Inside the Archive: Orion

On 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, operated by Boeing 777-2H6ER, departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. Forty minutes later, after being asked to contact Vietnamese air traffic control, radio contact was lost. RAAF’s Orions were among the first international aircraft dispatched to help look for 9M-MRO, which eventually evolved into the largest multi-national maritime air search operation in history. The effort was a testament to the versatility of Australia’s Orions, which are primarily intended to conduct surveillance and anti-submarine missions.

The type's final iteration, the 61,200kg AP-3C, is still among the world’s best in class. Orions can transmit surveillance footage to the ground in real-time and are equipped with Mk-46 lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes and AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Its distinguished RAAF service includes stints in Afghanistan and Iraq, maritime patrols of the Persian Gulf and North Arabian Sea and even counter-piracy missions near Somalia. In 2012, the fleet ceased 10 years of operational service in the Middle East after completing 2,400 missions and deploying 3,500 personnel.

Yet, the Orion’s history can be traced even further back.  The original P-3B model began its RAAF service in 1968, before being replaced by the updated P-3C a decade later and finally the AP-3C in 2002. Today, its initial 19-strong fleet is in the process of drawing down to retirement, when the P-8A Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton will replace them in 2023. If you want to see one for yourself, the Historical Aviation Restoration Society (HARS) has restored one of the very Orions that searched the Indian Ocean for the MH-370.


  • Gordon Mackinlay


    The Neptune force was replaced by ten PC-3II, both they and the initial ten PC-B were replaced by two orders of ten PC-3IIIs. One PC-3 was lost in a utterly stupid action of a pilot carrying out a “beating up”, at extremely low altitude Cocas Island airstrip. That there was no loss of life was due to the ability of the co-pilot, and the courage and competency of the Air Load-master. Followed short years later by the utter stupid of command pilot of a Boeing 707 over Bass Strait resulting in the loss of the aircraft and crew. I often wonder what happened to the pilot of the PC-3?

    • Tim Hage


      If suitable, could Australian Aviation please confirm if the PC-3 which crashed on a coral reef in the Cocas Islands did not result in a loss of life, as I clearly remember a navigator passing away when a port propeller penetrated the fuselage. Still have a photo hanging of the Orion sitting on the reef.

      • Gordon Mackinlay


        The original Court of Inquiry, and the ACT Coroners Court could not come up with a decision as to the actual cause of FO T.Heniker death. As in both cases the legal suggestion was made that he had had a stroke/heart attack due to a pre-existing condition. Whilst there is a memorial on the Cocas Islands Airstrip, it does not state that he definitely died because of the crash. Having just done two on line searches, I cannot find anything that gives a actual cause of death?

    • David B


      Hmmm… Perhaps my friend, you might consider tempering your comments in absence of all the information?

      The Neptunes were replaced by an initial order of P-3Bs. The remainder were replaced by an order of 10 P-3C Update II and the P-3Bs by a follow-on order of 10 P-3C Update 2.5, the latter often called ‘Ws’.

      A9-754 was lost at Cocos island with the loss of Flying Officer Thomas Henniker.

      P-3s don’t carry ‘Air Loadmasters’. The crew of a P-3 consists of Pilots, Flight Engineers, TACCO,NAV and Airborne Electronic Analysts. On deployment, maintenance crews are also carried.

      As for the accident: The high speed pass with a straight pull out, was not unusual nor the pull out excessive according to the cockpit crew.

      While a slight overload of the placarded 3G limit was noted, the leading edges failed well below their design ultimate load due to manufacturing defects and other complex aerodynamics factors not accounted for by Lockheed in the design analysis.

      The engineering analysis report states that: “… under the circumstances of the accident, the nominal aerodynamic loads were far too low to produce the observed failures.” Page 31.

      A tragedy to be sure but beating up on the crew is not useful.

  • Vince Casey


    Gordon Mackinlay, I need to correct your statement that there was no loss of life in the ditching of A9-754 in Cocos Island, sadly Flying Officer Thomas Henniker died in the incident.

  • Shane Couch


    You are referring to P-3B and P-3C aircraft. The incident at Cocos Islands result in the death of FLGOFF Thomas Henniker. The 707 crash was more attributable to organisational issues rather than Pilot in Command.

  • David B


    A9-745 crashed into a lagoon at Cocos Island 26 Apr 1991 resulting in the loss of FLGOFF Thomas Henniker.

    (P-3s don’t have Air Loadmasters. The crew consists of pilots, flight engineers, TACCO, NAV, Sensor Employment Manager and Airborne Electronic Analysts. Maintenance crew are also carried on deployments)

    The accident happened following a high-speed pass and level pull out – a normally safe event.

    On A9-754, sections of the leading edge failed, damaging the horizontal stabiliser and elevators and the aerodynamically compromised aircraft was not able to return safely to the airport and ditched into the lagoon.

    The investigation determined that a combination of factors caused the accident. These included a small transient exceedance of the 3G placarded load limit but more importantly, tests showed that the leading edges failed well below their Design Ultimate Load of 4.5G due to manufacturing defects and the inadequacy of Lockheed’s design analysis which did not identify compressibility factors associated with the leading-edge design.

    Key sections of the analysis are available here:

    Comments on crew actions when lacking essential facts are not very helpful.

  • David B


    Pic 4 is a Kiwi P-3K

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