin Mars is slated to be featured in a one-hour episode of a new show on the Discovery Channel called “Mighty Planes”. A crew from Discovery has been filming the aircraft while it has been working on the fires in Mexico.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Alberni Valley Times:

…”It’s a fantastic plane and a lovely company to work with,” executive producer Kathryn Oughtred said.

“Mighty Planes”, that is expected to begin airing sometime in 2012, was conceived from the successful series “Mighty Ships,” which is on the brink of entering its fourth season. Oughtred said their researchers and associate producers have dug deeply to find all sorts of planes.

“We talked about firefighting planes just because that would interesting and dramatic,” Oughtred said. “We found a few companies and a few types of planes but this particular one [Hawaii Mars], just fascinated us.

“Of course, because it’s Canadian, it’s wonderful. Not only that, the plane itself is unusual. It’s not a relic by any means. It’s been out there for a long while but it’s doing its job and mightily so. So we felt it qualified as a mighty plane.”

Crews are currently documenting every facet of the aircraft, including the pilot and the crews that maintain and keep it ready for action for a full-hour show dedicated solely to the Martin Mars.

“It’s just going to be the Martin Mars and only the Martin Mars,” Oughtred said. “Our crews have just returned from Mexico. We filmed the plane for six days and followed their progress everyday.”

The operation of the Hawaii Mars impressed the Discovery crew and described it like watching a NASCAR pit crew in action.

“Everyday, they had to make sure that the plane is in tip-top shape and all the scrutiny measures are dealt with,” Oughtred said. “They stay on the air for five to six hours. They were really doing a good job in Mexico.”

Once the Hawaii Mars’ Mexico assignment is over, the plane will return home and will be contracted to fight fires in British Columbia.

Oughtred said Discovery crews will be heading to Port Alberni in June to film additional footage of the giant bird.

Martin Mars at Sproat Lake, May 2009
Martin Mars at their base at Sproat Lake, near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, May 2009. Photo: John Allen

Thanks Barb

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Martin Mars finishes fire contract in Mexico, next stop Discovery Channel”

  1. Bill,

    Thanks for this great article on the Martin Mars. I learned a lot, for example while I had seen the specs on the Coulson site previously, it had not “registered” that the Martin Mars had a gel tank. I also appreciated learning more about how the Sikorsky Helo works with the Martin Mars.



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