More Than One Way to Modernize a P-3

By Ron Sherman | November 1, 2001
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At this year’s P-3 International Operators Support Conference, held Oct. 22-25 in Atlanta, the theme will be "Modernization – Look to the Past, The Way to the Future." Modernization is an appropriate theme for two P-3 operators, the U.S. Customs Service (USCS) and Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND). Both are modernizing their fleets.

Together, the USCS and DND operate 34 of the approximately 500 P-3 variants flown by agencies and military services around the world. The bulk of these aircraft were produced 30 to 40 years ago under contract to the U.S. Navy by what is now Lockheed Martin. They served faithfully throughout the Cold War–for example, during the Cuban missile crisis–and up to the present. During Desert Storm, P-3s logged 12,000 hours in 1,200 combat surveillance missions. The turboprop airplane entered international headlines on April 1 when an EP-3 "spy plane" collided with a Chinese fighter aircraft and made an emergency landing at Hainan Island.

P-3s commonly perform a surveillance role. The USCS P-3 fleet comprises 16 former U.S. Navy Orions modified to "conduct national and international airborne drug surveillance missions, to enforce the U.S. customs laws and to support the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy." The DND operates a fleet of 18 long-range maritime and coastal patrol P-3s. The maritime mission includes both surface and undersea surveillance roles.

Both the USCS and Canada’s DND recently committed funding to modernize their aircraft. Canada designates the aircraft the CP-140 Aurora; the USCS designation is the P-3B Orion.

The hardware and software certified for the upgraded USCS P-3 and the Canadian CP-140 are largely common. Both aircraft are fitted with a flight management display system (FMDS) from Astronautics Corp. of America and a flight management system (FMS) from CMC Electronics, in Canada. The lead contractor for the USCS is Lockheed Martin and for Canada’s DND, CMC Electronics, based in Montreal.

The USCS Program

The USCS operates two basic types of Orions. One is an airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft with the large, pancake-like radar dish attached to the upper fuselage. This aircraft is called a "Dome" and is not to be mistaken for a long-range interceptor variant of the P-3, called a "Slick." The Slick has an electro-optical and infrared pod that is deployed from the front fuselage bay during night missions. Both variants are undergoing cockpit avionics modernization programs.

"So far, three contracts have been let for the avionics and mission mod program," says Chris Milowic, the USCS P-3 modernization program manager. The agency awarded two contracts in fiscal year (FY) 1999 for six aircraft, totaling $153 million, and a contract in FY’01 for four aircraft, totaling $68 million. Four older aircraft will undergo a fatigue analysis so the USCS can decide if and when to bring those into the mod programs. Two other aircraft modifications will be decided "down the road," says Milowic.

The core of the cockpit changes rests in the FMDS, an electronic flight instrument system (EFIS) consisting of four Astronautics 6-by-8-inch (15.2-by-20.3-cm) active matrix liquid crystal displays (AMLCDs). The LCDs support primary flight and navigation displays, as well as color weather radar. They are integrated with a CMC Electronics CMA-900 FMS, which supports flight plan entry and operation and the BAE Systems autopilot and flight director.

According to John Norris, Lockheed Martin’s program manager for the USCS P-3 avionics upgrade, "We went out to the known avionics systems contractors, looking mainly for commercial-off-the-shelf [COTS] equipment that would satisfy USCS requirements."

The USCS program capitalized on other P-3 upgrade programs, as well. For example, BAE Systems Controls, based in California, also has an avionics and mission upgrade contract for New Zealand’s P-3 maritime patrol program.

Simulation with the SIL

"As a result, we were able to save time and resources by utilizing much of [New Zealand’s] architecture, with some modifications for the USCS program," says Norris. "This included the flight director and autopilot interfaces with the flight display system.

