Museum on a mission to `Mars'

Martin pursues seaplane from World War II era

February 15, 2007|By Andrew Schaefer | Andrew Schaefer,sun reporter

Retired engineer and businessman Gilbert Pascal says he has been interested in airplanes since he was in a stroller, and he likes to fly around the country in his Cessna with his wife, visiting museums.

Recently, he traveled across the continent in hopes of landing a much larger plane: the 140,000-pound, Middle River-born Martin Mars, the largest production seaplane ever built.

Pascal is chairman of the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum's board, and he describes the endeavor to bring the Mars back from British Columbia to where it was built as a "natural pursuit."

"Sometimes," he said, "you've got to put in extra effort to make something happen."

The museum has teamed up with the British Columbia Aviation Council to bid for two Martin Mars planes. The parties would not discuss the bidding process, pointing to a gag order from TimberWest, the Canadian logging company that is selling the planes.

But the Martin museum has raised more than $70,000 in grass-roots contributions and is seeking corporate and government donors, according to spokesman John Tipton.

The county government has helped the museum with public outreach and targeting potential donors, and it might put money toward the effort in the future, according to spokeswoman Ellen Kobler.

The county and the state granted the museum $125,000 toward studying the feasibility of an expansion plan in 2006, before the Mars became available, Pascal said. The study will likely be conducted this summer.

Museum volunteer Joe Single said many visitors are former Martin employees or their relatives, who come to fondly remember their days with the company or look up photos and records of friends and family. He said the Mars could be turned into a monument to the factory workers who played a crucial role in the United States' victory in World War II.

"These people were a part of something," said Single. "They were fighting back."

Working together allows the museum and the British Columbia group to eliminate each other as competitors, said museum archive director Stan Piet. He said working with the Canadian partners has been helpful because they know the area and its aviation resources.

In British Columbia, Pascal and other museum volunteers worked with members of the British Columbia Aviation Council to deliver a presentation to TimberWest, said Tipton. The company has given no timetable for a decision, but the museum hopes to hear back within two months, said Piet.

TimberWest is considering potential buyers' plans for the planes, which include continuing to use them in their current capacity as waterbombers for firefighting and putting them on display, said manager of public relations Steve Lorimer. He declined to say whether all final bids are in.

The first Mars, built to serve as a bomber, was launched from Middle River's Dark Head Creek in 1941, according to a history of the plane on the museum Web site. Because it was too slow for combat, the Mars was redesigned to serve as a transport plane, and its long-range capacity and enormous size helped it play important roles in the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War.

Andy Serrell, an 83-year-old retired Navy pilot who flew the Mars' last scheduled military flight in 1956, said the Mars was his favorite plane to fly in his 32 years of service. He liked its size, capability and dependability.

After the Navy phased them out, a Canadian logging company purchased the four remaining Mars planes and converted them into waterbombers. One was lost in a training accident and another to a hurricane, but the remaining planes are icons in British Columbia.

In their decades of service, the planes have saved lives, millions of dollars in personal property and billions of dollars in forestry resources, said British Columbia Aviation Council President & CEO Rollie Back.

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