Last 3 planes from Navy patrol squadron to depart Hawaii for new home in Wash.
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 3, 2017
It’s the end of an era for Navy patrol squadrons that have flown the sub-hunting and surveillance P-3 Orion out of Hawaii for more than half a century.
The final three planes of Patrol Squadron 9, or VP-9, are expected to wing away from Kaneohe Bay by week’s end with about 60 crew and maintainers on a deployment that started in Hawaii but will end at the squadron’s new home at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington.
Until recently the “Golden Eagles” of VP-9 had eight of the turboprops with the distinctive stinger tail (a magnetic anomaly detector) and about 360 personnel, the Navy said.
The unit is the last of three regular patrol squadrons — VP-9, VP-4 and VP-47 — that were based in Hawaii but have been reassigned to Whidbey.
In a larger sense it’s a precursor to the expected May shutdown of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Two, which has roots in Hawaii back to the 1930s, a famous chapter involving PBY patrol planes on Dec. 7, 1941, and the Cold War P-3s that have spanned more recent decades.
That sense of history could be felt Thursday in Hangar 104 as Aviation Machinist Mate 3rd Class Blake Young, 21, hand-sanded a P-3C propeller to remove a small crack so the plane could head to Japan. Problems with all three planes temporarily delayed their departure.
“This is an old bird, and I think we’re lucky that we’re catching and being able to be a part of this, because the new P-8s and new aircraft that are coming out now, they tell you what’s wrong through a computer,” said Young, who’s deploying with VP-9. He said he likes the fact that the P-3 is “old-school. It’s mechanical.”
The P-3s are being replaced in the Navy maritime inventory by the jet-engined P-8A Poseidon, based on the Boeing 737-800.
At varying times extending back to 1964, at least seven squadrons flew the Orion out of Hawaii. At their peak there were probably about 50 P-3s at Barbers Point Naval Air Station, said retired Master Chief Douglass Gillet, who was with patrol squadrons here from 1967 to 1998.
Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Two is the evolution of Fleet Air Wing Two, established at Pearl Harbor in 1937 and with later service at Kaneohe Bay, Barbers Point and Kaneohe Bay again.
Barbers Point was famous for its “Rainbow Fleet” — the patrol squadrons that routinely deployed with P-2 and later P-3 aircraft to the northern and western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf, according to the Navy.
The squadrons tracked Soviet subs patrolling off the western coast of the mainland and supported operations in the Vietnam and Gulf wars. In 1999, when Barbers Point was shuttered, nearly 2,300 Navy personnel were transferred to the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay with 29 Orions and nine SH-60 helicopters.
Developed as a Cold War sub hunter, the P-3 turned out to be useful over Iraq and Afghanistan after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The planes have powerful radars and an electro-optical surveillance system. At sea they hunt with sonobuoys and torpedoes. The Golden Eagles launched an AGM-84E Standoff Land Attack Missile in 2001. Later missions would include missile launches against enemy forces in Afghanistan.
In 2015 the “Golden Swordsmen” of VP-47 returned from a seven-month deployment and missions that spanned an area north of the Arctic Circle to south of the equator and stretching across the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. The squadron operated from sites in Iceland, Norway, Poland, Italy, Greece and Djibouti and hunted submarines while flying 200 feet above the North Sea.
Brad Hayes, director of Naval Air Museum Barbers Point, which has two P-3s in its inventory, said the squadrons’ contributions were huge.
“All of our surveillance of all the navies in the Pacific region, it’s pretty much P-3s,” he said.
Running a museum that includes two P-3s puts him in regular contact “with veterans that are telling you the stories of flying these things out to these countries … and the hairy stories of going up against the Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians,” he said.
One of the Hawaii squadrons lost two P-3s to enemy ground fire while flying enemy supply interdiction missions during the Vietnam War, Hayes said.
“There’s stories like that, and then there’s the really cool ones — like guys putting whiskey and Playboys in the sonobuoy (tubes) and dropping them to the Soviet submarine guys,” he said.
Gillet, 69, who lives in Waipahu, said he was pretty lucky all the years he flew, but he remembers heading out of Okinawa in 1972 and an oil leak developing in engine No. 2.
“When we shut the engine down, we had a ball of flame come out of the tailpipe of No. 2, and we had to dive from 28,000 feet down to 16,000 feet and blow it out,” Gillet said. The entire crew had their parachutes on and was “ready to go out the door if we had to,” but it didn’t come to that, he said.
The P-3 Orion, which first entered Navy service in 1962, is described as being a hands-on and user-intensive plane, while the replacement P-8 Poseidon uses more automation.
“They (the P-3s) are getting old. They’ve been good airplanes, (and) they’ve done the job in the past, but I think we’re moving on to bigger and better things with the P-8,” said Senior Chief David Pras, 40, a maintenance control supervisor with VP-9.
The Navy decided to base 18 P-8A Poseidons at Kaneohe Bay as replacements for the P-3s, but in 2012 the service said it was reconsidering, and ultimately decided to place the planes at Whidbey to save $300 million.
Another P-3 squadron of several planes actually exists at Kaneohe, “special projects” VPU-2, which has highly secretive missions. The planes are often gone, but the unit will remain in Hawaii into the near future.
Eventually, Hawaii will have a permanent detachment of two P-8A Poseidons that will perform a homeland defense mission. In the meantime the first detachment of one P-3 from VP-40 based at Whidbey already is on-island with 11 air crew and about 20 maintainers.
“The detachments will continue flying the P-3 until the Whidbey squadrons complete the transition to the P-8A,” Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, a Naval Air Forces spokeswoman, said in an email. “We currently have construction planned and budgeted to be built at Marine Corps Base Hawaii to support two P-8As and three crews, which will be used by future P-8A detachments.”
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