The Navy has grounded around a third of its decades-old P-3 patrol plane fleet due to fatigue. The news comes on the heels of a near-fatal F-15 disintegration that led to the Air Force grounding all 400 of its early-model F-15 fighters. An industry insider has all the shocking details about the weary P-3s in a WIB exclusive:
What happened was that one of the P-3 had either an emergency refused takeoff or an emergency landing and it was a bit rough so they did an inspection and found a 300-inch crack in a lower wing spar. The prompted an inspection of many of the other aircraft (not sure this was all or some portion based on airframe hours). Similar cracks were found in many. What hasn’t been in the [news] articles is that the grounded aircraft are the ones with all the current/most recent system upgrades. We will be left with using much less capable P-3s. Normal usage is 30 hours per month. Between very heavy low-altitude use in Afghanistan and increased tempo in some other parts of the world, that 30-hour rate has exploded to 140 hours per month.
Lockheed at first priced a wing fix at $20 million per aircraft and would take each one out of service for approximately 6 months. They recently decided the price is more like $40 million per aircraft.
Alternatively the program office is in crisis talks with Boeing on speeding up the P-8A. Alternate development and configuration scenarios are being looked at to drastically speed up the 2013 production decision (it’s April 2013 now). P-8A had its [Comprehensive Design Review] this past June and the first fuselage was just put in the jig. There is a very long and complex development and testing program in place that gets it to 2013. Even with minimal testing (and great risk) this could be cut, but you are still looking at years. The first 3 aircraft are testing ships with increasing degrees of equipment and are the only ones funded in the current [System Design and Development] contract. Due to development and procurement issues in some sub-systems, even the third test aircraft is not going to be 100% (content to be deferred to the yet to be contracted 4th aircraft/1st production aircraft). It would take a major contract restructure and $$$ to turn these first three into usable mission aircraft.
Unlike the F-15, there are no back-ups/alternatives/work-arounds. They [the P-3s] have been vital in Afghanistan and thus the 140-hour-per-month tempo. The remaining P-3s have been used at an increasing rate as parts queens for the ones grounded and when they do fly, systems [are]unavailable do to part shortages. This is really serious.