A9 Lockheed Orion in Australian Service.
In 1957, Lockheed proposed a new design (based on the L188 Electra airliner) to replace the United States Navy’s ageing fleet of P2V Neptune and P5M Marlins. The proposal met all of the navy’s requirements and was accepted in April 1958. A prototype was created from a modified Electra and designated YP3V-I and flew on 25 November 1959. This would later be designated the P-3A Orion. By late 1960 a production contract was in place and the first P-3A flew in April 1961, entering service with the United States Navy August 1962.By the early 1960s the RAAF also, with ageing Neptunes in number 11 Squadron, were looking for a replacement. The RAAF’s ongoing relationship with Lockheed made the Orion a logical choice and at the end of 1964, it was decided to re-equip Number 11 Squadron with ten P-3Bs by 1968 and relocate the squadron to RAAF Edinburgh, South Australia.
The P-3B was an improved variant of the P-3A, appearing in 1965 with improved navigation and mission systems, an auxiliary power unit for independent ground and emergency in-flight power, and the more powerful Allison T56-A-14 engines.In November 1967, Australian crews travelled to US Naval Air Stations at Moffett Field and North Island to commence their Orion training. Australian Orion crews would be comprised of two pilots, one or two flight engineers, tactical coordinator, navigator and five air electronics officers as sensor operators, radio operator, and visual observers/ordnance operators.
The first aircraft for Number 11 Squadron arrived in Australia in May 1968 to Edinburgh.
The Orion’s increased range, speed and reliability enabled it to operate more widely with shorter response times than the Neptune. This was ideal for Australia to meet her obligations to monitor large expanses of the strategically important south-western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean. The Orion was also crucial for the patrolling Australia’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and while maintaining a Search and Rescue standby commitment.
Between November 1969 and April 1970, RAAF Orions were tasked to closely monitor a Soviet Zulu-class diesel submarine and its two civilian escorts conducting what is believed to have been hydrographic surveys off Australia’s east coast and the Great Australian Bight.
Lockheed further developed the Orion in 1968 with the CP-901 central computer linking advanced search radars, acoustics processors, electronics support measures, Magnetic Anomaly Detector and low light level television. This newly equipped aircraft, with significantly altered internal layout, would be the P-3C, which also incorporated advanced navigation and tactical systems including the ASN-84 inertial navigation system and secure Link 11 tactical data link and forty-eight externally loaded sonobuoy launch tubes.
The P-3C would undergo further updates to avionics, weapons, and sonobuoy capabilities through the late 1960s and into the 1970s. It was in the early 1970s that the RAAF’s Number 10 Squadron, operating Neptunes, now considered the P-3C. In May 1975 eight of the most updated P-3Cs were ordered with an additional two in November 1976. 10 Squadron had been located at Townsville, but once equipped with Orions, moved to Edinburgh with Number 11 Squadron to form Number 92 Wing in 1977. Combining the maintenance operations of both squadrons, Number 492 Squadron was formed for maintenance. For training, the Maritime Analysis and Training Squadron became Number 292 Squadron in October 1980.
Between 1980 and 1982, Number 10 Squadron Orions were fitted with British Marconi AQS-901 processors by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. This system could monitor all available sonobuoys including the advanced Australian developed SSQ-801 Barra passive directional sonobuoy.
RAAF Orions were at the forefront of Australia’s Cold War posture. Operation Gateway was in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the need for surveillance in the strategically important Indian Ocean, Malacca Straits and South China Sea. This operation was to provide an ongoing presence in the area with a permanent Orion detachment at Butterworth, Malaysia. During this operation much intelligence was gathered in relation to Soviet movements in the area – tracking Charlie and Echo-2 class submarines and their surface escorts.
During Operations Caterpillar and Enquarter in June 1982 and March 1983, RAAF Orions operating from the Cocos Islands monitored a Soviet naval group recovering the BOR-4 unpiloted experimental space vehicle testing the re-entry tiles for the Soviet Buran space shuttle. RAAF photos of the recovery were distributed internationally and were later included in a Buran exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Between 1984 to 1986, Number 11 Squadron would upgrade to the latest P-3C variant and continue their surveillance duties. From 2006 to the present day, RAAF Orion tasks have been consolidated into Operation Resolute – a multi-service effort to protect Australia’s boarders and offshore maritime interests.
There is also Operation Solania, a multi-national effort to provide maritime surveillance in the Pacific, to which RAAF P-3s play a significant role.
On 26 April 1991 at Cocos Island, a RAAF Orion ditched in a shallow lagoon short of the runway. Flying Officer Tom Henniker, a No 10 Squadron pilot flying as additional crew, was killed instantly as the propellers separated and one penetrated the fuselage near the port side ditching station in which he was sitting.
Project Air 5276 was initiated to extend the operational life of the fleet. Under this project the internal arrangement of the aircraft was significantly altered, and radar, comms, and other systems were upgraded.
The introduction of sophisticated electronic warfare self-protection systems, data communication and continuing upgrades to the aircraft’s electro-optics/infra-red system meant the AP-3C was second to none as a maritime patrol and Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform.
In September 1999, under Operations Spitfire and Warden, five P-3Cs provided surveillance and direct support to Coalition naval surface forces around East Timor until 18 October 1999.
In 2003, RAAF Orions were deployed to the Middle East to operate initially over Afghanistan under Operation Slipper, and then Operation Falconer over Iraq. The Australian aircraft were tasked over a range of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations both in the traditional maritime domain and over land. Almost a decade of demanding operations in the Middle East, involved regional counterterrorism, maritime surveillance, counter-piracy and overland operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, in over 2400 missions. The RAAF Orions saw a 96% success rate over 22,300 hours of flying.
RAAF Orions have also been involved in civilian rescue operations, such as the 1995 rescue of solo yachtswoman Isabelle Autissier, 1670km south of South Australia and yachtsmen Raphael Dinelli, Thierry Dubois and Tony Bullimore in the 1996-97 Vendée Globe solo-handed around-the-world yacht race. There was also a deployment of four Orions from Pearce to support the Australian-led search and rescue mission for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 which disappeared in March 2014.
The Orion has also been tasked to conduct surveillance in support of State emergency services conducting damage survey and imagery collection during major bushfires and floods.
In 2007 the Australian government announced that the P-8A Poseidon was the preferred aircraft to replace the Orion, with the first of fifteen Poseidons arriving in Australia late 2016.
No 11 Squadron completely retired it’s Orions by late 2018, and number 10 Squadron retired it’s last two Orions in December 2023, being replaced by four MC-55A Peregrine aircraft which will enter service over the next few years.