Home for a hunter

Orion rising

The first thing you notice is its size. In fact, the most common reaction is ‘Oh. Wow!’

Although it’s hardly enormous by modern standards, the Lockheed Orion’s ancestry in the Electra turboprop is a vivid reminder that even small airliners are not small aeroplanes. 

To walk from SAAM’s darkened restoration workshop into a display hangar that is dominated by a retired RAAF AP-3C is certainly impressive.

Nose on with A9-756, now in well-deserved retirement at the South Australian Aviation Museum. (airscape Photo)

South Australian Aviation Museum

Equally impressive is that fact that it took the proverbial ‘small but dedicated team of volunteers’ at the South Australian Aviation Museum less than a year to have the aircraft on display, after it was delivered in pieces from RAAF Edinburgh at the end of 2017.

The Orion’s arrival topped off a heady two years for the museum, which had begun with the erection of a long-awaited second display hangar (funded by determined fundraising and equivalent government grants). 

That major expansion was followed by the delivery of DHC Caribou A4-225, trucked from Oakey, Queensland, via the unsealed outback Strzelecki Track at the start of August 2016.

SAAM’s DHC-4 Caribou, built in 1965 and operated by the RAAF as A4-225 from June 1965 until retired in 2009. (airscape Photo)

A last minute height extension had to be added to one complete roof bay of the new hangar to allow the Caribou’s tall vertical stabiliser to be installed. 

It felt like the Caribou was barely reassembled in its new home, with still-fresh floor paint gleaming under its tyres, when parts crates, engines and complete sections of the retired Orion started arriving. 

Filling the space

With a small convoy of flat-bed trucks and their accompanying pilot vehicles, the move wasn’t a simple one.

Or cheap.

Transport and installation costs were substantially supported by a donation from Airbus Australia-Pacific, to the tune of $15,000.

This has been gratefully acknowledged in the completed display.

A good view of just how much the fuselage dominates the large truck, as both come through the gates. They were quite a sight coming down the highway! (Photo: Mike Milln | SAAM)
The left-side wing of A9-756 arrives at the South Australian Aviation Museum and is trucked carefully into the storage yard. (Photo: Mike Milln | SAAM)

The decision was originally taken to accept the Orion minus its starboard wing, and display the airframe with that wing root against the hangar wall. Even then it is a lot of aircraft and, while a complete aircraft is the ideal artefact, nothing is lost visually by the absence of one wing. 

Furthermore, the sight of the port wing stretching right across the available space underscores the wisdom of the decision. 

Of course, not everything goes quite as smoothly… With the aircraft on its wheels, the tail cone stands just below the hangar’s roofline. So, when finances allow, a second height extension will have to be built into the structure to allow the vertical stabiliser to be attached. Meanwhile, the tail fin is displayed on a stand specially built by museum volunteers.

A RAAF Orion display during 2010. Note the feathered No.1 propeller – the ability to perform well with one, two and sometimes even three engines feathered massively extended the AP-3C’s ability to loiter on station. (Photo: AegirPhotography | flickr.com | CC BY-NC 2.0)

40 years of service

A9-756’s service life began from the retirement of another great Lockheed ASW patrol craft, the SP-2H Neptune (re-designated P2V-7 in RAAF service), which was being operated by No.10 Squadron at Townsville. 

With an earlier order of ten P-3Bs already arriving in Australia, eight upgraded P3-Cs were ordered for 10 Sqdn. in 1975. The order was increased to ten in September 1976. All would be based at RAAF Edinburgh in Adelaide.

Specifically an Orion P-3C-180-LO or P-3C Upgrade II, A9-756 was delivered in September 1978, having been ordered as USN Bureau Number 160756 and built as Lockheed’s msn 285D-5666.

Wearing white uppers before the advent of low-vis grey camouflage, A9-756 at its RAAF Edinburgh base in October 1986. (Photo: NK Daw | SAAM)

Although very similar to the P-3B on the outside, the P-3C was a significant technical advance with new electronics and processors that reduced the crew complement from 12 to 10, infra-red detection equipment, Australia’s ‘Barra’ passive sonabuoy and AGM-84 Harpoon standoff air-to-surface missiles. 

Watching over the oceans

On delivery, A9-756 was deployed to Edinburgh where it joined No.92 Wing, comprising No.10 and No.11 Squadron, with No.292 Squadron as the conversion and training unit.

Although A9-756 wore 10 Squadron insignias for almost its entire operational life, the reality was that the P-3Cs simply served with No.92 Wing and were operated by all three squadrons depending on mission schedules and aircraft availability. 

Still a P-3C before the AP-3C upgrades, A9-756 on the tarmac at RAAF Edinburgh, August 8th, 1998. (Photo: NK Daw | SAAM)
Almost perfectly matching the an equally grey sky and tarmac, A9-756 at RAAF Edinburgh, September 25th, 2009. (Photo: NK Daw | SAAM)

The Wing’s duties included a standing maritime surveillance deployment to Air Base Butterworth, Malaysia from February 1981, performed variously by No.10 and No.11 Squadron personnel. 

