As the P-3 Orion passed 50 years in service with the RAAF in late 2018, the thousands of people who’ve been involved with the aircraft and its missions are looking back at its achievements.
The maritime patrol aircraft’s longest operational commitment has been Operation GATEWAY where, at the end of 2018, the AP-3C completed its final sortie and handed-over support to the P-8A Poseidon.
GATEWAY is Australia's enduring bilateral arrangement with Malaysia to contribute to the preservation of regional security and stability in South East Asia by providing maritime surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
With flying commencing in February 1981, GATEWAY is the ADF’s longest continuous operation.
The name Operation GATEWAY originates from the geographic area of operations north-west of our continent which is considered a ‘strategic gateway’.
During the 1980s, the major focus was the Cold War and along with the AP-3C Orion
s, naval vessels conducted missions in the Indian Ocean
and the Malacca
Royal Australian Navy submarines also conducted patrols as part of US deterrence and surveillance operations against Soviet submarines.
Initially P-3 patrols involved the regular monitoring of Soviet ship and submarine movements in the region, however it soon involved the use of radar and sonar buoys
to actively detect, identify and track submarines.
Many of it’s the RAAF P-3s had tense cat and mouse like interactions with Soviet adversaries, but the Australian public was not aware of these operations at the time.
These Cold War patrols ended in 1989, but Operation GATEWAY and the work for P-3s continued as new demands arose to stop piracy, smuggling and terrorism.
As new challenges emerged, multiple generations of the P-3 Orions, along with their crews in the air, on the ground and back in Australia rose to those challenges, and maintained a demanding operational tempo.
WOFF Peter van der Heiden, who has worked with P-3 Orions in various roles since 1988, said an 11 to 12-hour sortie in the air was not unusual.
“This meant that after a 0530 hours start and 0800 take off, there was a land-time of between 1900 and 2000 hours,” he said
“Plus if you take into account reporting requirements and other post flight activities for some personnel, crew members often had a 16-hour day from start to finish of duty.
“They were long days – but every individual was committed to their tasks to get the job done and to get it done well.”
WOFF van der Heiden went on to explain his experience of P-3 Orion maintenance operations and what they entailed.
“The first maintenance shift started at 0500 hours, about an hour before the flight engineers were likely to turn up.
“This was to fully fuel up the aircraft to ‘max gas’ (about 61,000 lbs), load ordnance and search stores.
“The second shift came in mid-afternoon, recovered the aircraft post flight and worked for as long as was required to have both aircraft ready for the next sortie.
“In more recent years, with shorter flights, the requirement for two complete maintenance shifts reduced and some compromises and reductions in manning were made.”
Given the phased withdrawal from service of the AP-3C Orion, the P-8A Poseidon has assumed the role as Australia’s primary Maritime Patrol asset in 2019.
With the P-3’s role in Operation GATEWAY concluding in 2018, it was a proud but sentimental moment to reflect on the decades of achievements by the Orions.
Officer Commanding 92WG Detachment A, WGCDR Jim Collisson, said the P-3 Orion has provided outstanding service to Operation GATEWAY over the last 37 years.
“Every Australian iteration of the Orion has served on Operation GATEWAY and the Orion has earned incredible respect from both the Australian Defence Force and the Malaysian Defence Force,” WGCDR Collisson said.
“For almost 40 years South East Asia has become accustomed to an RAAF Orion operating over the waters of the region.
“Whether the Orion was locating survivors during SAR, deterring cold war threats or surveilling the seas and oceans for illegal activities, the tireless and capable Orion has seen it all.
“Although the Orion will be sadly missed, 2019 is the beginning of a new era for Operation GATEWAY with the P-8A Poseidon.”