Wednesday, December 13, 2000

P-3 Orion crews head for Lajes
as new training schedule begins

By Scott Schonauer
Stars and Stripes

LAJES FIELD, Portugal — With winds gusting up to 80 mph and rain pelting the plane like a bucket of marbles dropped from the sky, it seemed like a horrific day to fly any type of plane.

But Navy P-3 Orion crews and pilots ignored the wicked conditions and continued to prepare for another practice run over the Atlantic Ocean.

They would fly several missions before calling it a day.

"This is great training for our guys," said Lt. Clay Hester from inside a make-shift command-and-control center.

P-3 squadrons from the East Coast and deployed to Keflavik, Iceland, will have to get used to the rough weather. Commanders plan to fly the squadrons down to Lajes Field every six months as part of a new training schedule, and high wind and rain are common in the Azores during the winter.

Last week, four P-3 planes and about 115 pilots and support personnel from two squadrons flew to Lajes to practice with the USS Harry S. Truman as it cruised toward the Mediterranean with its armada of ships and submarines.

It is the first time squadrons and an overseas battle group have trained in such a large scale.

"The goal is that we ought to be able to take crews, communications, analysts and operators and meld us together at a short notice," said Cmdr. Josh Holtzman, operations officer for Commander, Fleet Air Keflavik. "This is superb training for us."

The training is important for the P-3 because of its growing role in Navy warfare. Its primary mission is sub hunting, but the P-3 has been used in peacekeeping and strike missions.

Navy commanders have viewed the P-3 Orion as a reliable aircraft since the Cold War, but its stock rose considerably among strike planners during last year’s NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia.

The aging propeller plane performed the majority of combat air patrols for the USS Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group, giving strike planners unprecedented views of the battlefield.

It also proved it could punch as well as patrol, firing land-attack missiles at enemy targets for the first time.

The performance proved commanders had a new lethal weapon in an old plane known more for hunting submarines.

It "validated the importance of the P-3’s strike role," according to the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based nonprofit policy organization.

The expanding mission of the P-3 is one of the reasons why it remains a critical post-Soviet Union link in any battle group.

During the training in the Azores, P-3 crews practiced sub-hunting and surveillance skills with the Truman battle group. A mobile command-and-control center taped the missions and allowed crews to be briefed on how well they performed.

The mobile command center is an important part of the training because it can give pilots and crew members immediate information on their practice runs while they’re in the Azores, Holtzman said.

"It affords us the ability to communicate with the aircraft and communicate with the battle group through a whole host of different frequency spectrums with different equipment," he said.

"It also allows us to do analysis of the anti-submarine warfare collection we do to determine in fact: Do we have a submarine; do we not have a submarine. Whereas, if we came here by ourselves, we basically have to pack it all up, bring it back to Keflavik and do the analysis up there."

The next time crews come to Lajes, they’ll have new digs for their command center.

The Air Force base plans to allow the squadrons to operate from a new building that also will be used for expeditionary forces on their way to Europe and the Middle East.

"This could be the blueprint for future operations here at Lajes," Holtzman said. "We both benefit from it."