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The P-8A Poseidon Adventure: Flying and Fighting the Poseidon

Part 2

While walking around the P-8A Poseidon on the ramp at Andrews, we asked VP-16 commanding officer Cmdr. Molly Boron how long the trip up from Jacksonville had taken. About an hour and a half, she answered. In the P-3C the same flight would have taken more than three hours. Speed is a key difference between the two patrol airplanes, the P-3 cruising at around 300 knots and the P-8 at about 500. With each of its CFM-56-7 engines producing 27,000 pounds max thrust, the Poseidon’s climb performance far exceeds the P-3C’s.

The P-8, which combines the Boeing 737-800 fuselage with the 737-900 wing, is also considerably larger, with more area for an aircrew which consists of fewer hands. Orions fly with a crew of eleven, but Poseidons will fly with nine, including three pilots, two NFOs, two ASW acoustic operators and two non-acoustic operators.

The P-8, which combines the Boeing 737-800 fuselage with the 737-900 wing, is also considerably larger, with more area for an aircrew which consists of fewer hands. Orions fly with a crew of eleven, but Poseidons will fly with nine, including three pilots, two NFOs, two ASW acoustic operators and two non-acoustic operators. The P-8 carries no flight engineer or inflight technician. Rather than sitting at forward-facing tactical workstations as in the P-3C, P-8 NFOs/ tactical operators sit along one “rail” on the port side of the aircraft.

P-8A Poseidon

Lt. Cmdr. Colette Lazenka, Tactical Coordinator with Patrol Squadron (VP) 30, shows Chief of Naval Air Training Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt some of tactical workstations on the P-8A Poseidon. The Poseidon is one of newest additions to Navy’s inventory and will replace the P-3C Orion. U.S. Navy photo by Richard Stewart

While baseline P-8s will deploy with the same capabilities as the P-3C, pipeline capability improvements slated for Increment 2 and Increment 3 have caused some confusion about the operational profile of the Poseidon. Chief among these is the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare System (HAASW), which uses modified sonobuoy sensors that will allow the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes. This enables greater communications range with large area buoy fields and greater coverage from other onboard non-acoustic sensors. The assumption is that the P-8A won’t be “going-low” in search mode.

The P-8A’s sensor suite, radar and data link systems can not only gather more (and more precise) data, they can fuse that data into a common operational picture and push it to other platforms in a fashion the P-3C cannot. A notable omission is the magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) system and the empennage boom which gave the P-3 its characteristic stinger tail. According to Rear Adm. Buck, analysis showed that the P-8’s sensor package (including the latest Multi-Static Active Coherent sonobuoys) would be able to perform all primary mission sets without the MAD system.

The airplane will initially deploy with weapons capability similar to that of the Orion, carrying the Mk. 54 torpedo and AGM-84 Harpoon. The P-8 will not initially be equipped with mines nor will it carry AGM-84K SLAM-ER missiles. Those capabilities are expected later this decade. The bomb bay is located aft of the main gear on the P-8 as opposed to forward of the gear on the P-3C.

Newness not only brings reliability, it brings refinement. Compared with the P-3C, lower levels of vibration and noise, better cabin cooling, and a more flexible wing offering a better ride combine to significantly reduce crew fatigue. With a required 10.5 hour endurance — the same as the P-3C – the P-8A’s improved environmentals will surely improve efficiency, as will its speed.

In the aft quarter of the aircraft access to sonobuoy racks and rotary/pressurized launchers is much improved over the P-3C. Walking the length of the interior, you’re struck by the biggest difference between the P-8A and the P-3C. The areas for mission equipment, storage, the communications rack, tactical workstations, the flight deck and crew rest areas are roomy, efficient and new.

“The greatest improvement from the P-8 to the P-3 right now is the overall reliability of the system,” Buck acknowledges.

Newness not only brings reliability, it brings refinement. Compared with the P-3C, lower levels of vibration and noise, better cabin cooling, and a more flexible wing offering a better ride combine to significantly reduce crew fatigue. With a required 10.5 hour endurance — the same as the P-3C – the P-8A’s improved environmentals will surely improve efficiency, as will its speed.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio

Cmdr. Molly Boron, commanding officer of Patrol Squadron (VP) 16, explains the differences between the functions of the P-3C Orion and the Navy’s newest aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, with Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Jan. 15, 2013. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gulianna Dunn

“A big difference is the broad area search capability of the P-8A,” Buck asserts. “In an ASW search, she can cover a significantly greater body of water and she carries the weapons to go through the entire kill chain. She gets to and from the on-station area much quicker because of her dash speed and her ability to climb.”

