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The P-3C Orion squadron is continuing operations at the U.S. Navy base in Sigonella, Sicily, in spite of a recent order to ground roughly a quarter of the fleet, Navy officials said.

Naval Air Systems Command ordered a preemptive grounding of 39 of the Navy’s fleet of 161 P-3C Orions after a testing survey revealed possible “structural fatigue concerns” with the aft lower wings, a command spokesman said.

“They have other aircraft within the squadron, and should be able to keep flying,” said John Milliman, a spokesman with Naval Air Systems Command, based in Patuxent River, Md., speaking of P-3C squadrons in general.

Of the 39 grounded aircraft, 10 currently operate outside of the United States. Navy officials declined to say if any of the grounded aircraft operate out of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily.

The number of aircraft assigned to a squadron depends upon its missions, said Navy spokeswoman Lt. Karen Eifert.

Typically, a Maritime Patrol Aviation squadron has nine aircraft and is manned by approximately 60 officers and 250 enlisted personnel, according a Web posting by the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. MPA squadrons usually deploy to bases outside the United States for about six months.

Though the Navy won’t say where the 10 deployed grounded planes are located, Eifert listed the home stations of all 39 grounded P-3C Orions. Fifteen are from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla.; nine from Naval Air Station Brunswick, Maine; seven from Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii; six from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash.; one at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.; and one at Point Mugu, Calif.

Currently, personnel from Jacksonville and Brunswick are serving the standard six-month rotational tour for the P-3 squadron at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily, a Navy official said.

The Navy shifted to rotating squadrons, versus those permanently stationed overseas, to help reduce costs and the U.S. military’s footprint abroad.

The versatile P-3s have been used to support ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing overhead surveillance and reconnaissance, and in humanitarian missions from the Persian Gulf to the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and the Philippines. The P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft was designed to hunt submarines.

The squadron in Sigonella works for Combined Task Force-67, a subordinate command under the Navy’s 6th Fleet that maintains operational control over deployed maritime patrol squadrons, permanently-based reconnaissance squadrons, and antisubmarine warfare operations centers in the Mediterranean.

The structural concerns came about as a result of an ongoing “fatigue life study” the Navy started in December 2004, Milliman said.

Engineers use a computer model and test aircraft to simulate varying types of flying conditions and stressors that aircraft go through, he said. “The data we got from that test is what we based our recent actions on,” he said. “This is being done in a proactive way … and not reaction to a mishap of any kind.”

Naval Air Systems Command has yet to finalize details on the “recovery” of the 10 deployed aircraft, he said. “Our primary concern was to get them on the ground.”

He did not know how many, if any, of the 10 deployed aircraft might be in Sigonella, or if the base has the needed personnel and equipment to perform additional analysis on the aircraft and replace any of the plane’s structures.

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