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.