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New Zealand introduces upgraded P-3 Orion as air force modernises

altThe Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) has accepted the first of six upgraded P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft into service with No 5 Squadron.

A formal Introduction into Service ceremony was conducted at Whenuapai Air Force Base in Auckland on May 2. Orion NZ 4204 (the prototype P-3K2) returned to New Zealand in late April, after being in Texas, United States, since 2005 for the P-3 Mission Systems Upgrade Project. The project will see all six New Zealand Orions re-equipped with an airborne surveillance and Response Capability. According to the chief of the air force Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell, this capability is “up with the very best”.

According to the RNZAF, the upgraded P-3K2 Orion introduces a fundamental change to the operation of the Orions as they transition from a Maritime Patrol Force to an airborne Surveillance and Response Force. This change is significant because the focus of the operations will include overland operations as well as traditional maritime operations.

During his speech at the introduction into service ceremony, secretary of defence John McKinnon said, “This is a significant margin of difference, an upgrade in capability and reach - a leap forward for the RNZAF and our Defence Force.”

The production phase of the project will see the five remaining Orions cycle through Safe Air’s facilities at Blenheim, New Zealand, to be stripped internally, re-wired and re-equipped with the new mission systems.

Already Orion NZ 4201 is in Blenheim and the upgrade of that aircraft is well advanced. At the rate of about one every six months, by 2014 the RNZAF will have a fleet of six P-3K2 Orions all newly equipped with 21st century surveillance and communications systems, the RNZAF says.

Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell foresees a very exciting time for the RNZAF, as operational testing and evaluation begins. “Our goal now is the delivery of the capability as rapidly as possible. I believe our P-3K2 Orions will be better equipped than ever to support Defence Force operations world-wide and other government agencies closer to home.”

Nicolas Farah of L-3 Communications Integrated Systems, the Texas-based company that completed the upgrade on the P-3K2 prototype, said his corporation was “very proud to be delivering one of the most capable surveillance systems they have ever constructed. As partners, L-3 Communications remain committed to the mission, to work closely with the Ministry of Defence and the RNZAF to deliver the rest of the fleet”.

The project’s origins lay with the 2001 Maritime Patrol Review. At that time the P-3s had a mix of 1960s and 1980s equipment. Built new as P-3Bs in 1966 (New Zealand was then was the first country outside of the USA to operate Orions), the fleet had been modernised in 1982 under Project Rigel, which saw some of the mission systems replaced and upgraded.

In 2000, Project Kestrel saw the fleet structurally renewed to extend their life. But the aircrafts’ tactical capability was limited, and affected by hard-to-support older systems. As well, international air traffic control standards were changing and there was the continual need to remain interoperable with New Zealand’s partners, particularly Australia.

In October 2004 the Crown signed a contract with L-3 Communications Integrated Systems to upgrade the aircraft at a cost of NZ$373 million.

The aircraft had been due to return to New Zealand in late 2008, but the programme encountered delays due to concerns over stall performance, issues with its digital indicated airspeed display during take-offs and a periodic yaw problem. Furthermore, the prototype was not allowed to fly for six months last year after loose fasteners were discovered on its wing straps, Flight International reports.

Under the original plans, work on all six aircraft was to have been completed by September 2010.

New Zealand industry participation was always intended for the project and Safe Air of Blenheim is the key sub-contractor in the production phase.

Modifications were made to the P-3’s communications, navigation, surveillance, flight planning and data management systems while the flight deck was improved.

The RNZAF is also upgrading its five C-130 Hercules transports. In August last year it signed a contract with L3 Communications to complete the air force's C130 life extension programme. The latter includes the refurbishment of the aircrafts' centre wings, refurbishment or replacement of other structural components, a major rewire, replacement of avionics systems, flight management, autopilot and navigation and communication suites. This will ensure that the aircraft continue to comply with evolving air traffic control regulations worldwide.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force welcomed the return of the first of its modernised C-130s on October 21 last year. At an Air Force Base Auckland ceremony, the aircraft was provisionally accepted by the Air Force from the Ministry of Defence, to commence Operational Testing and Evaluation (OT&E).

“No. 40 Squadron who operates the C-130s, will be able to utilise the aircraft in the many roles undertaken for the government and New Zealand, including tactical air transport, disaster relief and civil defence support, aeromedical transport and support to the New Zealand Antarctic programme,“ said Air Commodore Steve Moore.

The RNZAF also recently unveiled the first of its new AgustaWestland A109 LUH Light Utility Helicopters. On May 13 the Air Force unveiled three A109s and opened the new hangar where they will be housed, during a ceremony at Air Force Base Ohakea, attended by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and other dignitaries.

Chief of Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Peter Stockwell said that the new helicopters represented the start of a significant leap in technology for the Air Force's Rotary Wing. "The three helicopters are the first of five A109LUH to replace the Bell 47 Sioux,” he said. "The A109LUH is part of a Defence Force helicopter training system that includes computer based training, a procedural trainer and simulator. This provides a cost effective means of training aircrew prior to operational conversion onto the NH90 or SH2G helicopters.”

Five A109s were ordered in 2008 and are scheduled to be in service before the end of the year. The government announced last year it was ordering another three. The new A109s will be used for training, light utility tasks in support of the other services and government agencies.

Together with the unveiling of the new helicopters the Air Force also opened the new Number 3 Squadron hangar that will be home to the A109LUH and NH90 helicopters. The RNZAF has eight NH90s on order.
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