NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER: The Navy’s efforts to extend the life of the P-3 Orion are paying off with the largest number of P-3s in service since 2007. Currently, there are 80 mission P-3s and trending upward; a vast improvement from the Fleet’s lowest point in 2009 when only 49 aircraft were available for missions.
To address the significant inventory shortfall due to the initial Zone 5 groundings in December 2007, NAVAIR conducted a detailed value stream analysis of the entire P-3 airframe manufacturing and depot repair facility industrial base, specifically targeting resources to address critical path issues that were impacting an efficient return of aircraft back to the Fleet. This included engagement of senior Navy leadership across the Naval Aviation Enterprise to articulate the operational needs, which ultimately led to Congressional funding support for additional outer wing fatigue repairs.
Two new plank and wing spar manufacturing vendors were certified to reduce impacts associated with long-lead items. Three new depot facilities were brought under contract to conduct wing modifications and start work on the backlog of grounded aircraft. Existing contracts were restructured to incentivize depot throughput and investment was made at the Navy’s own depot to implement production level management software solutions to streamline P-3 repair operations.
Based on the improved performance that resulted from the industrial base expansion and depot efficiency initiatives, and the ability to switch to an ‘on-wing’ Zone 5 repair methodology, as developed by Fleet Readiness Command Southeast (FRCSE), the Navy has realized a greater than 50 percent increase in available mission aircraft inventory since early 2009. This accelerated recovery will not only allow the Navy to send more aircraft forward as required but also enable the squadrons not deployed the ability to meet their training and readiness requirements for the first time in years.
“We are extremely pleased with the progress that has been made in helping to restore the Fleet over the past couple of years,” said Capt. Mike Moran, PMA-290 Program Manager. ”The support of Navy leadership and Congress, the restructuring of our depots contracts, the shift to ‘on-wing’ zone 5 repairs, and the improved partnering with our depot teams, both organic and commercial, has enabled us to expand capacity and accelerate the recovery to where we are today. There is no greater reward for our team then to see the direct benefit of our efforts for the fleet – more aircraft forward and improved training opportunities at home is the bottom line and we could not be more proud to be a part of it.”
Regularly scheduled maintenance, including preemptive measures, such as structural inspections and fatigue level tracking of the aircraft, are helping to sustain the fleet. Corrective structural modifications, such as partial wing replacements, performed on some of the grounded planes have provided them with an extended service life as well. As of September, 45 P-3s were undergoing depot repair. Often times, when an aircraft enters the depot for a specific structural modification, such as a partial wing replacement, it leaves with additional repairs and changes, making it difficult to predict the length of time an aircraft will spend in the depot.
“It is not uncommon to find areas of major corrosion that need attention,” said Capt. Aaron Rondeau, P-3 Department Head. “At the same time, they are getting updated electronics and avionics, such as acoustics, air traffic control and navigation systems, high frequency radios, satellite communications and image processors. All this work takes time, and we continue to find efficiencies to reduce the turn around time and expect the trend to continue,” added Rondeau.
Today, there are 147 P-3s available in inventory. To ensure the aircraft remain safe, fatigue levels are tracked under the Navy’s Fatigue Life Management Program (FLMP), which updates the fatigue status for each P-3 aircraft every six months. The Navy is actively working to improve structural fatigue projections by monitoring flight hours and mission profiles flown by each aircraft. The community has also resorted to more frequent use of simulators to satisfy flight training requirements.
To address repair on the fatigued outer wing of the P-3, a rotatable wing pool is being established, which will allow the aircraft to be fitted with either a refurbished or new outer wing with less time delay. First, it requires sets of new wings to begin the pool. As the old outer wings are removed and replaced, they are refurbished and returned to the pool. Fifteen new outer wings have been ordered with the first set installed and seven more in production. This effort will significantly reduce the turn around time for outer wing repair and provide for additional flight hours on some of the P-3s.
The P-3 is one of the Navy’s oldest aircraft today with an average age in the fleet of 30 years. The P-3 replacement program, the P-8A Poseidon, is on track to stand up its first operational squadron in 2013. The P-8 will benefit from lessons learned from decades of upkeep on the P-3, including a more rigorous way of tracking maintenance data and understanding fatigue life expectations as early as possible to avoid crisis situations. As the Navy’s frontline, land based maritime patrol aircraft since the 1960s, the P-3 will pass on the same mission capabilities to the P-8, plus enhanced systems and greater performance for years to come.