Photo: A P-3C Orion circles Mt. Fuji in Japan

The Lockheed P-3 Orion is a four-engine turboprop anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft developed for the United States Navy and introduced in the 1960s. Lockheed based it on the L-188 Electra commercial airliner. The aircraft is easily recognizable by its distinctive tail stinger or “MAD Boom”, used for the magnetic detection of submarines. Over the years, the aircraft saw numerous design advancements, most notably to its electronics packages. The P-3 Orion is still in use by numerous navies and air forces around the world, primarily for maritime patrol, reconnaissance, anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare. A total of 734 P-3s have been built, and by 2012, it will join the handful of military aircraft such as the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress which have served 50 years of continuous use with its original primary customer, in this case, the United States Navy.

Developed during the Cold War, the P-3’s primary mission was to track and eliminate ballistic missile and fast attack submarines in the event of war. Reconnaissance missions in international waters led to occasions where Soviet fighters would “bump” a U.S. Navy P-3 or other P-3 operators such as the Royal Norwegian Air Force. On 1 April 2001, a midair collision between a United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals surveillance aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet resulted in an international dispute between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) called the Hainan Island incident. More than 40 combatant and noncombatant P-3 variants have demonstrated the rugged reliability displayed by the platform flying 12-hour plus missions 200 ft (61 m) over salt water while maintaining an excellent safety record. Versions have been developed for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for research and hurricane hunting/hurricane wall busting, for the U.S. Customs Service (now U.S. Customs and Border Protection) for drug interdiction and aerial surveillance mission with a rotodome adapted from the Grumman E-2 Hawkeye or an AN/APG-66 radar adapted from the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, and for NASA for research and development.The United States Navy remains the largest P-3 operator, currently distributed between a single fleet replacement (i.e., “training) patrol squadron, 12 active duty patrol squadrons, two Navy Reserve patrol squadrons, two active duty special projects patrol squadrons and two active duty test and evaluation squadrons. Two additional active duty fleet reconnaissance squadrons operate the EP-3 Aries signals intelligence (SIGINT) variant.


Beginning in 1964, forward deployed P-3 aircraft began flying a variety of missions under Operation Market Time from bases in the Philippines and Vietnam. The primary focus of these coastal patrols was to stem the supply of materials to the Viet Cong by sea, although several of these missions also became overland “feet dry” sorties. During one such mission, a small caliber artillery shell passed through a P-3 without rendering it mission incapable. During another overland mission, it is rumored, but not confirmed, that a P-3 shot down a North Vietnamese MiG with Zuni missiles. The only confirmed combat loss of a P-3 also occurred during Operation Market Time. In April 1968, a U.S. Navy P-3B of Patrol Squadron 26 (VP-26) was downed by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire in the Gulf of Thailand with the loss of the entire crew. Two months earlier, in February 1968, another one of VP-26’s P-3B aircraft was operating in the same vicinity when it crashed with the loss of the entire crew. Originally attributed to an aircraft mishap at low altitude, later conjecture is that this aircraft may have also fallen victim to AAA fire from the same source as the April incident.


On 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and was poised to strike Saudi Arabia. Within forty-eight hours of the initial invasion, U.S. Navy P-3C aircraft were the first American forces to arrive in the area. One was a modified platform with a prototype system known as “Outlaw Hunter.” Undergoing trials in the Pacific after being developed by the Navy’s Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command, “Outlaw Hunter” was testing a specialized over-the-horizon targeting (OTH-T) system package when it responded. Within hours of the start of the coalition air campaign, “Outlaw Hunter” detected a large number of Iraqi patrol boats and naval vessels attempting to move from Basra and Umm Qasr to Iranian waters. “Outlaw Hunter” vectored in strike elements which attacked the flotilla near Bubiyan Island destroying 11 vessels and damaging scores more. During Desert Shield, a P-3 using infrared imaging detected a ship with Iraqi markings beneath freshly painted bogus Egyptian markings trying to avoid detection. Several days before the 7 January 1991 commencement of Operation Desert Storm, a P-3C equipped with an APS-137 Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) conducted coastal surveillance along Iraq and Kuwait to provide pre-strike reconnaissance on enemy military installations. A total of 55 of the 108 Iraqi vessels destroyed during the conflict were targeted by P-3C aircraft.

Specifications (P-3C Orion)

General characteristics
  • Crew: 11
  • Length: 116 ft 10 in (35.6 m)
  • Wingspan: 99 ft 8 in (30.4 m)
  • Height: 38 ft 8 in (11.8 m)
  • Wing area: 1300 ft² (120.8 m²)
  • Airfoil: NACA 0014-1.10 (Root) – NACA 0012-1.10 (Tip)
  • Empty weight: 77,200 lb (35,000 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 135,000 lb (61,400 kg)
  • Useful load: 57,800 lb (26,400 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 142,000 lb (64,400 kg)
  • Powerplant:Allison T56-A-14 turboprop, 4,600 shp (3,700 kW) each
  • Propellers: Four-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller, 1 per engine
    • Propeller diameter: 13 ft 6 in (4.11 m)


  • Maximum speed: 411 kn (750 km/h)
  • Cruise speed: 328 kn (610 km/h)
  • Range: 4,830 nmi ferry (8,944 km)
  • Service ceiling: 28,300 ft (10,400 m)
  • Rate of climb: 3,140 ft/min (16 m/s)
  • Wing loading: 107 lb/ft² (530 kg/m²)
  • Power/mass: 0.03 hp/lb (0.06 kW/kg)


  • Hardpoints: The P-3C Orion has a total of ten wing pylon stations:
    • Three under outer wing pylons per wing – Outboard to Inboard:
      • one 500lb station
      • two 1,000lb stations
    • Two under wing root pylons at 1,000lbs
  • Bomb Bay: The bomb bay on the P-3 Orion has a flexible load-out configuration
    • Rockets: Zuni Rocket Pods
    • Missiles:AGM-65F Maverick, AGM-84 Harpoon, Standoff Land Attack Missile
    • Bombs: Mk 20 Cluster Bomb; Mk 82 (500lb), Mk 83 (1,000lb), Mk 84 (2,000lb) GP bombs
    • Torpedoes: Mk 46, Mk 50, Mk 54 or MU90 Impact torpedoes
    • Mines:Mk 25, Mk 36, Mk 55, Mk 56, Mk 60 CAPTOR or Mk 65 Quickstrike naval mines, Stonefish naval mine (in Australian service)
  • Other: Active and passive Sonobuoys
  • Avionics

    • Raytheon AN/APS-137(V) multi-mission surveillance radar
    • Hazeltine Corporation AN/ARR-78(V) sonobuoy receiving system
    • Fighting Electronics Inc AN/ARR-72 sonobuoy receiver
    • AQA-7 directional acoustic frequency analysis and recording sonobuoy indicators
    • AQH-4 (V) sonar tape recorder
    • ASQ-81 magnetic anomaly detector (MAD)
    • ASA-65 magnetic compensator
    • Lockheed Martin AN/ALQ-78(V) electronic surveillance receiver