$352m upgrade stretches Orion ground staff
By Ian Stuart
One thing the flying crews from No 5 Squadron at Whenuapai in Auckland never take for granted is the ground crew who keep their ageing Orion aircraft in the air.

The Orions are close to 40 years old, which is old by any Air Force standards, but they are as busy as any in the world.

For the squadron's commanding officer, Wing Commander John Lovatt, being able to keep the old aircraft fully operational and in the air is possible only because of a highly committed ground staff.

The Air Force has a requirement to have at least one aircraft available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for search and rescue in the world's largest search and rescue area.

The six Orions patrol the world's fourth largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for illegal immigration and fishing, drug traffickers and terrorism.

Add to that patrols of the EEZs of some of New Zealand's South Pacific neighbours, and basic training for both air and ground crew, and there was little fat left in the system, said Wing Commander Lovatt.

If one aircraft breaks down the load must be shared by the other five, which are usually already fully committed to maintenance, patrols or training flights.

Last week, there were only two aircraft available in Auckland. At the beginning of this week both were fully committed to trying to save lives at sea. As one returned from a search site near Fiji where two yachts were in trouble, the other headed up there to take over, dropping life-saving radios and survival gear.

In September one of the Orions leaves for America and will be away for two years.

It will be upgraded as part of a $352 million upgrade for the Orions that will replace much of their obsolete avionics with modern systems. Several of the systems on the Orions are so old that spare parts are no longer available.

"It provides us with a bit of a breathing space over the next couple of years so we can actually make it to the major upgrade," Wing Commander Lovatt said.

Over the years the fleet has been modified and upgraded and tinkered with just to meet the heavy demands on the aircraft and to keep them going.

It means no one aircraft is exactly the same and that was one of the problems facing the Air Force before the upgrade programme began, said Wing Commander Lovatt.

"They have all got to be exactly the same before they go in [for the upgrade]," he said.

It is called a "baseline configuration state" and every one of the six aircraft will go through that modification before it is upgraded. By the end of the year, three of the fleet will also have gone to Safe Air in Blenheim where they will be given new optical surveillance gear to dramatically increase the infrared and visual detection capabilities.

That is part of the overall upgrade but was considered to be so important, it would be done immediately and not wait until 2008 for it to start, he said.

"It is the same sort of stuff they had in the America's Cup - the cameras.

"But we are talking military specifications with an increase in surveillance capabilities far beyond what we have currently.

"It will make the surveillance operations far more efficient."

The complete upgrade includes new mission systems, and communications and navigation systems. Some of it is to comply with changes to air traffic management systems around the world but some of it is also to replace gear which is well past its use-by date and is hard, if not impossible, to get parts for and to properly maintain.

Having one aircraft in America for the upgrade for two years and rotating three more through Blenheim for the electro-optical upgrade will put the Air Force under major pressure.

"There is no easy solution to this when you have got a fleet of six airframes and you are doing a major modification programme.

"It will be unrealistic to expect anything other than it will have some impact on how we do our business," Wing Commander Lovatt said.

But he was very confident the Air Force would maintain its search and rescue and patrol duties.

An unforeseen incident or breakdown could cause problems.

"But we live for the unpredictable."


Role: The six Air Force Orion aircraft patrol the world's fourth largest exclusive economic zone. They operate at a cruising speed of 630km/h and can fly for up to 15 hours with two engines shut down to conserve fuel.

Future: Their old and obsolete avionics are being replaced with modern systems in a $352 million upgrade.