AirVenture Anticipation: Meeting the Martin Mars

By Scott Spangler on July 18th, 2016

Coming face-to-face with a truly rare airplane is one of aviation’s singular rewards. And to actually see it fly, oh, be still my fluttering aviation geek heart. The Martin Mars is coming to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, and for the first time since I don’t remember when, I will secure a prime spot on the flight line when it appears on the air boss’s schedule. When it is not flying, the huge four-engine flying boat will be bobbing somewhere on Lake Winnebago, and I must find the spot that will let me watch its transition from a liquid fluid to the vaporous fluid that sustains life—and powered flight.

Being the last flying example of the five Martin Mars ever built makes the airplane rare. What makes it special, at least to me, is that it closes the circle, as large flying boats go, with my first quest to see a unique and formerly unseeable airplane, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, more commonly known as the Spruce Goose, because the two airplanes are related, in a way. Either by design, in the H-4’s case, or ultimate mission, for the Mars, both of them were cargo carriers safe from marauding submarines, albeit in different oceans.

Needing to get material across the Atlantic, where German U-board wolf packs roamed, the War Department issued a requirement for a flying cargo ship, preferably made of something other than the “strategic materials” of aluminum and steel. The contract for the Mars, originally designed as a Navy patrol bomber, was issued in 1938. A scaled up version of Martin’s twin-engine PBM Mariner, it first flew in 1942, about the time the War Department let the contract for the Hercules.

By the time of its first flight, the Mar’s was no longer needed for its contracted mission, so the Navy employed it as a trans-Pacific cargo plane. The H-4 flew once, on November 4, 1947, with Howard Hughes at the controls for the high-speed taxi tests. The Mars started flying the Pacific in November 1943, and the Navy retired them in 1956, beaching them on the seaplane ramps at NAS Alameda, which is where I first learned about them during my service there in the early 1970s. They were long gone by then, and it wasn’t until later that I learned that they continued to earn their keep as aerial fire fighters in Canada.

Still, I wanted to meet these historic airplanes, but time and money never afforded me the opportunity to travel north to their home base on Sproat Lake, just outside of Port Alberni, British Columbia. It was a cadre of friendly, but firm armed guards that foiled my initial attempts to set eyes on the Hercules when it called Long Beach, California, home. Learning to fly there in 1976, my instructor and I flew over this huge building on the waterfront on our way to the practice area. He said that was home to the H-4, and on subsequent solo flights I always did a circle or two looking for a way in. I never made it past the fence, but it was always worth the attempt.

On a trip to the Pacific Northwest a little more than 10 years ago finally achieved my Herculean goal with a visit to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. And it was worth the wait. And now the Mars is coming to me! Maybe it is karmic reward for patience, but I doubt it. Still, it is the closest I’ll ever get to my ultimate geek dream, seeing these two majestic flying boats side by side.

What a sight that would be! The Mars, with four R-3350 engines on a wing that spans 200 feet, is 117-feet-3-inches long. The Hercules is 18-feet-8-inches longer than the Mar’s wingspan, and its eight R-4360 engines are evenly affixed to a wing half-again as long, 320-feet-11-inches. But that sight will never exist except in the mind’s eye, but seeing half of it face-to-face does not detract from it in the least. In the pursuit of rare, unique airplanes, aviation geeks relish every opportunity. See you there. – Scott Spangler, editor.

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