Retire the ‘clunker,’ says Mars mechanic

Retire the ‘clunker,’ says Mars mechanic

06 August 2014

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USA — A maintenance manager who worked on the Martin Mars bombers for 20 years says it’s time to send the “old clunker” to the museum.

Barry Simpson, a resident of Port Alberni since 1958, worked as a maintenance manager on the Mars water bombers from 1976 to 1996. He wore two hats, flying as a crew member to fight fires during wildfire seasons, and fixing the old planes in between flights.

“I bought parts from all over North America for that old clunker,” Simpson said as he chuckled. “And made a lot [of parts] too. We had our own milling machines and everything ’cause you couldn’t buy ’em.”

The Hawaii Mars bomber is currently parked on Sproat Lake, after the B.C. government did not renew the contract last year for firefighting service with Coulson Flying Tankers, which bought the aircraft in 2006.

The Philippine bomber will soon be sent to Florida to appear in the U.S.’ National Naval Aviation Museum. The water bombers are the largest piston-powered propeller aircraft in the world.

Simpson said the general sentiment is to keep the old bombers fighting, but they’re outdated and ought to be replaced. Parts for the old bombers, originally built by the Glenn L. Martin Company in the 1940s for the United States Navy in the Second World War, are getting “few and far between,” he said.

“If we keep it up. It’s going to be a monument on a top of a mountain somewhere,” said Simpson. “It won’t last.

Somebody will put it in the weeds. “I can’t see the government going for it because I really don’t think it’s economical,” he said. He believes smaller aircraft and helicopters are a better option.

“They take the load downhill, they can pick up on those small lakes on the tops of the mountains, and they can go down to the fire and go back up empty,” Simpson said. “Whereas the Mars, we used to climb for miles and miles – the engines would be cooking.”

The provincial government has replaced the Mars bombers with four smaller Fire Boss aircraft from Abbotsford-based Conair. The smaller planes are capable of picking up water from more than 1,700 lakes and rivers in the province.

The Mars can only access 113 bodies of water, though it has a 27,200-litre capacity.

Conair also donated more than 10 times the amount in campaign funding to the incumbent B.C. Liberal Party compared to Coulson’s contribution. Jeff Berry, manager of business development for Conair, was head of the B.C.

Forestry Service air tanker program from 1996 to 2013.

When a petition with more than 18,000 names to keep the Hawaii Mars flying was brought to Premier Christy Clark’s constituency office in West Kelowna last month, the government responded with a fact sheet explaining the newer planes are more cost-effective.

The government also noted that Coulson did not respond to an “as when needed contract” offer.

Simpson would like to see the Hawaii bomber go to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, because of its innovative water dumping system developed in this country.

“It was designed in Victoria and proven in Victoria and it’s one of the best drop systems that I’ve seen,” Simpson said. “As far as I’m concerned, the Mars can go to Ottawa. That’s where it should be.”

Hugh Fraser, who piloted the Mars bombers for 32 years, disagrees with Simpson, and said the bombers are being forced into retirement before their time.

“They only have about twentytwo [or] twenty-three thousand hours on them,” Fraser said, adding the bombers only averaged about 60 hours of firefighting per year. Although parts are difficult to find, there are still some out there, he said.

“What will be will be. I’m just really sad to see them go.”

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