Roberto Yañez and Alex Rodríguez report on the retirement of the last Spanish Air Force P-3A Prion at Cuatro Vientos near Madrid
AFTER 52 years of valuable service, the last Lockheed P-3A DELTIC (Delayed Time Compression) Orion in service with Grupo 22 of the Ejército del Aire (Spanish Air Force or EA) has retired from service. It landed for the last time at Madrid’s Cuatro Vientos Air Base in mid-November 2017 after a flight of about an hour from its base at Morón de la Frontera. The aircraft, serial P.3A-01/22-21 – also affectionately known by all in the unit as ‘El Abuelo’ (The Grandfather) – began its long operational career in 1965 when it was delivered to the US Navy’s Patrol Squadron Eight (VP-8) ‘Fighting Tigers’ as BuNo 152153. After eight years’ service with the Americans, the aircraft was acquired by Spain and delivered to the EA on August 1, 1973.
The purchase was part of a plan to modernise Spain’s maritime patrol aircraft fleet, equipped at that time with Grumman’s Albatross. Madrid was unable to afford brandnew machines, so a decision was made to acquire three used but modernised P-3A Orions from US Navy stocks. As part of the programme, between 1971 and 1972 the EA sent 45 personnel to the US to be trained as Spain’s first P-3 crews. On July 25, 1973, three P-3A DELTIC Orions landed in Spain where they joined the veteran Grummans of Escuadrón 221 based at La Parra, Jerez, with Spanish military serials P.3-1/221-20 to P.3- 3/221-22. Four years later, on July 8, 1977, P.3-2 crashed on landing at Jerez, killing the six crew members. The accident left just two P-3s in service and for a few months between mid-1978 and 1979, after the retirement of the Grummans, they made up the whole Ejército del Aire maritime patrol force.
In 1979, 221 Escuadrón received four additional DELTIC Orions leased from the US Navy and registered as P.3-4/221-23 to P.3- 7/221-26, bringing the force to six examples.
During the 1980s, several studies were undertaken to replace the existing fleet with more modern examples of the same type. The option of buying factory-new aircraft once again had to be discarded and second-hand Norwegian P-3Bs that were in the process of being replaced by newly built C-models were obtained. This acquisition allowed for the return of the aircraft leased from the US Navy (except for P.3- 7, which was sent to the air force museum). The seven-strong fleet now comprised five P-3Bs and the two surviving P-3As. The P-3A’s increasing obsolescence and the difficulty of maintaining them led to the type being relegated to supporting the P-3Bs by flying maritime surveillance missions or crew training flights.
The P-3Bs entered an extensive modernisation programme at the beginning of the year 2000 and the A-models were used as cover while they were being upgraded. The two Alphas were used intensively, deploying outside Spain on maritime traffic control and anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa P-3A P.3-3/22-22 was retired in August of 2012, but P.3A-1/22-21 remained in service despite its age, flying its last operational flight from Djibouti as part of the anti-piracy mission Operation Atalanta on November 4, 2017. Upon its return to Morón, it was prepared for its last flight to Cuatro Vientos Air Base on November 14 after completing nearly 20,000 flight hours during its career.
After preparation for display the aircraft will be transferred by road to the nearby Museo del Aire, where it will probably be put on show to the public. The museum already has an Orion on display: P.3-7, one of the four taken on charge back in the late 1970s. It is in very poor condition and is not as significant as P.3A-1. However, as it is a former US Navy machine, permission is needed from the Pentagon before it can be scrapped.