Have you ever wondered what it is like to chase enemy subs from the air or to hunt pirates off the coast of Somalia? Foxtrot Alpha gives you an unprecedented look into the world of a US Navy Maritime Patrol pilot, a job that continues to change and evolve as fast as our increasingly complicated world does.
Recent months have seen the U.S. Navy's P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion featured in the news frequently. Search operations for MH370 and the recent 'Pivot towards the Pacific' have highlighted the utility and these aircraft and their ability to gather information on ships, submarines, and land targets. Foxtrot Alpha recently had the opportunity to work with a pilot that has flown both the P-3 and the P-8 in an effort to unveil the realities of the modern Maritime Patrol mission and how these aircraft have been used everywhere from Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror to the vast waters of the Western Pacific, as well as how they could be used creatively in future conflicts.
I remember watching the Blue Angels fly at an air show when I was seven...
'What brought you here,' is a question Naval Aviators ask each other a lot. The personal story is always unique. I remember watching the Blue Angels fly at an airshow when I was seven. That experience stuck with me and as I got older I was convinced I wanted to do some type of tactically focused flying that was only available in the service.
Without a doubt, my most memorable moment from flight school was my solo formation ride while flying the T-34C Tubro Mentor. Two students with probably less than 50 hours of flight experience take two turbine-powered aircraft and fly a formation event with an instructor tailing them in a third plane. The feeling of responsibility and accomplishment was amazing. A close second to this memory was my last instrument training flights in the T-44C, which is basically a militarized Beechcraft King Air. We flew an approach in a driving rainstorm with over 50 mph winds using an archaic navigation station called a Non Directional Beacon. On a calm day the NDB swings steadily. On this storming day, the indicator needle was absolutely haywire. Instead of several minutes long, our final approach was 35 seconds because the gusting tailwind was so intense. That day I gained a lot of respect for our pilot ancestors and the challenges they had with so little technology while facing the same risks presented by Mother Nature.
You really can't overestimate how important open and secure shipping lanes are to the world economy...
After earning my 'Wings of Gold' I was sent to NAS Jacksonville for replacement training in the P-3C Orion. While the aircraft started life simply as a submarine hunting and patrol platform, in five decades it has seen a great deal of change.
The three main mission areas of the P-3C are Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti Surface Warfare (ASuW), and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). The Orion is a pretty versatile platform and it has lent itself very well to modification with new sensors, systems, and payloads over time. Honestly, it's the versatility of the platform that kept it relevant and off the budgetary chopping block during decades of declining numbers of aircraft and perceived threat. People don't get to hear a great deal about the aircraft largely because it has so much interaction with submarines. Submarine operations are by their very nature sensitive, and if you're hunting them, it's sensitive by extension.
ASW is the core mission set of the community. The Orion can transit to an area at high-speed and get sensors in the water quickly. While the P-3 is not as capable as a submarine's sonar array or SOSUS, the ability to reposition quickly is key. ASW is all about the time from the last known position of the sub in question. Geometry rules everything. A P-3C can quickly get on-station and get sonobuoys in the water, increasing the chance of catching a submarine by minimizing the time from its last point of detection.
The ability to carry weapons and attack that submarine if needed completes the Kill Chain, all in a single package. Submarines are inherently stealthy and pose an enormous threat to military and commercial shipping. Being able to detect and track these boats for extended periods of time was key throughout the Cold War and is just as important today.
You really cannot overestimate how important open and secure shipping lanes are to the world economy. Sink one or two cargo carriers or supertankers and shipping insurance rates go through the roof. You make shipping rates too expensive and Asia can't import raw materials. Factories shut down from lack of supplies. Without finished goods getting shipped to developed markets, big box retail shelves go empty. Wal-Mart's 'warehouse on wheels' grinds to a halt. If you don't have secure shipping lanes the globalized world economy goes belly up. The scary part of this reality is that any tin-pot dictator with 200 million USD can buy a top of the line Kilo class diesel attack submarine. That's a small price to pay to wreck the global economy.
For more on how America develops ways to make its submarines as quiet as possible click on this Foxtrot Alpha special feature.