P-3 Orion patrol planes, the workhorses of U.S. naval aviation, are begging to be put out to pasture. But with replacement a decade away, industry is working overtime to keep the old beasts alive.The Orion, a modification of the Lockheed Electra propliner, is one of the most in-demand airplanes in the U.S. inventory. Designed to hunt Soviet subs then modified for overland use after the Wall fell, the P-3 is prized for its efficiency, range and loiter time -- and for its seemingly limitless flexibility. Orion airframes have been packed with a bewildering array of electronics, from surveillance radars in rotating radomes (for the Customs Service's Airborne Early Warning models) to infrared and visible-light cameras (in the Navy's Anti-Surface Warface Improvement Program, or AIP, model) and sophisticated Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) receivers. It was a Navy SIGINT EP-3 that collided with a Chinese fighter in 2001 while spying on the Chinese navy. Over Iraq, Orions have been all but hijacked by the Marine Corps, which plants a colonel aboard and uses the Orions as command posts.But overuse in the past decade resulted in 75 of the Navy's 225 Orions being deemed unsafe for flight and retired last year. The remaining planes have been subject to careful maintenance to keep them flying until their replacements -- the new P-8A, the Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance UAV and the Aerial Common Sensor -- are available in large numbers sometime around 2013. So desperate is the Navy for flyable Orions that is has begun upgrading five obsolescent Update II.5 versions to bolster the front-line fleet of 57 AIP Update IIIs.At Lockheed Martin's Aircraft and Logistics Center in Greenville, S.C., a staff of 1,200 works at capacity to maintain and upgrade Navy P-3s while also modifying Orions for Canada, The Netherlands and (soon) India and Pakistan. Lockheed Martin spokespeople David Jewel and Trish Pagan say that the tired airframes are requiring more and more maintenance and that upgrades are taking longer too. At any given time, there are 18-20 P-3s at the facility, most of them American. Some stay for as long as six months.Despite everything, P-3s are based on a very sturdy airframe and can fly practically forever if they're properly cared for, Jewel says. Proper care, he adds, might even mean new wings and new engines that would keep the old horses working for decades still. That just might become necessary if the ACS' recent problems aren't resolved and if the P-8 hits any snags.--David Axe
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