Exactly three months after delivery of the first P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, US Navy aircrews from Patrol Squadron 8 found themselves deployed to Bermuda—and stepping into the brightest of world spotlights.
On 23 October 1962, four aircrews from VP-8 and four aircrews from Patrol Squadron 44 (VP-44) began enforcing President John F. Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles from reaching Cuba. The P-3 crews patrolled the Atlantic sea lanes to locate and track Soviet cargo ships carrying intermediate range ballistic missiles or missile launch support equipment.
By the time the Cuban Missile Crisis ended a few days later, a VP-44 crew achieved international recognition of sorts when their aircraft was photographed flying close surveillance over the Russian freighter Anasov on its return to the Soviet Union. Anasov was the only Russian vessel that refused to uncover the large oblong objects lashed to its deck. The Orion crew was able to verify that the objects were indeed crated missiles, and the ship was allowed to proceed.
The P-3 came about as a response to Navy Type Specification #146 issued in 1957 for a new land-based antisubmarine warfare, or ASW, aircraft to replace the Lockheed P2V Neptune land-based maritime patrol aircraft and the Martin P5M Marlin flying boat. Very specific requirements pertaining to delivery schedule and cost constraints dictated the need for adapting an off-the-shelf aircraft design for the maritime patrol mission.
The competitors were Martin, Consolidated, and Lockheed, three companies that had been building patrol aircraft for the Navy for more than three decades at that point. The French Atlantique, developed with the help of US Navy funds, did not meet the stated range requirement and was eliminated from the competition.
The Lockheed proposal highlighted the Electra airliner’s turboprop engines and its capability for high-speed transit at high altitudes, low speed, low-altitude handling qualities, and fuel economy. Because the Electra was designed to operate from commercial airports, the Navy did not have to alter any runways. The Lockheed Model 185 retained the wings, tail, and Allison T56-A-1 turboprop engines of the Electra. The new design called for the Electra’s fuselage to be shortened by seven feet, and a weapon bay for mines, conventional or nuclear depth charges, or torpedoes was added.
Lockheed was named as the winner of the competition on 24 April 1958, and the contract was awarded that May. A design problem with the Electra’s propeller and engine mount that resulted in several crashes—a phenomenon called whirl mode—had not surfaced at this point. Once the issue was identified, Lockheed briefed the Navy on proposed fixes, and the service was satisfied. Development continued.
The first aircraft was actually the third production Electra with a mockup of a magnetic anomaly detection, or MAD, boom installed at the rear of the aircraft. The MAD equipment, originally developed in World War II, gives aircraft crews the ability to detect large metal objects under water. The greatly improved MAD gear in the P-3 is a primary method the crew uses to locate submarines. The demonstrator was an aerodynamic prototype only and still had the airliner’s passenger windows. It was first flown on 19 August 1958, and Lockheed crews made eight flights. This aircraft was again modified into a full-up prototype of what was then designated P3V-1.
The first flight of YP3V-1 prototype came on 25 November 1959 at the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California, where most of the aircraft would be built. The nickname Orion was officially adopted in late 1960, keeping with the Lockheed tradition of naming aircraft after mythological figures or celestial bodies. The first preproduction P3V-1 was flown on 15 April 1961 from the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California.
The Orion represented a new approach to the ASW mission. It was a more spacious aircraft than previous patrol aircraft, with room for a crew of up to a dozen, along with a galley and rest bunks. It was pressurized and air conditioned. The P-3 had enough electrical power to incorporate advanced sensors and avionics. It was the world’s first dedicated maritime patrol aircraft to be powered by turboprop engines. The Orion also had a significantly better weapons system than its predecessors.
The Orion test fleet consisted of six aircraft. Navy Bureau of Inspection and Survey trials—what today is called operational test and evaluation—took place from April to June 1962 at what was then known as the Naval Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, and the Naval Weapons Evaluation Facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The first P3V-1s were delivered to VP-8 on 23 July 1962 and to VP-44 on 13 August. Delivery consisted essentially of moving the aircraft on the Pax River ramp, as both squadrons were based there at the time. With the adoption of the new Department of Defense designation system on 18 September 1962, the P3V-1 was redesignated P-3A. The first Naval Reserve squadrons would receive P-3As in 1970.
A total of 158 P-3As were built for the US Navy. The Alphas, as they were called, were equipped with state-of-the-art analog avionic systems, including the first inertial navigation system in a Navy patrol aircraft. The aircraft featured fore and aft AN/APS-80 search radars, an AN/AQA-3 Jezebel passive acoustic signal processor, an AN/ASA-20 Julie echo location system, and the ASR-3, which was designed to sniff for diesel exhaust from snorkeling submarines.
The move-countermove strategy between the superpowers that defined the Cold War was particularly striking in ASW. The emergence of increasingly lethal and quiet Soviet submarines resulted in the need for increasingly more sophisticated navigation, detection, and tracking equipment on the P-3. Throughout its career, the most significant changes made to the Orion were in its sensors and avionics, not to its airframe.
The next major advance in the Orion was P-3B, or Bravo, introduced in 1966. This version featured a first-generation integrated ASW sensor suite and more powerful 4,500 shp T56-A-14 engines. The Heavyweight modification that came at the end of the P-3B production run featured strengthened structural elements, mainly in the wings, to accommodate heavier sensors and weapons.
A total of 125 Bravos were built for the US Navy. Additional aircraft were delivered new to the first international P-3 operators, the air forces—not the navies—of New Zealand in 1966, to Australia in 1968, and to Norway in 1969.
