At the height of Cold War tensions, the chief of the Soviet general staff, Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev said, “I always know where my submarines are. I look at where the P-3 Orions are flying and that tells me where my submarines are.”
American sailors consider that high praise.
The Lockheed P-3 Orion has just passed its 50th anniversary in U.S. Navy service. The Orion remains on duty as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW), maritime reconnaissance, and over-land reconnaissance aircraft. Some 402 Orions are on duty with 21 nations, including 120 in U.S. Navy squadrons. They represent a significant part of the 757 Orions that were manufactured between 1962 and 2000 – 650 from Lockheed and 107 from Japan’s Kawasaki.
When the Orion entered service, the Pentagon was concerned about the Soviet submarine threat. The press played up the threat with considerable fervor, often making Moscow’s undersea fleet seem larger and more formidable than it really was. Western intelligence credited the U.S.S.R. with 450 submarines. Collier’s magazine in 1950 portrayed Russian submarines as dominating the world’s shipping lanes. Today, the P-3 still stalks submarines in a much-changed world, but the Orion also has a new job: flying overland in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa stalking terrorists, insurgents and pirates.
“The Orion has an important place in our history,” said author and naval analyst Norman Polmar. “For years it was one of our principal weapons against submarines. It’s an immensely practical turboprop airplane. It can shut down two of its four engines and loiter around at very low altitude, getting very close to where submarines live and being persistent in stalking them.”
The Orion began as a straightforward proposal by Lockheed to replace its own P2V Neptune – a hugely successful patrol aircraft in Korea and the early Cold War – with a naval version of its Electra airliner. Lockheed had more experience building large, land-based naval aircraft than any other planemaker, but less with airliners, so the military Orion rapidly overshadowed its civilian Electra forebear.
The first plane in the Orion series, a modified Electra, completed its maiden flight Aug. 19, 1958. This prototype was later modified, like production Orions, to be seven feet shorter than the Electra and to have a tail boom with magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) gear. Designated YP3V-1, with the “Y” prefix signifying a service-test role, the aircraft had the Orion’s standard fuselage length of 116 feet 10 inches (35.61 meters).
The first U.S. Navy unit with the Orion was Patrol Squadron Eight, or VP-8 “Fighting Tigers,” callsign Pinstripe, at Patuxent River, Md. The squadron gave up its long-serving P2V-5FS Neptunes and received its first P3V-1 Orion (bureau number 149671) on July 21, 1962. August, when two more planes arrived, is usually cited as the month of the operational conversion. When the U.S. system of aircraft designations was overhauled on Oct. 1 of that year, the P3V series became the P-3 series.
Initially painted Navy blue with a white upper fuselage, the Orion went into action right away when four P-3As of VP-8 deployed to Bermuda to support U.S. operations during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. “The story begins in Cuba and continues today in Afghanistan,” said Polmar.
Over the Years
Since then, we’ve seen three major versions – P-3A, P-3B and P-3C – each boasting a series of updates, primarily on the inside. There are also a variety of specialized versions, including the EP-3E Aries II electronic reconnaissance version that made headlines during an incident in China in 2001.
The outside appearance of the Orion hasn’t changed much. But the interior, electronics, avionics and software are changing constantly. Because of computerized electronics, early P-3C versions were said to have more parts inside the aircraft than the entire production run of P-3As and Bs, and the number has increased again in the most recent version, the present-day P-3C Update 3.0+. Four of the proven and reliable Allison T56-A-10/14 turboprop engines provide power for Orions, driving four-bladed Hamilton Standard propellers.
The up-front flight crew of an Orion consists of two pilots and a flight engineer. The latter won’t be retained on the P-8A replacement aircraft. Extra crewmembers often go along on extended missions. The pilot, also called the plane commander (PC), is always responsible for the flight of the aircraft but not always for the mission. The tactical coordinator (TACCO), a naval flight officer, is sometimes the boss and is always in charge of the operators in the back. The TACCO, along with sensor operators, monitors the Orion’s detection gear, including sonobuoys, radar, MAD gear and electronic countermeasures equipment.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Richard R. Burgess logged hundreds of hours as a TACCO on P-3s. “The TACCO is the navigator that designs the mission, employs the tactics and directs the aircraft where to go,” said Burgess in a Sept. 7 telephone interview. “The mission commander is either the TACCO or the plane commander. The PC is always responsible for safety of flight.”
A typical ASW mission takes up a day 18 to 20 hours long, said Burgess, who is a former editor of Naval Aviation News and currently managing editor of Seapower magazine. “We’d have a four-hour brief and pre-flight period. We’d go through the aircraft, inspect it, and load it with ordnance or sonobuoys or both.
“We received an ‘on station effectiveness grade’ on every flight,” Burgess said. “How well did the sensor operators perform in detecting and tracking a submarine? How well did each crewmember do his job? When you knew you were being graded every time, you wanted to be good and we tried to be.”
Books about patrol squadrons don’t top best-seller lists like books about Navy SEALs. Tom Cruise never made a movie called Top Patrol Plane. But the morale and effectiveness of P-3 Orion crews has always been high and remains so today. Some P-3s will still be flying for at least another decade. Although they don’t earn many headlines, they receive plenty of attention from important people. Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen called the P-3 Orion “an important asset.”
If Marshal Akhromeyev were still with us, he would be able to confirm that.