U.S. Navy’s Greatest Cold War Hunter

According to Greek mythology, Orion was a great hunter who…

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According to Greek mythology, Orion was a great hunter who pursued Pleiades and after his death, was placed in the sky as a constellation. The aptly named P-3 Orion was initially conceived to hunt Soviet submarines. Over its 45 years of service, the P-3 has hovered over the globe like a star in the sky.

orion2.jpgOriginally designed as a land-based, long-range, ASW (anti-submarine warfare) patrol aircraft, the P-3’s mission evolved in the late 1990s and early 21st Century to include surveillance of the battle space, either at sea or over land. Its long range and long loiter time proved invaluable assets during Operation Iraqi Freedom, as it can view the battle space and instantaneously provide that information to ground troops, especially U.S. Marines.

The P-3 has advanced submarine detection sensors such as DIFAR (directional frequency and ranging) sonobuoys and MAD (magnetic anomaly detection) equipment. The avionics system is integrated by a general-purpose digital computer that supports all of the tactical displays, monitors and automatically launches ordnance, and provides flight information to the pilots. In addition, the system coordinates navigation information and accepts sensor data inputs for tactical display and storage.

What set the Orion apart as the world’s premier patrol aircraft is its long-range capability and its versatility. Powered by four T56-A-14 Allison turbo prop engines, the P-3 has a maximum endurance of more than 17 hours and a top speed of 411 knots. Its 4,600 horsepower engines and nearly 100-foot wingspan give the P-3 a ceiling of 28,300 feet and a range of more than 2,700 miles while it burns through approximately 4,500 pounds of fuel an hour.

As for armament, the P-3 is able to carry and deploy up to 20,000 pounds of weapons from either its internal bomb bay or external pylons. It carries any combination of Harpoon and Maverick missiles, depth bombs, mines and torpedoes depending on the mission.

Born of Need
In February 1959, the Navy awarded Lockheed a contract to develop a replacement for the aging P-2 Neptune. The P-3V Orion entered the inventory in July 1962, and well over 40 years later it remains the Navy’s sole land-based antisubmarine warfare aircraft. The acquisition and introduction of the P-3 paid immediate dividends during the Cuban Missile Crisis later that year.

Since its introduction in 1969, the P-3C version has undergone a series of configuration changes to implement improvements in various mission and aircraft systems. It has gone through one designation change, the P-3V to the P-3, and three major models: P-3A, P-3B, and P-3C, the latter being the only one now in active service. The last Navy P-3 came off the production line at Lockheed in 1990.

A Renaissance Aircraft
The end of the Cold War marked a dramatic shift in the mission of the submarine hunter. With the diminished threat from the Soviet Union’s submarine fleet, the patrol craft’s focus turned to reconnaissance, peacekeeping and relief missions. P-3s have also been used as support platform for various test and evaluation programs by NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration) and NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) employs a modified Orion for hurricane and weather reconnaissance missions for international meteorological and oceanographic research programs. WP-3D’s were used in support of studies of acid rain, polar ice, wind shears at airports and a World Meteorological Organization Program in Geneva, Switzerland.

When civil war flared in Liberia, P-3s were the eyes and ears of forces protecting the U.S. Embassy. In Somalia, P-3s monitored street operations in Mogadishu from well off shore. In Rwanda, P-3s tracked large groups of refugees to help pinpoint relief efforts. Then in Desert Storm, P-3s logged more than 12,000 hours in 1,200 combat surveillance sorties. With capabilities like these, it is no wonder that somewhere above the earth, there is almost always an Orion serving as an eye in the sky.
NATO’s Operation Allied Force marked the combat debut of the P-3C AIP (Anti-surface Warfare Improvement Program) in 1999. The Mediterranean maritime patrol force for these operations included 10 P-3Cs, five of the AIP variant, and 14 crews from Patrol Squadrons 1, 4, 5 and 10 from Naval Air Stations Whidbey Island, Barbers Point, Jacksonville and Brunswick, respectively. On March 22, two days before the start of hostilities, P-3C AIP aircraft began flying around-the-clock armed force protection surveillance flights in the Adriatic Sea in direct support of TLAM (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile) ships. For the next 94 days, MPA (Maritime Patrol Aircraft) provided SUCAP (Surface Combat Air Patrols) for the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Battle Group and other allied ships operating in the area. This marked the first time surface combat air patrols during actual combat operations have been performed exclusively by non-carrier aircraft.