As avionics integrator, Milwaukee-based Astronautics developed a systems integration laboratory (SIL), or flight mission lab, which is the centerpiece of the USCS P-3 engineering program. Don Neilsen, Astronautics’ program manager for the USCS P-3 avionics, says, "The SIL simulates the entire P-3 mod program, including the cockpit avionics and mission equipment." All new systems were tested and fitted for the cockpit upgrade in the SIL.

Equally important to the USCS P-3 program’s success was communication among members of the modernization development team. "When in the engineering phase, we used every type of communication available to stay in touch with the team," says Norris. The cockpit working group–including USCS P-3 pilots and USCS management–met every other month to discuss problems and solutions. The engineering modernization period covered 12 to 18 months.

Al Durham, the USCS’ chief test pilot on the avionics mod program, says he spent many hours working with the modernization team in the SIL. Durham came to the USCS in 1993 from the U.S. Navy, where he was a P-3 pilot.

The crew for a USCS mission includes three pilots, two flight engineers and three detection systems specialists. According to Durham, the typical USCS mission lasts eight to 10 hours.

Durham admits the USCS suffers from a pilot shortage. "At times we are only 50 percent manned. Most pilots average about 90 flying hours per month."

Pilot training on the modernized P-3 has begun at the USCS flight facility in Corpus Christie, Texas. Each USCS P-3 pilot must complete two flights following two weeks of ground school. The USCS has two P-3 stations, in Corpus Christie and Jacksonville, Fla.

The USCS crews will work with mission-specific software made by Astronautics and CMC. The software will track ground moving targets, insert waypoints to track the course and speed of target intercepts, and set up orbits to follow moving targets.

"In a perfect scenario, called a ‘double eagle,’ the AEW [Dome] aircraft tracks the target[s] and the Slick identifies and documents the target[s]," says Norris. Targets often are vehicles potentially bearing drugs. The USCS is the U.S. government’s lead agency for drug interdiction. Mission assignments come from the Department of Defense for South American transit zones and from the USCS for domestic and border zones.

The first aircraft to be equipped with the new avionics cockpit conducted its first flight in May at Lockheed Martin’s Logistics Center in Greenville, S.C. Lockheed Martin’s Tom Wetherall claims, "This aircraft’s upgraded configuration…makes this the most advanced P-3 cockpit in the world." The improvements, he says, make the aircraft easier to operate, easier to maintain, and provides the flight crew with a heightened sense of situational awareness.

Customized Programs

CMC’s program manager for the FMS, Rex Hygate, says the CMA 900 multifunction control display unit (MCDU) was added to the P-3 avionics upgrade suite early in the program, according to USCS requirements. Some of the customized programs include:

  • Navigational radio tuning page adapted to interact with Rockwell Collins nav radios for the flight planning process;
  • An added search pattern that includes moving orbits and rendezvous functions;
  • And an additional mission computer for the mission system to monitor the flight planning process and to provide waypoint information to the sensor operators.

The USCS mission controller can adapt the FMS to any type of mission quite easily, says Hygate. "Night vision goggles also can be added." The CMA 900 has a desktop training simulator available, as well, which CMC is discussing with USCS.

In terms of functionality, the FMDS provides:

  • Primary flight display,

  • Attitude director indicator/flight director,

  • Horizontal situation indicator (HSI),

  • Navigation display,

  • Radio/FMS navigation overlays,

  • Color weather radar,

  • Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) and terrain awareness warning system (TAWS) software,

  • System annunciations,

  • Flight management,

  • Flight planning,
  • 4-dimensional navigation,

  • Waypoint navigation,

  • Holding/search patterns,

  • Intercept patterns,

  • Radio tuning,

  • Inertial navigation system (INS) control,

  • A database library, and

  • Growth for global air traffic management (GATM) compliance.

Canada’s Aurora Program

Canada’s CP-140 program, referred to as the Aurora Incremental Modernization Project (AIMP), includes a series of incremental upgrades over a 10-year period. The program is in its first phase, called the Navigation and Flight Instrument Modernization Project (NFIMP).

