This article was originally printed in the Wings of Gold magazine Winter 2013 edition.
VP-4 Skinny Dragons at NAS Sigonella
Story and Photography by Francesco Militello Mirto
Ciao and Benvenuto from Sigonella, Sicily, “The Hub of the Med,” where we recently visited Patrol Squadron Four’s main detachment. The squadron was deployed in support of European Command (EUCOM) and the African Command (AfRICOM) operations.
and Luca La Cavera
CO of the Skinny Dragons, CDR Brent Strong, is a Naval Flight Officer with over 3,000 flight hours in his log book. He briefed us on current events and where the community is heading in the near future. He served with the Golden Eagles of VP-9, VP-30s Pro’s Nest, (the P-3 Orion Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS), was a department head in the Grey Knights of VP-46, and with that squadron participated in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. CDR Strong explained that the maritime patrol community continues to deploy VP squadrons to a single, main deployment site from which it sends out small detachments of Orions tailored to support operations at various other locales.
He stated, “We support ops in Europe, the Mediterranean, and countries that border the Med. NAS Sigonella, Sicily, is the administrative and maintenance hub for Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance (MPR) operations. Sigonella is the
principal site for operational planning, intelligence briefs, aircrew training, P-3C logistics, maintenance and personnel support. This deployment site conducts all periodic and phasemaintenance for aircraft assigned to VP-4 and any other MPR squadron based here. Operationally, VP-4 provides Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for Commander Task Force 67 (CTF-67), Commander Sixth Fleet, and Commander U.S. Naval Forces Europe ( NAVEUR).
“These duties typically include antisubmarine patrols, over-the-horizon surface contact reporting to U.S. and NATO ships and carrier strike groups operating within or transiting the Meditenanean. The P-3 is equipped with a variety of subsurface and surface weapons, should we be called upon to employ them, such as long-range, anti-ship, air-to-surface missiles, torpedoes, mines, and general purpose bombs.”
Although aircraft operating from Sigonella primarily support EUCOM and AFRICOM, the squadron’s capacity to support its multiple simultaneous detachments allow it to reach areas far removed from the Med, as necessary. Among other exercises, VP-4 participated in the largest ASW exercise in the Med, Noble Dina 2013, in Souda Bay, Greece and another, Joint Warrior 2013 in Scotland. The latter was the largest NATO ASW and Amphibious Operations Exercise.
“We are very flexible,” CDR Strong pointed out, “and can operate with as few as one airplane and one crew with minimal maintenance personnel, to several planes and crews with major maintenance support. We go where the fight is.”
With over 350 personnel assigned, VP-4 is a versatile organization equipped with 12 combat aircrews trained in ASW, Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW), and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Each combat aircrew consists of 11 members: three pilots (one patrol plane commander and two “upgrading” pilots), two NFOs (one tactical coordinator and one navigator), fwo flight engineers, one electronic warfare operator, two acoustic operators, and one in-flight technician.
Currently, CTF-67 allocates an average of eight p-3C aircraft to each deploying squadron. All have the same basic capabilities: deploy and process a wide array of passive and active sonobuoys; provide organic Electronic Support Measures (ESM); provide MDA via multi-mode radar; collect Infrared (IR) and Electro-Optical (EO) imagery and detect submarines with on-board Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD).
The MPR community has done an outstanding job of upgrading support equipment during depot level maintenance periods. This creates some variation among individual airframes, and affects radios, radars, aircrew sensors, and communications equipment. Yet, all VP-4 P-3Cs have undergone the Anti-Surface Warfare improvement program (AIP) upgrade, if not the more recent C4ASW modification.
The hard work of NAVAIRSYSCOM, OPNAV N98 ( Naval Air’s Requirements Officers), and the Commander, patrol and Reconnaissance Group (CPRG), continues to pay off. These upgrades help eliminate any gap that might exist between the Orion’s and the upcoming P-8 Poseidon that is replacing the Orion’s.
VP-4’s LCDR Jonathan Vanecko noted a welcome feature of the Orion. He said, “Regarding the in-flight characteristics of the P-3C, having the prop directly connected to the power section, unlike the trainers most of us trained in or the jet engines on the P-8, power is available almost immediately when the power levers are advanced. The combination of both propwash and torque from the four props is always nice to have, especially in the landing pattern or flying at 200 feel over the water. Of course, the converse also applies. Should the power levers be rapidly puled to idle while close to the ground during landing, the loss of lift is noticeable. That is certainly an item we stress to our upgrading pilots, to avoid and guard against.”
Considering its large size – the p-3C weighs 135,000 pounds – it flies extremely well and is quite maneuverable. This is an advantage, especially when flying at 200 feet during an ASW prosecution, maintaining a turn radius small enough to allow for rapid submarine localization, and a near continuous presence over datum. Pilots are quick to acknowledge, however, that flying and trimming the plane requires continuous attention to avoid altitude excursions, especially low over the water.