The World’s P-3
Various versions of the P-3 have been utilized over the years by 19 countries, not all of which are allies, and six American government or private agencies.

The Royal Australian Air Force is the second largest P-3 Orion customer for the Lockheed P-3 production facilities. The first batch of 10 P-3B HW Orions replaced the P-2 Neptunes of 11 squadron in 1968. In May 1975, the Australian government ordered another eight Orions, this time P-3C-II’s, which were destined for 10 squadron. An additional order for two aircraft was placed in November 1976.

As a replacement for the HU-16B Albatross, the Spanish Air Force took delivery of three P-3A Deltic Orions in 1973. The aircraft were bought second hand from the U.S. Navy and the aircrew training was done with VP-31 at Naval Air Station Moffett Field. An additional four P-3A’s were leased from the USN in 1979. These aircraft remained in Spanish service until they were replaced with five former Royal Norwegian Air Force P-3B Orions.

An evaluation of suitable successors for the Lockheed SP-2H and Kawasaki P-2J Neptunes of the JMSF (Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force) resulted in an initial order for 45 P-3C-II½ Orions. The first three aircraft were manufactured and assembled by Lockheed at Burbank, CA. The next four aircraft were manufactured by Lockheed as “knock-down” kits and assembled by Kawasaki Heavy Industries at Gifu in Japan. All further Japanese Orions were completely built by Kawasaki. On February 11, 1995 the JMSDF was the proud owner of a fleet of 100 ASW Orions.

The former IIAF (Imperial Iranian Air Force) ordered six P-3F Orions in 1973. The aircraft were delivered between July 1974 and January 1975 and went to an Iranian training detachment with VP-31 at NAS Moffett Field first. Early in April 1975 the aircraft departed for Iran. At least one of the P-3F’s was modified to launch Harpoon missiles. This particular aircraft crashed and before the other five could have been equipped with the necessary Harpoon systems all relations between Iran and the USA were ended because of the 1978 revolution. Ten years later, two P-3F Orions were observed flying at the same time, these operational improvements were thought to have been the result of illegal deliveries of military hardware (including P-3 spare parts) from the USA to Iran, known as the “Iran-Contra Affair.”

Today’s Mature Orion
Today’s P-3’s perform tasks as varied as the configurations they use and the countries they support.

A U.S. Navy P-3 Orion from Patrol Squadron (VP) 47 Golden Swordsmen assisted search and rescue operations for survivors of the sunken Egyptian ferry Al Salam Boccaccio 98 in the Red Sea, Feb. 4, 2006. The ferry, carrying an estimated 1,400 passengers, sank about 50 miles off the coast of Egypt at approximately 2 a.m., Feb. 3. The VP-47 crew flew for almost 15 hours to assist.

The ability to be on the scene for extended periods has proven an invaluable resource for combat units on the ground. As new targets or potential targets emerge, the P-3 has the capability and on-station time, to be on the scene when the commanders need them, not the next day. Once there, the P-3 provides a mix of imagery to include high resolution infrared images which provide the “big picture” to those on the ground.

Marine and special warfare officers riding aboard would assist in communicating between ground units and operators in the air. The enemy’s chances of moving on the ground without friendly forces knowing it is greatly reduced.

