The P-3 Orion, originally designated P3V, is based on the same design philosophy as the Lockheed L-188 Electra. It is not the same plane structurally. It has had seven feet of fuselage removed fore of the wings, as well as myriad internal, external, and airframe production technique enhancements. It served as the replacement for the postwar era P-2 Neptune. The Orion is powered by four Allison T56 turboprops which give it a speed comparable to fast propeller powered fighters, or even slow turbofan jets such as the A-10. Many other countries have seen the value of this platform design and have developed similar patrol aircraft based on this model, with the Soviets adapting their own counterpart to the Orion, the Ilyushin Il-38. The P-3 also competes with the British Hawker Siddeley Nimrod adaptation of the de Havilland Comet and the French Breguet Atlantique.
The first production version, designated P3V-1, first flew 15 April 1961. Initial squadron deliveries to VP-8 and VP-44 began in August 1962. On 18 September 1962, the U.S. military transitioned to a unified designation system, making the aircraft the P-3A. Paint schemes have changed from an early 1960s blue and white scheme, to a mid 1960s white and grey, to 1990s low visibility gray. Over the years more than 40 combatant & noncombatant variants of the P-3 have been developed due to the rugged reliability displayed by the platform flying 12 hour plus missions over salt water while maintaining an excellent safety record. Versions have been developed for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for research and hurricane hunting/hurricane wall busting, for U.S. Customs for drug interdiction and aerial surveillance mission with a rotodome adapted from the E-2 Hawkeye or an AN/APG-66 radar adapted from the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and for NASA for research and development.
There have also been unconfirmed claims of the CIA operating three P-3As, alternatingly described as having been painted all black or in the markings of the Taiwanese Air Force (RoCAF), for aerial surveillance and agent/leaflet delivery in the vicinity of the People's Republic of China. The veracity of these claims remains suspect.
The P-3 has an internal bomb bay under the front fuselage which can house conventional Mark 50 torpedoes or Mark 46 torpedoes and/or special (nuclear) weapons. Additional underwing stations, or pylons, can carry other armament configurations including the AGM-84 Harpoon, AGM-84E SLAM, AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER, the AGM-65 Maverick, 5 in (12.7cm) Zuni rockets, and various other mines, missiles, and gravity bombs. The aircraft also had the capability to carry the AGM-12 Bullpup guided missile until that weapon was withdrawn from U.S./NATO/Allied service.
Australian operations have a normal complement of 13, broken down as:
On many missions, an engine is shut down (usually the No. 1 engine - the port outer engine) once on station to conserve fuel and extend the time aloft and/or range when at low level. On occasion, both outboard engines can be shut down, aircraft weight, weather, and remaining fuel permitting. Long deep-water, coastal or border patrol missions can last over ten hours and may include extra crew. The record time aloft for a P-3 is a 21.5 hour flight undertaken by the Royal New Zealand Air Force's No. 5 Squadron in 1972.
Engine 1 is the primary candidate for loiter shutdown because it is the only one without a generator, and is not needed for electrical power. Eliminating the exhaust from engine 1 also improves visibility from the aft observer station on the port side of the aircraft.