Physically, all control surfaces are hydraulically actuated through boost packages located in the aft section of the aircraft, and linked through cables to the controls in the flight station. This system provides immediate and true feedback giving operators a real sense of oneness with the aircraft during all phases of flight. The Orion is truly a pilot’s airplane.
No discussion of the P-3 would be complete without touching briefly on the practice of loitering engines. Although this procedure causes an immediate look of concern to appear on the faces of non-P-3 pilots, it also saves a lot of gas when conducting long-range maritime operations, something that directly translates into increased time on station and thus more capability for the customer. (See note [at end of article])
Regarding normal routines, LI Chris Pamfil, a p-3 mission commander, noted, “In a typical day at VP-4, the crew brief occurs about three hours prior to takeoff with the aircrew discussing problems identified in the aircraft discrepancy book, applicable message traffic, safety-of-flight items presented by the tactical operations center (TOC), mission objectives for the day, and operating procedures for the surface ships and aircraft that the crew will be working with while on station.”
Aircrews spend the remainder of their pre-flight bringing the P-3’s mission systems online and conducting routine operational checks before launching on what typically is a two to three-hour transit to the operating area. After takeoff, the crew conducts long-range communications with the land based tactical operations center to continuously update mission tasking. Once the aircraft arrives on station, aircrews may check in with a ground, airborne, or shipboard controllers who provide real-time, cuing data to the P-3. This allows aircrews to determine which sensors will best achieve mission objectives based on weather, traffic density, altitude restrictions, and fuel planning considerations.
Although coordinated operations are the norm in today’s military P-3 crews are also routinely tasked to conduct long range, independent operations, typically ASW or ASUW in the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean, which entails flying more than 1 ,000 nautical miles from land.
“Following a mission,” added LT Pamfil, “the aircrew reviews all in-flight records and logs, and submits a report on the flight. Simultaneously, the squadron intelligence specialists begin to analyze the hours of data collected and begin the process of disseminating it across the fleet.”
Ultimately, the quality and quantity of the data brought back from each mission rests on the ability of the mission commander to formulate a plan and then have his or her crew execute it properly. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of mission commanders in the squadron are first-tour aviators.
Finally, in reference to the P-8A Poseidon, CDR Strong stated, “The transition to the P-8 continues to progress well and remains on schedule. The aircraft recently completed its operational test and evaluation period and has been evaluated as operationally effective and recommended for Fleet introduction. Transition takes about six months to re-train aircrews to operate the aircraft and to employ the new suite of sensors.
Two squadrons, VP-16 and VP-5, have already completed their transition at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. A third squadron, VP-45, is on track to finish by the end of 2013. The remaining three squadrons home-ported at “Jax,” will follow suit, before transition operations are later moved to NAS Whidbey Island, Washington.
There will also be a transition period during which the best practices developed in the fleet over the past 50 years of Orion operations will be applied to the P-8 where applicable. VX-1. at NAVAIRSYSCOM, and VP-30 at Jax are key players in this endeavor. Feedback from VP-16 and VP-5, the first two P-8 units, will also be important.
“Bottom line.” CDR Strong remarked, “we will need to accurately assess lessons learned and from those lessons develop new, procedures where applicable. NAVAIR and VP-30 will continue to provide testing and training while VP-16
will provide initial fleet feedback to continue improving this process. As for the P-3s. the fleet is getting healthier as more planes come out of depot maintenance, and as squadrons transition to the P-8, freeing additional resources. With the P-8 on the way, the future of the MPR world is most promising. I don’t think there is a more exciting time to be part of this
The authors thank CDR Brent M. Strong, LCDR Jonathan Vanecko, LT Chris Pamfil, the Sailors of VP4, and Dr. Alberto Lunetta, NAS Sigonella Public Affairs and Liaison Officer.
[Note on Loitering] RADM P.D. Smith, USN (Ret.), former president of ANA and an experienced Maritime Patrol pilot, explained that the p-3 cruises at about 220 kts IAS. Once on station a slower, loiter speed usually is preferable. To achieve this the easiest way, one of the engine props is feathered and the engine shutdown. This lowers the speed to about 190 kts and, with a small tweak of the trim, the plane handles and responds just the same as on all four engines. This results in lower fuel usage -from about 4,000 lbs/hr down to 3,000 lbs (665 gals down to 500 gals). The engine can be restarted within one minute, if needed. Aside from lower cost, this saves fuel if required for extended on-station time. As the aircraft gets lighter, sometimes a second engine is shutdown to achieve even greater fuel savings. Single-engine loiter is allowed for all altitudes, but two-engine loiter must be above 1,000 ft. It looks funny, but it works.