05/17/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/16/2016 05:59 EDT

Canadian Heritage stalls rare airplane swap with U.S. museum

The owner of a rare warplane is in a dogfight with the Canadian Heritage minister over whether the monster aircraft can be repatriated to the United States.

Wayne Coulson of Port Alberni, B.C., wants to send one of his two 70-year-old Martin Mars aircraft to a popular museum in Florida to help complete its collection of U.S. Navy warplanes. In return, he'd be given a handful of surplus U.S. military planes, some of which he'd convert into waterbombers.

But officials under Shelly Glover, the Canadian Heritage minister, have told Coulson the plane may be "cultural property" of importance to Canada, and he must convince a panel to give him a special export permit under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

Coulson's lawyer has challenged the minister, saying the aircraft does not fit the technical description of cultural property set out in the act and that Coulson can export it anytime without a permit.

In response, the department has notified the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency of the issue — but it's not clear what those agencies could do about the exit flight of a giant amphibious airplane.

Border procedures may not apply

"As the aircraft is airworthy, typical border procedures may not apply," says a briefing note for Glover, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

In the meantime, John Duncan, a Conservative B.C. MP and cabinet minister, is playing peacemaker, attempting to broker a deal in which Coulson would turn over his other rare Martin Mars aircraft to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. In return, Coulson would be given two older Hercules aircraft owned by the Royal Canadian Air Force that are headed for the scrapyard.

"I do believe if we can preserve one in Canada, that it's realistic to think we can export the other one," Duncan said in an interview. "I just want to see the right thing done."

Coulson, president and CEO of the Coulson Group, which specializes in waterbombers, says the federal government has no right to tell him what to do with his fat-bellied aircraft, both of which he bought in 2007.

"I've had a look at the law and we're convinced that I can do with those airplanes what I want to do with them," he said in an interview.

But Coulson says he's open to a package deal that would trade one of his Martin Mars to the U.S., and the other to the Canadian aviation museum for surplus Canadian Hercules aircraft, and avoid any legal tussle.

"Rather than cut them (surplus Hercules planes) up into beer cans, why don't we look to people like ourselves … that have creative ideas, put this surplus equipment to work and maybe generate some economic development with it," he said.

Coulson's still-pending deal with National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., might have gone under the federal radar, except that an unidentified citizen contacted Canadian Heritage last September, warning about the potential loss of the aircraft to Canada.

That's when Coulson says he got his "nasty-o-gram" from departmental bureaucrats.

Glover acknowledged she has been reviewing the issue for several months. "Of course there are some rules and regulations that come with all of this, so we are looking at it but no final decision has been made," she said in a brief interview.

Pushing on open door

Only seven Martin Mars seaplanes were manufactured for the U.S. Navy in the 1940s, and Coulson owns the only two that remain. Originally built as transports, the planes were brought to Canada in the late 1950s and have served as venerable water-bombers in British Columbia.

"It's an icon, certainly on the West Coast," said Duncan, formerly a forester who once called in a Mars to fight a fire in B.C. "Everybody has seen that plane. And everybody that has seen that plane working … has stopped in their tracks. … It's something that led to crowds wherever it went."

The aircraft, with a wingspan larger than a Boeing 747, can skim lakes and ponds, scoop up water and then drop 19,000 litres at a time.

Duncan is hopeful of a resolution to the dispute with Canadian Heritage, perhaps by summer. "I'm pushing on an open door," he said.

He added that if Canadian aviation museum acquired a Martin Mars, it would not necessary be displayed in Ottawa but could remain in British Columbia.

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