A Voyage to Mars, by Sea-Plane

In December of 2004, scientists from the Hawaii Underwater Research Lab discovered the sunken hulk of a seaplane called the Marshall Mars, one of six giant seaplanes built for the U.S. Navy by the Martin Corporation during World War II. After Pearl Harbor, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser responded to fears of Japanese submarines preying on American shipping by suggesting that his shipyards turn out a fleet of flying boats. He eventually teamed up with Howard Hughes to build the Spruce Goose. The Martin Corporation ran with the same idea, eventually producing one of the largest planes ever built, a giant transport plane called the Martin Mars. The U.S. Navy bought six of them, named them after island chains, and used them throughout the war.

Two of the six planes–the Marshall Mars and the original Hawaii Mars–were destroyed during test flights; the former caught fire, and the latter crashed on landing. The remaining four planes– the Philippine Mars, the Marianas Mars, the Caroline Mars, and the Hawaii Mars 2 served valiantly through the end of the war and after, until they were retired by the Navy in 1956. At some during his Navy service my father flew on either the Hawaii Mars 2 or the Philippine Mars, possibly more than once (my memory is hazy).

On retirement, the four planes were purchased by a Canadian firm, Forest Industries, and converted for use as flying tankers, for fighting forest fires. By 1962 the Caroline Mars and the Marianas Mars had been lost, one in a crash and the other in a typhoon, but the other two continued in service.

And so it was that many years later, on a family vacation to Canada in the early 1970′s, we visited a place called Sproat Lake (which rhymes with “sprote”, not with “sprout”). And there, anchored in the middle of the lake, my father was bemused to see the Hawaii Mars 2 and Philippine Mars of familiar memory. We stayed at the lake for about a week, if memory serves, and more than once we took a row boat with an outboard motor around and about the giant planes. And each afternoon one of the planes would take off with a full load of water, circle the lake, and then dump the load right in the middle. It was an amazing sight.

The truly amazing thing, though, is that these two planes are still flying, and still getting the job done. Click on the link to see more–and when you look at the pictures and videos, remind yourself that these beasts have a wing span of 200 feet.

I wrote this post in 2005; in 2009, one of the two planes came to Southern California to help fight the Station Fire, which consumed over 250 square miles of the Angeles National forest. Given that the fire was plainly visible on the mountain side above my town, it was very good to see an old friend. As of today, both planes have been retired, per Wikipedia; the Phillipine Mars is apparently supposed to go to an air museum in Pensacola, Florida, and the future of the Hawaii Mars is uncertain.

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