Development of a fully integrated avionics for the P-3C, or Charlie, began in 1966. Dubbed A-NEW, the heart of this system was the Univac 1830A thirty-bit parallel binary airborne digital computer that combined all the collected sensor data in real time. Computerization improved the speed and accuracy of sensor data generation and freed the crew from routine recordkeeping tasks. Development of this system was accelerated, and VP-49 made the first deployment with the P-3C in July 1970.
Much like the Super Bowl, the avionics, navigation, and sensor suite updates to the P-3C variant over the next three decades were seen as being important enough to warrant Roman numerals to differentiate them—Update I, II, II.5, and III. These updates brought a variety of advanced equipment, capabilities, and weapons to the Orion, which kept it ahead of the threat and took advantage of the computer revolution.
As illustrative examples, the P-3C has a chin-mounted electro-optical infrared sensor allowing crews to see and target at night. By contrast, the P-3A had a seventy-million candlepower searchlight under its right wing to locate surface targets. In addition to the ability to fire short range AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles, the P-3C crew can now launch over-the-horizon AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship and AGM-84E Standoff Land Attack Missiles. The P-3 Alphas could launch unguided rockets. The Bravos were the first to be modified to launch guided AGM-12 Bullpup missiles, which gave crews a significantly enhanced ability to attack surface targets.
A total of 266 P-3Cs were built for the US Navy, and 107 Charlies and special mission aircraft were built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries under license in Japan. US production of the P-3C shifted from Burbank to Palmdale, California, in the 1980s and then to Marietta, Georgia, in the early 1990s. The last US-built P-3Cs, eight aircraft for the Republic of Korea Navy, were delivered in 1995. The last Kawasaki-built aircraft was delivered in 2000, closing out thirty-nine years of Orion production.
Total P-3 production, including license-built aircraft, came to 757 aircraft. Today, the worldwide P-3 fleet numbers 435 aircraft flown by twenty-one operators in sixteen countries on five continents, with Taiwan scheduled to join the Orion community with refurbished and rewinged former US Navy aircraft in 2013.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, twenty-four squadrons of US Navy P-3s blanketed the seven seas tracking submarines, primarily Soviet fast attack and ballistic missile boats. Literally millions of sonobuoys—active or passive sensors dropped by parachute into the water to extend the Orion crew’s search area—were launched during the Cold War. An oft-repeated story is of a Soviet admiral who once lamented that if he wanted to know where his submarines were, all he had to do was look for the P-3s flying over them.
For most of its career, the primary mission for US Navy P-3 crews was hunting submarines on missions lasting more than twelve hours. But the Orion carried out other missions as well. Crews from VP-9 at NAS Moffett Field, California, deployed to Vietnam for Operation Market Time in February 1969 for the P-3’s first Pacific deployment. Market Time was the Navy’s coordinated operation to stop the flow of weapons, ammunition, and supplies to Viet Cong forces infiltrating South Vietnam. The EP-3 signals intelligence variant also debuted during Vietnam.
The end of the Cold War brought a dramatic change in mission, as the P-3 was increasingly used in supporting overland missions in surveillance, targeting, and peacekeeping roles.
During Desert Storm, P-3 crews monitored shipping lanes while EP-3 crews monitored electrons. But by Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, Orion crews had further expanded their role to include targeting cruise missiles. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, P-3 crews using surveillance equipment and sensors could determine who or what was on the other side of a hill. Then a Marine riding on board would transmit that information directly to troops in contact on the ground.
But the versatility of the Orion has always been one of its strongest attributes. Today, Norwegian crews do much as they did during the Cold War, monitoring Russian ships and submarines coming out of the ice-free port of Murmansk and protecting Norwegian fishing grounds from poachers. Former Dutch P-3s now owned and operated by Germany are flown on antipiracy missions in Djibouti, while Australian P-3 crews have been conducting overland missions in Afghanistan since 2003.
In addition to military operators, two versions of the P-3 are flown by US Customs and Border Protection primarily for antidrug and homeland security missions. NASA acquired the YP3V prototype in 1966 and flew it until 1993. Today the agency has an NP-3B for scientific research missions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has two WP-3Ds, nicknamed Kermit and Miss Piggy, for weather research.
Although the P-8 is the US Navy’s designated replacement for the P-3, Orion crews will still be on station for several years to come. Upgraded EP-3E ARIES II electronic reconnaissance aircraft will be flown well into the 2020s.
But other operators intend to continue flying their P-3s for many more years. To get the Orion through at least its sixth decade of service, the P-3 Mid-Life Upgrade, or MLU, is a life extension kit that replaces the aircraft’s outer wings, center wing lower section, and horizontal stabilizer with new production components. The MLU removes all current P-3 airframe flight restrictions and provides 15,000 additional flight hours.
The US Navy has thirty-one MLU kits on order. Lockheed Martin builds the outer wings at its Marietta facility, and the kits are installed at the Fleet Readiness Center Southeast, the aviation depot at NAS Jacksonville, Florida. New wings are also being built for P-3s flown by Norway, Canada, Taiwan, and US Customs and Border Protection.
In one respect, the Orion has actually come full circle. The MLU replacement wings today are built on the exact same tooling that was used to build the wings for Bureau Number 148883, the first P3V-1 delivered to VP-8 fifty years ago.
Jeff Rhodes is the associate editor of Code One.