A P-8A Poseidon takes off on a training flight July 12 at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla. (Mark D. Faram/Staff)
NAVAL AIR STATION JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Cmdr. Bill Pennington sometimes gets nostalgic over the aging P-3. But before too long, his mind drifts from the Orion to the future — specifically, the impending deployment of the new P-8A Poseidon.
Pennington commands Patrol Squadron 16, the first to switch from the P-3 to the Poseidon, the next-generation maritime surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
“I think anyone would say there’s some sentimental parts to making the transition,” Pennington said. “The people that I knew in that aircraft and the fact there’s been lot of history associated with the venerable P-3, sure I’ll miss it. But that said, this aircraft, the P-8, is a lot more enjoyable to fly.”
It’s been a year since his squadron returned from its last deployment flying the P-3, and now the “War Eagles” are just four months shy of the Navy’s first Poseidon deployment, which will be to the Western Pacific.
It’s a long-awaited transition. The Navy has used the P-3 for about 50 years, and its missions included searching for enemy subs and blockading during the Cold War. But turboprops are being phased out over the next decade, replaced with P-8 jets.
The Poseidon first arrived in March 2012, and VP-30, the fleet replacement squadron, began training up aircrews and maintainers here.
Like the War Eagles, the “Mad Foxes” of VP-5 have also completed their transition and are beginning their own 12-month spin-up to deploy.
Right behind them are the “Pelicans” of VP-45, who started the move into the P-8 on July 15.
By the time the other two squadron’s deploy, they can benefit from the War Eagles, who will write the book — or at least the first draft — of how P-8s deploy.
Some things aren’t changing. As with a P-3 deployment, VP-16 will deploy with six aircraft and 12 fully trained aircrews. However, the crews will be smaller, each including nine people instead of 11.
One of those cuts was a key position in the aircrew — that of the enlisted flight engineer.
The Navy decided this job’s duties could be absorbed by the two pilots, aided by the high-tech avionics their new cockpit gives them.
VP-16 also had to figure out what to do with the flight engineer’s other responsibilities of loadmaster and plane captain. That required a change in P-3 culture, Pennington said.
“[Engineers] did a lot of the planning and coordination of the loading of the aircraft,” Pennington said. “So there’s learning there as new roles and responsibilities of the aircrew have evolved, and now training is going on to spread those skill sets to the other aircrew members.”
As for the other cut, better warfare systems in the back allowed for one fewer enlisted aircrew member.
When it comes to deploying, the crews will follow the P-3 squadron model and fly some of the gear to their deployment site in the P-8s, while the rest is shipped, along with some personnel, via Navy logistics aircraft.
Some welcome reliability
When it comes to the day-to-day life in the squadron, there have been big changes, Pennington said, as his crews have not had to contend with the breakdown-prone P-3s.
“One of the phrases I hear from the pilots, and really all the aircrew, is when they see their names on the flight schedules, they now expect to get off deck on time,” he said. “Maintenance of the aircraft, the reliability of it, when compared to what we’re used to with P-3s, I think is pretty impressive.”
And that’s just fine, said Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class (AW) Sean Gloyd who says the new airframe is making life better and more educational for the maintainers.
“On P-3s, we were constantly working on discrepancies,” Gloyd said. “As P-3 mechs, we’re used to coming in first thing in the morning and checking out tools and being on the flight line all day because there was so much maintenance to do.”
But in the P-8 world, he said, those long hours turning wrenches aren’t there anymore.
“That extra time allows us to cross-train with other ratings and really get into the systems and learn the aircraft from that standpoint, on a much deeper level than we could with the P-3,” he said.
And the maintainers, he said, are also learning the quirks related to new engines and airframes that can help subsequent squadrons.
“From a mech’s standpoint, it’s a bit early in the game, but we are looking for what those issues are, and we communicate between the squadrons with what we find,” Gloyd said.
And once in the air, it’s a beautiful aircraft to ride in, said Naval Aircrewman (Operator) 1st Class Robert Pilars, who mans a console inside the aircraft.
“The theory of our job is really the same — and that’s tracking submarines,” he said. “ I’m going to do that regardless of the platform.”
But, he said, the capabilities of the new platform have made the hours he spends on the job and in the air much easier to take.
“It’s definitely more comfortable,” he said. “The inside’s more roomy so you can walk around a bit more if needed, and as for flying, it’s definitely a lot smoother. And we have air conditioning when it’s hot and heat when it’s cold. That isn’t always the case with the P-3s these days.”