Naval Air: November 28, 2003


Age has finally caught up with the U.S. Navy's P-3 "Orion" maritime patrol aircraft. Detailed inspections of many of the 280 P-3s in service have found far more structural deterioration than expected. While this could be repaired, the high cost, and low need for the P-3, have resulted in the decision to cut the P-3 fleet back to 150 aircraft. 

The P-3 first entered service in 1962, and the last one was manufactured in 1990. The P-3's specialty was hunting hostile subs, but it also searched for enemy surface ships, or any other shipping the navy was taking an interest in (like North Korean freighters, for example). Some specially modified P-3s can also operate over land, using its sensors to support ground combat. A dozen have been converted to EP-3 electronic warfare aircraft. Your basic P-3 weighs 61 tons and has a crew of eleven. P-3s can carry nine tons of weapons; mines, torpedoes, depth charges and Harpoon anti-ship (and other types of) missiles. The P-3 was derived from the 1950s Lockheed Electra commercial transport. Being propeller driven was an advantage, as it meant slower speeds (for stalking subs) and longer duration. Normally, the P-3 would patrol at 1,500 feet, at 380 kilometers an hour for three hours (assuming the patrol area was 2,500 kilometers from base.) Maximum range (on internal fuel) is 8,900 kilometers. P-3s operate in nine aircraft squadrons (with 310 sailors). The P-3s have under gone several major upgrades, and the current models have GPS and satellite communications, but much of the submarine searching and electronic countermeasures gear is of 1980s vintage. The most up to date models have a replacement value of about $40 million each.

A new aircraft design, to replace the P-3, is in development, but won't be ready to enter service for another 8-10 years. So until then, the P-3s will have to be patched, maintained and used sparingly to make them last. Some of those being retired have over 20,000 hours in the air (twice what the airframe was designed for.) Some of the retired aircraft will be broken up for spare parts, while other will be stored for possible reactivation in the future. By the time the last P-3 is retired, this aircraft model will have served for over half a century.


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