With its aircrew trained to refuel the aircraft, the P-8A can drop into commercial airfields practically anywhere, get gas, and go. The Poseidon will also have an aerial refueling capability. Starting in 2015 P-8A aircrews will begin air-to-air refueling training, and all 12 squadrons will be capable by 2020.

While baseline P-8s will deploy with the same capabilities as the P-3C, pipeline capability improvements slated for Increment 2 and Increment 3 have caused some confusion about the operational profile of the Poseidon. Chief among these is the High Altitude Anti-Submarine Warfare System (HAASW), which uses modified sonobuoy sensors that will allow the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes. This enables greater communications range with large area buoy fields and greater coverage from other onboard non-acoustic sensors. The assumption is that the P-8A won’t be “going-low” in search mode.

“With the [more] flexible wings, the crew isn’t getting bounced around as much as in the P-3. It flies very smoothly down low.”

“The employment will be very similar [to the P-3],” Buck counters. “A myth that I’d like to bust is that the P-8 is not able to fly low. This initial lot of aircraft with the Mk.54 torpedo system will fly a very similar profile to the P-3. They’ll go down low. We fly the P-8 in a very similar flight regime to the P-3, and we will employ the Mk.54 from low altitude.”

How does it fly down in the waves?

“It’s quite a bit more comfortable,” Boron says. “With the [more] flexible wings, the crew isn’t getting bounced around as much as in the P-3. It flies very smoothly down low.”

P-8A Poseidon

A P-8A Poseidon assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 16 is seen in flight over Jacksonville, Fla., Feb. 6, 2013. U.S Navy photo by Personnel Specialist 1st Class Anthony Petry

Low altitude will not preclude the aircraft from sharing sensor data thanks to its satellite communication suite. The flight deck includes a heads-up display for the pilots and all the digital avionics, ground proximity warning, traffic collision (TCAS) and other autonomous systems expected in a modern cockpit. The VP-16 pilots with whom we spoke praised the HUD, which allows them to keep their heads above the instrument panel, particularly at low altitude. Likewise, the TCAS and radar increase situational awareness dramatically, and the autopilot reduces pilot fatigue.

Back at the interchangeable tactical workstations, the new displays, processor capability, ‘big picture’ fusion and layout are cited as big advantages. With all NFOs and operators along one rail, eye-to-eye communication is vastly better and operators can easily look at their neighbors’ screens.

“The five of them communicate very well together,” Boron affirms. “With the three [communications] nets that we have available to talk between the crew, integrating with the flight station and the pilots is easy. It is a mind-shift for former P-3 crew, but there’s been no issue.”

An example of the mind-shift Boron alludes to relates to the P-8’s cruise speed. VP-16 NFOs relate that the shorter flight times out to patrol/operating areas have removed the luxury of doing some mission planning/preparation en route. Because the Poseidon gets there so much faster, the mission-commander and his tactical operators must largely complete mission planning before manning the aircraft.

The P-8A also brings operational commonality with one of the most ubiquitous airliners flying. “It’s possible to operate where a 737 operates,” CDR Boron confirms. “We’re a little bit heavier, but that’s the only thing we have to take into consideration.”

With its aircrew trained to refuel the aircraft, the P-8A can drop into commercial airfields practically anywhere, get gas, and go. The Poseidon will also have an aerial refueling capability. While the Orion can refuel in the air, it has very rarely done so. Starting in 2015 P-8A aircrews will begin air-to-air refueling training, and all 12 squadrons will be capable by 2020.

Though its operational similarities with the P-3C are noteworthy, the patrol community has given transition and future operational training considerable thought.

By

Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-170664">

    As a former P-3C NFO/Tacco/Mission Commander, and having actually flown on over 100 ASW Missions, I can tell you that this is one of the biggest pieces of propeganda I’ve read about the P-8A and it’s ability to perform it’s mission. Sensor placement, fuel economy (the aircrafts ability to remain “onstation” for it’s alloted endurance) weapons delivery accuracy, are SIGNIFICANTLY BETTER at the lower alittudes and slower speeds the P-3 operates at during the complete mission. Not to mention the P-8A unbelieveably BAD structural life when carying weapons.