As in the USCS P-3 avionics modernization program, the Canadian DND’s aim is to improve operational capability, reliability, safety and supportability. The agency awarded CMC Electronics a $57.2-million (Can.) contract for the modernization program’s first phase in August 2000. The contract calls for flight instruments to equip 16 operational and two prototype aircraft. A subsequent contract will cover communications management, for which bids are now being evaluated. The request for proposal (RFP) for the data management system will be sent out soon, according to Maj. Simon Sukstorf, the DND systems engineer on the AIMP.

"We expect the entire mod program to be completed in 2008," says Sukstorf. Like the USCS, the DND is evaluating the serviceability of airframes in the Aurora fleet. "We’re confident the airframes will be good through 2015 at the minimum and 2025 at the maximum.

"This will provide us with a modern, cost-effective fleet of patrol aircraft," he adds. "The value of the entire program will eventually be close to $ 1 billion [Can.]."

Sukstorf claims the existing Aurora fleet is obsolete by today’s standards. "We’re replacing ’70s and early ’80s technology with today’s digital equipment. We will have an excellent navigation system and integrated control display units (CDUs), as well as the TCAS-II." The result, he concludes, will be much improved crew management, reduced pilot workload, and enhanced situational awareness.

Although the DND selected its modernization team independently, many of the contractors for the program’s first phase also are on the USCS P-3 program. Sukstorf admits, as well, to having several informal contacts with the USCS team.

The CMC team includes Astronautics, Litton Systems Canada, BAE Systems, Targa Electronic Systems and the Aerospace Division of IMP Group. Both of the latter companies are key to the program. Targa, San Ramon, Calif., was selected to load data into the system’s computers, while IMP–a P-3 modernization facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia, authorized by the Canadian government and Lockheed Martin–was chosen to install the new avionics suite in the CP-140. Litton Canada, Halifax, is providing the ground support equipment for the new systems.

Iain Wilkes, CMC’s senior marketing manager for military avionics at CMC, says the company has "invested seven years in this upgrade program." The critical design review is due to the DND in December. Wilkes says the development team works together at the CMC SIL in Ottawa.

"The SIL is up and running and the dynamics of integrating is under way," Wiles says. The first shipset for testing purposes will be installed on the prototype aircraft early next year, and full production is scheduled to begin the last quarter of 2003.

An electronic simulation lab (ESL) is being developed, and CMC is scheduled to deliver a simulator in November. Shipsets in their final configuration will be delivered through 2004.

The CP-140 modernization program began nearly one year ago. "Our problems have been quite minimal so far," says Wilkes. "The customer is happy with CMC and the development team." He adds, however, that the hardest part is yet to come…when the team begins testing the interaction between the FMS/autopilot and the electronic flight instruments. "The Customs Service has already experienced this," says Wilkes. "Their data has helped us a fair amount."

As with the USCS, Canada’s DND has stipulated modifications to the FMS, including:

  • Mil-STD-1553 interface to the mission computer and sonobuoy positioning system,

  • Tactical "fly to points" from the mission computer and steering cues to the EFIS,

  • Growth for integration and control of the tactical radios (to be implemented as dormant code for integration when the communication management contract is let),

  • Reconnaissance camera control,

  • Intercept waypoint navigation,

  • Search pattern selection and integration with flight planning, and

  • On-top position marking.

  • There also were requirements for:

  • Integration of the FMS, autopilot/flight director and EFIS,

  • Integration of two radar altimeter and altitude warning systems (RAAWS) in a redundant configuration to execute low-level flight, and

  • Addition of FMS and EFIS workstations at all crew locations.

The CP-140’s electronic flight instruments, provided by Astronautics include five 4-inch (10-cm) displays: two for the pilot, two for the copilot and one for the navigation controller in the back of the aircraft.

Both Astronautics and CMC Electronics are marketing their P-3 modification systems to Orion operators around the world. The potential is huge.

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