Royal New Zealand Air Force No. 5 Squadron’s much-loved P-3K2 Orion aircraft put on a show in the skies over the North Island yesterday, before the fleet retires at the end of the month after more than 55 years of service.
A three-ship formation flight departed RNZAF Base Auckland, at Whenuapai, and flew over Waikato, Manawatū, Napier, Tauranga, Coromandel Coast, Great Barrier Island and Whangārei, with close formation fly-pasts over Ohakea, and Wellington and Auckland harbours.
The first P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft arrived in New Zealand in 1966 and since then the type has carried out airborne surveillance and reconnaissance missions around the globe. Although New Zealand’s areas of economic interest, exclusive economic zone, the South Pacific and the Southern Ocean were its primary operating areas, the P-3 Orion operated over every continent through its life – covering missions from Antarctica to the Arctic, the Middle East, South East Asia and through Europe and North America.
The fleet of six Orions has provided a range of services to government agencies and communities, including fisheries and customs surveillance, search and rescue missions, and humanitarian aid and disaster relief; alongside security and stability operations in the Middle East and South East Asia working for United Nations (UN) and Combined Maritime Forces Commands.
“This is a bittersweet moment for us, where we have to farewell a faithful old friend who has looked after not just our crews for nearly 60 years, but all of New Zealand and our friends and neighbours in the Pacific, that life-saving sound of a P-3 overhead, heard by many, will be gone. But for all those people who have had any sort of interaction with the aircraft, she’ll always be in our hearts and memories, This is certainly a historic time to celebrate the long service of an amazing aircraft, but also an exciting time as we transition to a new era of maritime patrol which will continue to serve the people of New Zealand faithfully,”RNZAF No. 5 Squadron Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Glen Donaldson.
In total, the six P-3 Orions have flown just under 150,000 hours of service. This has included such milestones as the search for flight MH-370 which disappeared in 2014 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing; the Queen’s Birthday 1994 search and rescue in which they assisted several vessels caught in a huge storm during the Auckland to Suva yacht race; becoming the first aircraft to provide reconnaissance after the Hunga Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai eruption, alongside countless missions after cyclones devastated Pacific islands; counter narcotics, anti-piracy, and anti-smuggling security missions in the Middle East; and more recently security patrols for the UN in the East China Sea to counter smuggling activity to North Korea.
From hunting submarine periscopes in the North Sea on exercise with allied partners to finding people clinging to fishing buoys in the South Pacific, the P-3 Orion really has seen the world and made a huge contribution to individuals, to communities, to New Zealand and to global partners.
Four P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft will replace the Orion fleet and will be based at RNZAF Base Ohakea. The first of the new Poseidon aircraft landed in Aotearoa New Zealand last month.