“For a while, I thought I was going to wind up being an operations officer on a ship,” says Korvettenkapitän (Lt. Cdr.) Thomas Krey, a German P-3 Orion tactical coordinator and mission commander. “We were looking at a situation where the German Navy would have no maritime patrol aircraft. Then the Dutch government made the decision to get out of the maritime patrol business. The deal to buy their P-3s happened quickly, so we kept flying.”
“Usually, it takes a decade to get a new aircraft,” adds Kapitän zur See (Capt.) Ranier Kümpel, commander of Marinefliegergeschwader (MFG, or Naval Air Wing) 3 at NAS Nordholz, Germany. “We received our P-3 aircraft from the Netherlands in 2005 and 2006. By November of 2007, we were flying operational missions with the Orion for NATO in Operation Active Endeavour.”
The Royal Netherlands Navy ordered thirteen P-3C aircraft in 1978, and deliveries began in 1982. After much political wrangling, the Dutch parliament approved drastic defense budget cuts in late 2004, which ended the country’s more than five-decade-long maritime patrol mission. The Dutch government sold its P-3s, with five aircraft going to Portugal and eight to Germany.
Three of the now-Portuguese aircraft are dedicated trainers, or “bounce birds.” All of the now-German aircraft are operational mission aircraft. Ironically, ten of the Dutch aircraft had received the Capability Upgrade Program improvements shortly before the P-3 transfer was announced. “The Dutch upgraded the equipment on their aircraft, and then they sold them,” notes Krey, who is also the training officer for MFG 3.
“The Dutch then trained our first instructors, two crews, and our maintainers. It was definitely a tough situation for both parties. They had to teach the people who were taking their aircraft.”
“The German philosophy is to keep equipment forever, keep it polished and up-to-date, and use it endlessly,” Kumpel notes. “About every ten years, the government looks at service life extension. The career of the Breguet Atlantic aircraft we had been flying since 1965 had come to an end. Modernizing those aircraft again was not economically or operationally viable. If the P-3 didn’t work, it would have been the end of the maritime patrol aircraft business in the German Navy. And that was not an option.”
“The only aircraft this wing flies that needs a longer runway is the P-3,” says Lt. Cmdr. Nils Holger Christiansen, maintenance officer for MFG 3. “If we had given up the maritime patrol mission, the next logical questions would have been, Do we need an air wing? Do we even need an air station? Those questions were in the back of everyone’s mind. The future of the P-3 is the future of this air station.”
“If the world were flat, Nordholz might be the place where you drop off the edge,” jokes Krey. Actually, Nordholz is the largest air base in the German armed forces in terms of both physical size and assigned personnel. The base is about an hour’s drive north of Bremen near the resort town of Cuxhaven on the North Sea.
Nordholz was commissioned as a naval airship base in 1914. Forty-two of the seventy-five Zeppelin Company airships in the Imperial German Navy fleet were stationed there during World War I. The base was dismantled and demilitarized starting in 1919.
During World War II, Nordholz was used as a forward operating base by the Luftwaffe with only occasional deployments by squadrons flying Bf-109 fighters or reconnaissance aircraft. In the early 1950s, the US Air Force 402nd Fighter Wing was temporarily stationed at Nordholz, flying F-84s there for about a year. After that, the Nordholz was demilitarized again.
In May 1958, a German naval antisubmarine warfare, or ASW, squadron was formed at RAF Eglinton in Northern Ireland, flying the British-built Fairey Gannet carrier-based ASW aircraft. Construction of a modern airbase began at Nordholz in 1958 but was not completed until 1964. MFG 3 was formally established on 1 July 1964, and wing operations with the twin-engine French-built Atlantic ASW aircraft began in 1965.
The wing carried out its first NATO assignments in 1967. Later that same year, German Federal President Heinrich Lübke conferred the name Graf Zeppelin to the wing to honor both the base’s earlier airship heritage and airship innovator and designer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. The next year, the town of Friedrichshafen, where the giant airships were built, became the official sponsor of MFG 3.
Beginning in 1970, three of the ASW versions of the Atlantic were converted into signals intelligence aircraft. Those aircraft were retired in 2009. In 1982, the ship-based Sea Lynx Mk 88 ASW helicopter was assigned to MFG 3. A pair of Dornier Do-228 aircraft used for maritime pollution control was transferred from MFG 5 at Kiel, Germany, to Nordholz in 1994. Decommissioning of MFG 5 and transfer of its Sea King helicopters to Nordholz will occur in 2012, leaving MFG 3 as the only German naval air wing.
“We are still in the workup phase with the P-3,” notes Kümpel. “We struggled a little bit when we first got the aircraft. Even now we still need to improve the technical and logistics stability of the aircraft. Part of the problem is the small number of aircraft we have. Our goal is to always have four aircraft available. If one of those four breaks or takes longer in depot, it disrupts what we are able to do.” As an example, corrosion was discovered in the first German P-3 to go through depot maintenance and that aircraft was out of service for a year instead of the planned six months.
