Letter from Sproat Lake

Flying on a wing and a prayer

Ken MacQueen February 5 2001
Letter from Sproat Lake

Flying on a wing and a prayer

Ken MacQueen February 5 2001

Flying on a wing and a prayer

Letter from Sproat Lake

Ken MacQueen

For 40 years, Sproat Lake, B.C., has served as the fire base for the world’s largest water bombers—two magnificent, ungainly winged creatures that suddenly find themselves on aviation’s endangered species list. The only surviving Martin Mars flying boats—Second World War-era U.S. navy transports with 61-metre-wide wingspans—are a key part of the aerial fire department for Vancouver Island’s forests. They are also a source of pride and comfort in the island’s south-central Alberni Valley, and a draw for aviation junkies around the globe. In battle, they are awe-inspiring. Gulping 27,000 litres of water in a single 30-second pass across a lake or ocean, they can drown a young fire in a few bombing runs, saving timber and jobs. “They’re spectacular,” says Port Alberni Mayor Gillian Trumper. “They’re part of the community.” But maybe for not much longer.

Washington state-based forest giant Weyerhaeuser Co. Ltd. ended its share

of funding last September to Forest Industries Flying Tankers, the consortium that operates the aircraft. The announcement raised fears the Mars will be grounded as museum pieces or sold for scrap. It also set off a firestorm in the community and among the 28 full-time staff who operate and maintain the tankers and a helicopter fleet at Sproat Lake. Disgruntled employees and community members accused Weyerhaeuser of putting B.C. timber and jobs at risk. It has been cutting costs since 1999 when it bought out Vancouverbased MacMillan-Bloedel Ltd., one of the companies that founded Flying Tankers after a run of disastrous fires in the 1950s. Forest companies are responsible for protecting private timber holdings, while the British Columbia Forest Service handles fires on Crown lands. “Fire suppression is just something everyone has taken for granted, until now,” says Dave Porter, 51, a flight engineer who worked on the

Two famous fire-fighting planes may be grounded

bombers for almost 24 years. “Like any insurance policy, you never want it until you need it, and then if you don’t have it, it’s too late.”

Weyerhaeuser spokeswoman Sarah Goodman says the company has had several years without serious fires on its 1.2 million hectares of Crown and private coastal timberland. She credits this to changes in logging practices, such as a reliance on helicopter logging and an end to slash burning. The helicopters can do double duty as a “more cost-effective” way of dropping water on fires. “It’s almost more of an emotional issue than a safety issue,” she says of grounding the Mars. Erik Bentsen, senior vice-president TimberWest Forest Ltd., the other partner in Flying Tankers, disputes her claim. Bentsen calls the bombers “two of the most effective aerial attackers for supplying water onto a fire that there are in the world.” But TimberWest, which owns 334,000 hectares of forest on Vancouver Island, cannot afford the $2-million annual cost of the flying boats on its own, he adds. Without a reprieve, the Flying Tankers consortium will fold this week.

The Mars flying boats were rescued from the scrap heap once before. The U.S. navy pressed early versions of the plane into service to supply Hawaii after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When the four-plane fleet was retired in the late 1950s, it was bought for a bargain $100,000 after Dan Mclvor, thenexecutive pilot for MacMillan-Bloedel, made the case for their conversion to water bombing. One Mars crashed while fire fighting in 1961, killing all four crew. Another was destroyed ashore by a hurricane in 1962. The two surviving planes have guarded British Columbia’s forests ever since. Weyerhaeuser has offered to help establish one of the Mars as a museum piece. But Flying Tankers executive director Terry Dixon says they have years of service left. As for cutting them up for scrap, “horrible,” he says with a shudder. “It would be like cutting up your kid or something. The outcry in this community would be awesome.” E23