    The purchase of the P-8A over an update of the P-3C was a decision that was almost COMPLETELY POLITICAL and not capability driven. And that’s why foreign countries are still pulling our old P-3s out of the boneyard at Davis-Monthon AFB to update and add to thier inventory than purchasing the P-8.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-171033">
    CDR Larry Berberich

    I am a former P-3A/B/B-mod/UPD II Naval Flight Officer and former RAG instructor. When I transitioned to the update II, the one thing I never liked was having the NFO’s sitting up forward and the sensor 3 sitting on the starboard side of the aircraft. I always thought having the tactical crew sitting together on a rail the way it was in the A/B planes was better. I’m glad to see they corrected the layout in the P-8. I agree with what shipmate DeCosta wrote about sensor and weapons delivery from altitude. I am waiting to see how the aircraft will overcome the poor fuel efficiency issues of a pure jet at low altitude. I would love to take a tour of this new jet someday.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-202840">

    I’ve flown in both airplanes, am former enlisted and a commissioned TACCO/ MC on P-3A, B, C, etc., flying Beartrap missions and for NRL. I was hired by Boeing along with a bunch of other MPA guys who’ve been there and done that, and helped do the OMI design on the P-8A.
    Weps delivery performance is fine, structural life is fine, airframe is reliable, and India’s first P-8I was exported last month.
    P-8A onsta time is better if a long transit is required; with a shorter transit the P-3’s turboprops still shine. Not sure I love the idea of 20+ hours in the air that In Flight Refueling offers, however useful it may be. Can’t comment on political and propaganda aspects, as I haven’t seen any.
    High altitude ASW will be nice if/when it works. In the meantime, the airplane flies nicely at 200′.
    Most importantly, the operators who fly it, like it. So does the Dept of the Navy.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-202955">

    Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear from someone who’s been there with both aircraft. Appreciate your insight.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-203100">
    Dan DeCosya

    Interesting comments from one of the guys who works for the manufacturer. It would be interesting to get some input from the Lockheed team and get some objectivity on the aircrafts shortfalls – there ARE many!

    I’ll see if I can’t get this link to one of them (who is also a P-3C TACCO/MC) and used to be on th eLockheed team to make some comments.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-204619"> li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-204995">
    Dan DeCosta

    As an ASW Instructor Tacco, ASW Instructor Mission Commander, NATOPS Blue Card Instructor for the P3 in both the NAVCOMM and TACCO positions, ASW Weapons Systems Trainer Instructor, ASW Debriefing Officer (including Bear Trap Crews), and CPWP liason to C3F for ASW, (as long as we are substantiating opinions by citing credentials) I can tell you that low altitude/moderated airspeed ASW was difficult enough from an accuracy standpoint.

    I can also tell you that with a shortfall of real world ASW evolutions available to modern day crews coupled on a refocus of MPA Aircraft mission to substantiat existance, that “keeping the edge sharp” for modern day MPA aircrews, the “art of ASW ” is no where close to the proficiency it had in the 1970s and 1980s.

    The end result is going to be a “total reinvention of the art” in an new aircraft at speeds and altitudes from which ASW has yet to be invented. And to assert that the P8 has the fuel consumption to perform ASW at low altitudes for sustained periods of time is simply ludicrus.

    Also,

    Any second tour pilot or NFO who started out in Alfa’s or Bravo’s and trasitioned to Charlies in that second tour will be likely to agree that there was a fair learning curve. Those of us who started in Charlies and certified those second tour Pilots and NFOs from As/Bs understand just how much of a challenge it was to indoctrinate them into a “fairly different” upgrade. Not an entirely new aircraft with new, untested flight parameters.

    The point is simple: Aircrews may not have the experience benefit we had. But at least with the P-3 there were 50 years of lessons learned and ASW evolution that led tremendously to the success of the mission.

    And with the experience I have had I just don’t see how a new “playtoy” and it’s associated political love fest, starting from scratch from an ASW mission profile, is going to be able to provide the Fleet ASW support that the P3 community has, can, and could for many years to come.

    A very wise man, or many very wise men, have often said: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

    We never learn.

    PS. Mr. Oldham: perhaps you would like to share with us your military experience or perhaps that of urwriter, Mr. Tegler.