By MC1 Steve Smith and MC3 Amber Porter
Across the fleet, wistful pilots are bidding a fond farewell to the P-3C Orion, which after more than five decades as the U.S. Navy’s maritime patrol aircraft, is making way for its upgraded successor, the P-8A Poseidon.
Based out of Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, Patrol Squadron (VP) 26 “Tridents” are currently flying missions in the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the Navy’s final East Coast active duty deployment of the P-3C.
“It’s incredible and it means being a part of history,” said Lt. Cory Solis, VP-26 tactical coordinator. “The plane has been a fighting force for the Navy for so long and we’re still able to employ it. We can still count on her to get up in the air and be vital part of something like what we are doing now in the Middle East.”
Debuting in August 1962, the P-3 platform went through three major models, culminating in 1969 with the arrival of the P-3C, the only version still flying today.
The current P-3C is equipped with the latest in Command, Control, Communications and Computer (C4) technology, enabling it to integrate with other forces and to facilitate network-centric warfare. The P-8A is designed to take these capabilities to the next level.
“During the P-3’s 50 years of service, it has flown countless hours over land and sea, all while maintaining an excellent service record,” said Capt. Scott Dillion, program manager for the Maritime Patrol & Reconnaissance Aircraft (PMA-290) program office. “As we transition to the P-8, we look to continue the tradition that the Navy’s current workhorse, the P-3, has set in place.”
“The P-8A Poseidon brings a more advanced, more effective, and more integrated sensor suite, an extended global reach, a greater payload, and a significantly greater capacity for future capability growth,” he said. “P-8A improves upon the legacy of its predecessor with greater range, endurance, speed and reliability. Two P-8A aircraft can accomplish the same mission as three P-3C aircraft.”
On the Other Side of the World
After 42 years of service, the P-3C designated as aircraft 916 took its final flight March 27 with the “Golden Eagles” of Patrol Squadron (VP) 9 from their home station in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, over the Pacific to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309 AMARG) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, also known as “The Boneyard.”
“It was an honor to be a part of 916’s last voyage,” said Lt. Emily Cordle, a pilot on the REPO (reposition) flight. “The entire crew couldn’t help but reflect on the countless missions she has flown, the numerous crew members she has carried, and the endless maintainers that have kept her flying for 42 years.”
Touted on its website as “the largest aircraft boneyard in the world,” 309 AMARG is a one-of-a-kind specialized facility within the Air Force Material Command structure. Responsible for the storage and maintenance of aircraft for future redeployment, parts, or proper disposal following retirement by the military, the 2,600-acre field is home to 4,400 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard and NASA.
Traffic to the boneyard is expected to be steady for VP squadrons as the Lockheed Martin-built P-3C is phased out and they adjust to the P-8A, a modified Boeing 737-800ERX.
The Navy plans to purchase 117 P-8As through fiscal 2018 as half of its plan to replace roughly 225 P-3Cs. Nearly 100 P-3Cs have been decommissioned over the last decade, and the last Orion is expected to retire in 2023.
Being scrapped for parts or otherwise left in an open field to roast under the scorching Arizona sky might seem like an unbefitting conclusion to the Orion’s story, but the tired aircraft has earned its retirement—the current fleet of P-3Cs average more than 17,000 hours of flight time, well beyond the aircraft’s planned fatigue life of 7,500 hours.
Besides, no erosion can destroy the aircraft’s lasting influence in history. During its 50-plus years of service, the Orion flew in support of U.S. operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War-era anti-submarine warfare missions, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the Balkan crisis, Operation Allied Force, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and most recently, Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya.
Transitioning to a new aircraft goes beyond using its physical capabilities and technology.
“This flexibility is one of the hallmarks of U.S. Naval service. However, it is not the airframe that provides this flexibility. It is the people,” Smith said. “The same people who are making P-3s succeed on station will be the ones who make the P-8 succeed on station. The airframe will change, but the culture and legacy of excellence in maritime patrol and reconnaissance will remain.”
Personnel are already preparing for the road ahead. Sailors will have to adjust, retrain, and in some cases, find a different career path in the Navy.
All maintenance Sailors will be required to attend the P-8 general familiarization course, which lasts between five to 10 days. They will also be required to attend P-8 rate training. Upon completion, they will be assigned to Fleet Replacement Squadron, VP-30, in Jacksonville, and work in their rating specific area to become qualified collateral duty inspectors (CDI) and plane captains on the P-8 for approximately six months.
“You either ride the waves of change or drown beneath them,” VP-26 Command Master Chief James B. Daniels Jr., said. “The point is, change is going to happen whether you like it or not. The P-8 is a new, more capable aircraft, and as we did with the P-3, we will maximize the use of it to further the Navy’s mission.”
The new P-8 aircraft is expected to arrive in Bahrain in about one year.
“I am extremely proud of what the men and women of VP-26 do every day,” Smith said. “To me, the last P-3 deployment from the East Coast will always imply the additional work and sacrifices required to do more with less, and meeting mission in spite of those challenges, the way VP-26 has always done before.”
Jeff Newman, Naval Aviation News staff writer and contributing editor, compiled the articles by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Steve Smith, previously stationed at Naval Support Activity Bahrain Public Affairs; and Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amber Porter, stationed with Patrol Squadron (VP) 9 Public Affairs at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
Victor Chen is director of Corporate Communication, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md.