Boeing to build P-3 successor

Within 10 years the familiar lumbering Orion P-3C maritime patrol planes will no longer be flying over Whidbey Island, replaced by Boeing 737-800 airliner-type jets.

The Pentagon announced Monday that the Boeing Corporation has been awarded a $3.9 billion contract to build the first replacements for the P-3C Orion patrol and surveillance planes, beating out Lockheed Martin. The Navy has close to 180 P-3s, with three VP squadrons of P-3s based at Whidbey Naval Air Station.

Lockheed-Martin had proposed upgrading the current P-3, which it made originally.

The prop planes will instead be replaced by Boeing 737 commercial-type airliners, with three aircraft ready for testing in 2009, according to Madonna Walsh, spokeswoman for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems division in St. Louis.

The planes will be built at Boeing’s Renton plant, with an estimated workforce of 1,200, Walsh said.

The $3.9 billion won’t replace the entire fleet however. It will fund the development and production of three planes, according to John Young, assistant Secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition.

A fleet of 108 aircraft is eventually expected to add $20 billion to the bill, at a cost of $126 million each. After testing, the new planes are set to go into service in 2013.

The P-3 Orion is used mainly for submarine surveillance work, but during Operation Enduring Freedom it was pressed into land duty as well.

The VP-46 “Grey Knights” were forward deployed to Japan on Sept. 11, 2001, but were sent to the Arabian Gulf where they flew around the clock over Afghanistan, providing air cover for troops on the ground.

April 16, the Grey Knights landed at Baghdad International Airport, the first coalition plane to do so at the former Saddam Hussein International Airport.

The Lockheed Martin-produced P-3C Orion has been flying since 1969. With a crew of 11, it is equipped with surveillance equipment and can carry the Harpoon anti-surface, SLAM and Maverick missiles, as well as the MK-50 torpedo and the MK-60 mine.

The new plane, which paid a visit to Whidbey Naval Air Station in December, will be able to fly higher, faster and farther with a smaller crew. It is being called the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft, or 737 MMA for short.

Heading up the MMA program at Boeing is Tim Norgart, former Patrol Reconnaissance Wing 10 commanding officer, 1998 to 2000. He had high praise for the Boeing aircraft, and what it will mean for Whidbey aircrews.

“It will mean tremendous new capabilities,” he said. “This is the most reliable and efficient plane built in the world.”

The new plane will be faster, quieter and more comfortable for the crew. The turbo-props of the P-3 will be replaced by jet engines, and the seats can be reconfigured to add crew space. A mission that would have taken 11 hours in the P-3 can be completed in nine hours with the 737 MMA, Norgart said.

“Reconfigurability and expandibility is the wave of the future,” he said.

The new plane will also feature a full sized, airliner-style head, or bathroom.

“That’s definitely a step up,” he said.

Norgart said with 4,500 737s in use around the world, Boeing’s ability to support the plane is built in.

“We carry parts for 10,000 airplanes,” he said.

Norgart will be returning to the Northwest to head up the program at the Boeing plant in Renton.

Congressman Rick Larsen, who is on the House Armed Forces Committee, was pleased with the contract decision.

“The Department of Defense made the right choice when it picked Boeing to build the next generation of P-3 aircraft,” he said. “Boeing made the right cost-effective decision when it chose to refurbish its 737 model to fit the Defense Department’s needs.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at or call 675-6611

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