Lockheed P-3B Orion Airborne Laboratory


One enduring aircraft that I worked on is the Lockheed Martin P-3B Orion, a four-engine turboprop surveillance aircraft developed for the US Navy in the 1960s. Operated by NASA at Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia, this ex-US Navy aircraft was used for low altitude heavy lift airborne science missions. It was modified to support passive microwave instruments, such as NOAA’s Polarimetric Scanning Radiometer, NASA’s 2-DSTAR, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s polarimetric scatterometer instruments.

Modifications to the P-3B were performed for NAVAIR, the US Navy’s Air Systems Command. At that time its purpose was “weather collection.” A later model, P-3C, was used in anti-submarine warfare patrol. Missions included surveillance of the battle space, at sea and over land. The P-3 Orion excelled at specialized tasks due in part to its long range and long loiter time. The project was in collaboration with Avionics Engineering Services and Associated Air Center in Dallas, Texas.

Today, P-3s are being replaced by Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, a twin turbofan derivative of the Boeing 737-800 airliner. The P-3 Orion operated successfully for over 50 years, and by some accounts was the “perfect plane” for multi-mission roles.