Let's help spruce up Martin air museum

December 17, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2004 Scorsese film The Aviator, built the Spruce Goose. Glenn L. Martin, played by no one that we know of in any Scorsese film that we know of, built the Martin Mars. The Martin Mars was one of the largest seaplanes ever built, and, unlike Hughes' Goose, it actually flew more than once and saved lives. It was neither as big nor as infamous as the Goose, but it was far more important, successful and durable. In fact, two Martin Mars planes were in operation this summer - more than 60 years after they were built in Middle River - putting out forest fires in British Columbia, and how do you like that?

Welcome to today's column. I can't promise anything, but we have all the makings of a good story here, if not in execution at least in terms of its parts. Today's column presents history, but not so comprehensively as to numb the reader. It reports news. It's nostalgic, but not sentimental. It's educational. It's local, but international. It has a business element. It involves a cause of a certain kind, and I get to make gratuitous mentions of a celebrity, Leonardo DiCaprio. (Twice so far!)

Here's the history:

Once upon a time, the Glenn L. Martin Co. employed thousands of men and women at its assembly plants in Middle River. During World War II, one of the planes the company produced was the 140,000-pound, four-engine Martin Mars, with a wing span of 200 feet and a two-story hull 120 feet long.

That's big, people. That's Boeing 747 size, or bigger, and the Mars used propellers! It was second in size only to DiCaprio's - I mean, Hughes' - Goose (the H-4 Hercules), and it was the largest seaplane ever to serve the military. Depending on its payload, the Mars could stay in the air for 24 hours or longer.

The original concept was for a "sky battleship" or "flying dreadnought," according to the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum. The Mars was supposed to be rigged with multiple gun turrets, fly great distances and deliver huge bombs.

"The plane's interior," says the museum's notes on the plane, "was laid out with separate mess rooms, berths, and washrooms for officers and enlisted men. Its commander had a private stateroom and issued his orders from a desk behind the pilots' seats."

Workers launched the first Mars from Dark Head Creek, in Middle River, 65 years ago, just a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

But the mission for the Mars changed. It did not become a flying battle wagon. It was too slow.

"The Navy [designated] the original Mars as a transport, and Martin began to remove its turrets and bombing equipment," says the museum's notes. "The Mars was sent to the Pacific ... where it built an impressive record between 1943 and 1945, carrying cargoes of up to 34,811 pounds. Particularly impressive was the plane's ability to carry 10 tons of cargo on the critical California to Hawaii route."

"For eleven years between 1945 and 1956, the Mars fleet traversed the wide Pacific," Loyola College history professor Jack Breihan wrote for the museum's Web site. "Like ships, each had been named: Philippines, Hawaii, Marianas, Caroline, and Marshall Mars. The Navy Mars carried cargoes of blood plasma and spare parts to Pacific bases, and flew back with litters of wounded soldiers from Korea."

Fire destroyed one of the planes in 1950. The other four served the Navy until 1956, when a Canadian timber company purchased them and converted them to "water bombers" to fight forest fires. One crashed in an accident in 1961; a hurricane destroyed another a year later.

So there are two left.

Now, here's the news:

The last two Martin Mars seaplanes are up for sale and bidding ends on New Year's Eve.

The planes belong to TimberWest, a large company in Vancouver, and they have been used for fire suppression for 40 years. They still could be used to fight fires. In announcing the sale of the two planes, TimberWest said "some interest has already been expressed by the private sector to operate the aircraft, which, in addition to forest fire-fighting capabilities, have solid tourism and marketing potential for the right buyer."

Among those interested in one of the planes is the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum.

"We've long had them in our sights," says Gil Pascal, the museum's chairman. "We've been in contact with the company over the years. The planes are in excellent condition, they have been superbly maintained."

Pascal says he and others associated with the nonprofit museum have been carefully planning for the day when one of the Mars seaplanes would become available for acquisition. They'd like to get one of them back here, where its keel was laid more than 60 years ago, and set it up in a new building at what is now Martin State Airport. This might be the last, best opportunity to do so.

Pascal thinks the Mars would become a major attraction. "We're a little museum trying to become a big museum," he says.

Getting the Mars should do it. But it will take funds and smart bidding to make that happen. And there isn't a lot of time. TimberWest said it would close bidding on Dec. 31.

Here's the cause part:

Contributions should be sent to the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum, P.O. Box 5024, Middle River 21220.

And that concludes today's column. I thought it was pretty good. I think I covered the key points. I'd mention Leonardo DiCaprio one more time, but it's not warranted.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesday and Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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