In addition to those glorious old warbirds I sometimes write about, I’ve long been fascinated by another extinct class of aircraft from the 1930s and ’40s: the flying boat.
Oh, we still have seaplanes and amphibious jobs, but these are tiny, degenerate remnants of a once-proud genus, like the Geico gecko compared to a full-grown T. Rex. What I’m talking about are the big airliners of aviation’s Golden Age, Pan-Am’s legendary Clipper ships, the first practical transoceanic passenger planes. The largest of these, the Boeing 314s with their sitting lounges and private sleeping compartments, had more in common with Pullman cars than our modern-day jet airliners; the journey across the Atlantic may have taken days instead of mere hours in those days, but the comfort and even luxury offered by these birds would seem downright decadent to an economy-class flyer of the 21st century.
Sadly, none of the mighty Clippers have survived, not even as static display pieces in a museum somewhere. They were all destroyed during the war, or crashed, or, worst of all, were broken up for scrap after they became obsolete. Much like Zeppelins and Titanic-style ocean liners, the Clippers can never be anything more to me than a romantic fantasy of a time I never saw, no more real than the Millenium Falcon.
Which is why I was absolutely gobsmacked to learn the other day (via Boing Boing, living up to its boast of being “a directory of wonderful things”) that there are in fact a couple of giant flying boats still around, and one of them is currently helping fight that big fire in the hills above Los Angeles. It’s not a Clipper ship, true — it’s something even bigger, a Martin Mars, the largest flying boat ever produced. (Howard Hughes’ infamous H4 — the Spruce Goose — is bigger than a Mars, but the Goose was only a prototype that never made it into production). With a wingspan of 200 feet and an overall length slightly more than 117, the Mars tops even the Boeing 314, which was a mere 106 feet long, and had a much shorter wingspan of 152 feet. Only seven of these monsters were built, and of those, only two remain. Both were converted into firefighting waterbombers in the 1960s, along with two others that aren’t with us any longer (one crashed and another was demolished by a hurricane). Not to bore y’all with too many statistics, but the numbers on these things astound me: they can deliver a payload of 7,200 gallons of water mixed with various fire-retardant chemicals, enough to cover four acres in a single drop, and then they can reload just by skimming across a lake and be back on target in as little as 15 minutes. And they’re pretty, too, as the pic above and the others in this gallery demonstrate.
I’ve said before that it’s much more satisfying to see an old machine still working and doing (more or less) what it was built for than sitting dead in a museum like a butterfly with a pin through its back. Don’t get me wrong; museums serve an important function, and I’ll take a preserved, inoperable airplane or automobile over a yellowing photo any day. But it makes me happy to know that these 64-year-old ladies are still out there proving themselves against newer, less-stylish competitors. If you want to see how awesome these planes are, check out the videos on this page.
There’s a detailed history of the Martin Mars here, and you can find the website for Coulson Flying Tankers, the company that owns and operates the last two Marses, here. Be sure to check out that photo gallery!
Postscript: On a related note, see also Telstar Logistics’ report on another big-ass plane that’s been pressed into service against the Station fire. It’s a converted 747!