“The air and ground crews that have kept our aircraft in the air around the clock during OIF are to be congratulated,” Capt. Fred Smith, former commodore of CTF-57, said. “The CTF-57 assets in the P-3 and EP-3 communities continue to write the book on the transforming mission of the aircraft. We are showing real capabilities over both sea and land that are essential in today’s war fighting environment.”

The End of a Legend
Like all legends, even the mighty Orion has a lifespan, and after more than four decades of unparalleled performance, the P-3 fleet is coming to the end. The U.S. Navy’s “deficit” in its P-3 maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft community has risen to a “significant” level after at least 39 P-3s, roughly a fourth of the service’s family, has been grounded, according to Navy officials.

Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, told the SASC (Senate Armed Services Committee) Feb. 28 that some aircraft were grounded due to wing cracks. “The recent groundings of high-demand P-3 aircraft highlight the need to bring the next generation of aircraft in service and retire our aging aircraft,” Roughead said.

The Boeing P-8A Poseidon is designed to replace legacy P-3C Orions and upgrade maritime patrol ASW and anti-surface warfare, as well as armed ISR capabilities that reside in P-3 squadrons, for combat and theater security operations and homeland defense. The P-8A Poseidon is a militarized version of the Boeing 737-800 commercial jet flown by many airlines. The two-engine plane will gradually replace the Navy’s fleet of aging P-3 Orions from 2012 to 2019. According to the Navy, initial operational capability is expected in FY ‘13, while $1.1 billion is included in the regular FY ‘09 budget request announced Feb. 4.

“Funding P-3 wing crack kits in FY ‘08 and ‘09 while accelerating multi-mission aircraft’s low rate initial production helps bridge capability gaps in both the near and long term,” the Navy said.

In testimony, the Navy stressed that despite “several” successes in delivering aircraft, such as the first E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the high demand for air assets in Afghanistan and Iraq expended a “significant” portion of the “limited” service life remaining on EA-6B electronic attack aircraft, MH-60 multi-mission helicopters, F/A-18 C/D strike-fighter aircraft and P-3s.

“The accelerated depletion of service life could translate into aircraft shortfalls if the expended aircraft are not replaced,” the service said.

With a clear successor waiting in the wings, the legendary P-3 seems destined to go the way of the F-14 Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder, confined to air shows and static displays, but like the other, more glamorized aircraft, the Orion has left an indelible mark on naval aviation history.

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  • Keith Norris

    Servedwith VP-47 1977-1980. Great platform that I don’t think will be surpased. The P-8A may replace the airframe but not the performance and capability on station. I think most that have crewed the P-3 would have prefered new built P-3’s with improved avionics/asw/ew.
    Keith Norris

  • Bob Darenberg

    The P-8 may be a suitable MMA but as for an ASW platform NO AIRCRAFT will ever match the P-3 Orion. As an X P-3 Flight Engineer I will tell you the raw power of the T-56 turbo prop has saved many P-3 crews from disastrous perils. The P-3 can take off and land in much shorter distances than a 737. It can climb faster and out maneuver a 737. A 737 can fly higher and that’s about it. Shutting down an engine on a P-3 was normal, in a 737 it will be declared an emergency. A P-3 can fly on a two engine loiter to extend its “on top time”. I may be just a little partial towards the Mighty Orion but for an excess of 5000 flight hours it always brought me home, and yes i have had my share of emergencies and close calls but if for a lesser plane well i might not be here. The Navy (and I love them) really dropped the ball by not going with the Orion 21 or P-7. Leave the 737’s to the airlines and Air Force, and keep the maritime aircraft in the Navy. God bless all who have flown, fly, or will fly the Mighty P-3 Orion, for it it an experience that will never be forgotten. P.S. oh yeah in case anyone failed to notice….the P-3 showed it’s versatility and performs quite well over the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan in a role the 737 is expected to perform.

  • Richard Pint

    Flew in the P3 in the 60’s, along Viet-nam, elsewhere.Great plane, loved it. Hard to think a jet can replace it