“There is a difference between the aircraft and the onboard equipment, though,” continues Kümpel. “We have some of the most modern mission equipment in the world on our P-3s. We want to invest a little more to upgrade the avionics suite, but we are very happy with the mission capability of these aircraft.” The wing is looking to add the Traffic Collision Advisory System, a new navigation system, and new high frequency radios to its aircraft.
“We try to fly with hard crews,” Krey notes . “Having the same crew fly together all the time is perfect for standardization and deployment.” The German P-3s are flown with a crew of eleven: four officers (the patrol plane commander, copilot, navigator, and tactical coordinator), and seven enlisted aircrew members (five sensor operators, one flight engineer, and one inf light technician). The wing currently has five full-time crews with substitutes, but eventually wants to work up to nine operational crews along with a fleet replacement squadron. That milestone likely won’t be reached for another three years. German P-3 missions typically last eight-to-ten hours.
“The infrastructure at the base wasn’t completely ready when the P-3s arrived,” says Krey. Both an operational flight trainer and the mission simulator that operates like the back end of the aircraft were originally located off base. They were moved to Nordholz in 2009. A birdbath, the ground-based taxi-through wash system to hose salt water off the aircraft after a mission, was also installed last year. Before the birdbath was completed, the aircraft were hosed off at a standpipe near the taxiway.
Of the nearly 2,000 civilians and Military personnel assigned to Nordholz, approximately 1,400 are in the wing’s Technical Branch, or the supply, electronics/avionics, and aircraft maintenance functions. Approximately 100 P-3 German maintainers were trained at Valkenburg AS, Holland, before the aircraft were transferred. Maintainers are now trained on base.
A new hangar for the P-3s also opened in 2009. This glass-walled building holds five aircraft with pneumatic and electrical connections at each bay. One position features permanent workstands that allow maintainers access to the Orion’s fin and rudder. “Flight crews, maintainers, the powerplant, avionics, spares, and quality assurance sections, as well as the isochronal inspection dock, are all now in the same building,” says Manni Wilken, a civilian maintenance supervisor at Nordholz. “Nobody has to walk too far to talk about an issue. It is much better.”
“There are still 500 non-Allied submarines out in the world,” notes Krey. “But taskings like Operation Enduring Freedom around the Horn of Africa, Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, and UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon], and even basic tasks, like sea surveillance, are taking so many hours to accomplish that ASW is no longer our primary mission.”
Operation Atalanta is the European Union Naval Forces counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia. The German contribution to this mission originally was carried out by Sea Lynx helicopter crews flying off a frigate, but the mission shifted to the land-based P-3 crews flying out of Djibouti in 2008. MFG 3 has completed two six-month deployments there so far, and another deployment there began in March 2010.
“The deployment was challenging duty. Our people were almost overmotivated,” Kümpel observes. The first German P-3 detachment completed 107 percent of tasked missions on the wing’s first deployment despite temperatures that would often approach 140 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
“We gained a lot of experience when we deployed,” Krey notes. “We have only a very brief time in the morning to get airborne there. The temperature rises fast, and the heat really affects aircraft performance.” One maintenance issue on that deployment that was new to the Germans was dealing with sand in the propeller gearboxes.
“All operations need to put eyes on the target,” Krey continues. “The aircraft came with Star Sapphire electro-optical infrared equipment, but we used a national immediate operation upgrade process to fit some of the aircraft with a Wescam MX-15 system in theater. We had to operate it off line because that system was not tied into the aircraft’s mission software.” The new Wescam MX-20 HD EO/ IR system will be installed on the German P-3s starting in 2011.
Most of the necessary spares were flown to Djibouti on a leased An-124 with one notable exception. “We could have disassembled the propellers and shipped them, but that solution comes with its own set of problems. There was only one viable solution to shipping propellers and that was to keep them in the maintenance stands, which are not air transportable,” notes Christiansen. “We had to ship them by sea. Unfortunately, on some things with the P-3, we are still at the starting point.”
As the twentieth and the newest P-3 operator worldwide, Germany is still gaining experience with the Orion. MFG 3 is sorting out such issues as aircraft configuration documentation and spares support. “We are well set for whatever operations are coming,” Krey notes. The German Navy intends to operate its eight P-3s for at least a decade. With that goal in mind, Germany is considering ordering service life extension kits that will include replacement wings.
“The P-3 gives us an improved capability as far as the maritime patrol mission goes. It is better for reconnaissance taskings over sea and land,” concludes Kümpel. “We have a strong belief that, when we get the aircraft up to the high operational standard we want, which should be soon, the P-3s will be the most capable and the most requested system in the joint operations environment. The P-3 can do the job for our navy, our armed forces, and for our allies.”