Developed during the Cold War, the P-3's primary mission was to track and eliminate ballistic missile and fast attack submarines in the event of war. Reconnaissance missions in international waters led to occasions where Soviet fighters would "bump" a U.S. Navy P-3 or other P-3 operators such as the Royal Norwegian Air Force. On one occasion in the 1980s the MiG and pilot did not survive the "bump" while trying to ward off a P-3 photographing a Soviet fleet exercise. The P-3 lost more than of its wing in the collision. The P-3 completed its mission and returned to base. Cuban Missile Crisis In October 1962, P-3As flew several blockade patrols in the vicinity of Cuba. Having just recently joined the operational Fleet earlier that year, this was the first employment of the P-3 in a real world "near conflict" situation.Vietnam : Operation Market Time Beginning in 1964, forward deployed P-3s began flying a variety of missions under Operation Market Time from bases in the Philippines and Vietnam. The primary focus of these coastal patrols was to stem the supply of materials to the Viet Cong by sea, although several of these missions also became overland "feet dry" sorties. During one such mission, a small caliber artillery shell passed through a P-3 without rendering it mission incapable. During another overland mission, it is rumored, but not confirmed, that a P-3 shot down a North Vietnamese MiG with Zuni missiles. The only confirmed combat loss of a P-3 also occurred during Operation Market Time. In April 1968, a U.S. Navy P-3B of Patrol Squadron TWENTY-SIX (VP-26) was downed by anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire in the Gulf of Thailand with the loss of the entire crew. Two months earlier, in February 1968, another of VP-26's P-3Bs was operating in the same vicinity when it crashed with the loss of the entire crew. Originally attributed to be an aircraft mishap at low altitude, later conjecture is that this aircraft may have also fallen victim to AAA fire from the same source as the subsequent aircraft loss in April. Iraq: Desert Shield / Desert Storm On August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and was poised to strike Saudi Arabia. Within forty-eight hours of the initial invasion of Kuwait, U.S. Navy P-3Cs were the first American forces to arrive in the area. One of these responding P-3Cs was a modified aircraft with a prototype system known as “Outlaw Hunter.” Undergoing trials in the Pacific after being developed by the Navy’s Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command, "Outlaw Hunter" was testing a specialized over-the-horizon targeting (OTH-T) system package when it responded. Within hours of the start of the coalition air campaign, “Outlaw Hunter” detected a large number of Iraqi patrol boats and naval vessels attempting to make a run from Basra & Umm Qasar to Iranian waters. “Outlaw Hunter” vectored in strike elements which attacked the flotilla near Bubiyan Island destroying 11 vessels and damaging scores more. During Desert Shield, a P-3 using infrared imaging detected a ship with Iraqi markings beneath freshly painted bogus Egyptian markings trying to avoid detection. Several days before the January 7, 1991 commencement of Operation Desert Storm, a P-3C equipped with an APS-137 Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) conducted coastal surveillance along Iraq and Kuwait to provide pre-strike reconnaissance on enemy military installations. Fifty-five of the one hundred and eight Iraqi vessels destroyed during the conflict were targeted by P-3C aircraft. Hainan Island incident In April 2001 an aerial collision between a United States Navy EP-3E Aries II, a signals reconnaissance version of the P-3C, and a People's Liberation Army Navy J-8IIM fighter resulted in an international incident between the United States and China. The J-8IIM crashed and its pilot was killed. The EP-3 came close to becoming uncontrollable, at one point sustaining a near inverted roll, but was able to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The crew and plane were subsequently detained by Chinese authorities, accused of "killing the Chinese pilot". After several days, the crew was repatriated separately to the United States while the aircraft remained in China, reported taken apart for research on American technology. Although the crew attempted to destroy as much classified material, hardware and software on the aircraft prior to the emergency landing, there is little doubt that the EP-3 was exploited by Chinese intelligence services. An American team was later permitted to enter Hainan in order to dismantle the aircraft, which was subsequently airlifted back to United States for reassembly and repair. Pakistan In late 2006, the US announced the intention to sell three P-3C Orions equipped with the E-2C Hawkeye 2000 AEW system to the Pakistan Navy, along with 10 regular P-3Cs. The AEW aircraft will provide Pakistan with search surveillance and control capability for maritime operations.
Several P-3s have been N-registered and are operated by civilian agencies. The United States Customs Service has a number of P-3A and P-3Bs used for maritime patrol. NOAA operates two WP-3D variants specially modified for hurricane research. One P-3B, N426NA, is used by NASA as an Earth science research platform, primarily for the NASA Science Mission Directorate's Airborne Science Program. It is based at Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia.
Aero Union, Inc. operates eight ex-USN P-3As configured as air tankers, which are leased to the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and other agencies for firefighting use. A unique capability of the P-3 is that on so-called "downhill runs," i.e. when the plane is commencing a low pass to drop fire retardant, it is possible to put the propellers into "Beta" range, which is reverse-thrust mode, in order to slow the plane for the drop of water-based retardant. Several of these aircraft were involved in the U.S. Forest Service airtanker scandal but have not been involved in any catastrophic aircraft mishaps.