These northern patrols ranged from bringing the Western powers startling first images of Soviet ships recovering their experimental BOR-4 reusable space orbiter in June 1982, to more recent freedom of navigation flights over the South China Sea.

From 2003, the Wing also maintained a ten year deployment to El Minhad Airbase in the United Arab Emirates, supporting operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and against pirates in the Arabian Sea. 

There have also been anti-piracy operations in the South China Sea, anti-terrorist operations in the Philippines, troop support in East Timor, the dramatic 1997 double-rescue of solo yachtsmen Thierry Dubois and Tony Bullimore, humanitarian missions around the Pacific, the search for MH-370, and endless hours of uneventful maritime patrols.

The story of Tony Bullimore’s extraordinary rescue is told in a video presentation near the displayed aircraft’s tail. 

A 92 Wing Orion fires out flares during self-protection system trials. (Photo: mashleymorgan | flickr.com | CC BY-SA 2.0)

‘…best maritime patrol aircraft in the world.’

A9-756’s specific part in these many years of duty isn’t known. The aircraft was out of service entirely from 1993 to 1996 following the discovery of extensive corrosion, but we know she took part in the 1998 Fincastle Trophy competition RAAF Edinburgh, hosted by from 2 – 13 November. For this competition, anti-submarine warfare teams from the RAF, RAAF, RCAF and RNZAF hunted the Oberon-class HMAS Onslow on one of her last sailings before being decommissioned. That year’s trophy was won by the Kiwis. 

By the time of Fincastle 98, work had already begun on upgrading the RAAF’s Orion fleet to a new AP-3C standard specifically developed to meet Australian Defence Force (ADF) requirements and extend the type’s service life. The first aircraft was upgraded by L-3 Communications (a division of Raytheon) at their base in Greenvale, Texas, and flown in May 1999. 

Subsequent conversions were done at Avalon in Victoria, by L-3’s Australian subsidiary. The complex fit-out saw extensive system integration delays and the entire fleet wasn’t completed until 2005 – three years later than expected.

However the first AP-3Cs were in service by the end of 2002 and the RAAF was confident their new platform was the best maritime patrol aircraft in the world.

A9-756 about to touch down in Adelaide, in September 2012. (Photo: NK Daw | SAAM)

Along with her regular duties, the upgraded A9-756 performed at the RAAF Air Show held at Amberley in 2002. On May 7th, 2005, she gave another excellent display over Canberra, as part of the Australian War Memorial’s VE Day commemoration. 

The rejuvenated aircraft soldiered on for another 10 years, amassing some 16,000 hours of total flight time before being retired from flying duties in October 2015. She was then converted to a ground-based training platform at Edinburgh. 

The first AP-3C had been retired in 2013 and the rest of the fleet would follow over the subsequent years. As the first new Boeing P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft began arriving in Australia in November 2016, the decision was made to dispose of five Orion airframes to museums around the country. 

With its strong connections to Edinburgh, the South Australian Aviation Museum immediately began the complex application process.

Passing the torch. A RAAF AP3-C performs alongside its replacement, Boeing P-8 Poseidon A47-001, at the 2017 Australian International Airshow near Melbourne. (Photo: Andrew Arch | flickr.com | CC BY 2.0)

Last landing

By May of 2017, SAAM’s committee was expecting final confirmation of its bid for A9-756, with Defence Disposals saying an aircraft could be delivered by the end of the year. RAAF Edinburgh insisted they wanted the airframe off the base by August.

In the end, due process won out and A9-756 arrived at the museum in Port Adelaide on the morning of December 10th.

That delivery had been preceded several weeks earlier by the arrival of six semi trailers carrying engines, propellers, nose and aft radomes, rudder, elevators, ailerons and flaps, which were tucked away in various storage locations and shipping containers by museum staff and personnel from 1 Combat Service Support Battalion, ADF. 

The Orion had been disassembled at Edinburgh by technicians from Airbus, as part of their contribution to the move.

Each of the four engine and propeller sets needed their own flatbed for delivery – courtesy of 1 CSS. (Photo: Mike Milln | SAAM)
Along with the engines and propellers came countless crates containing everything from wheels to wing to leading edges. (Photo: Mike Milln | SAAM)
The Orion’s distinctive Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) Boom is readied for lifting off the truck. (Photo: Mike Milln | SAAM)

The main fuselage, left wing and tailcone (including horizontal stabiliser) sections were then transported on three separate Alltrans Transport low loaders.

With the numerous smaller parts already positioned around the museum, no fewer than four telescoping mobile cranes from Nick’s Cranes Services, along with troops from 1 Combat Service Support Battalion and museum volunteers, were on hand to offload the new exhibit.

With the truck out of the way, temporary cradles are put in place to receive the fuselage. (Photo: Mike Milln | SAAM)

First, the comparatively massive fuselage was backed directly into the centre of the hangar on its truck bed. Slings were placed underneath at the front and rear, with a crane at each ‘corner’. The Orion was lifted so the truck could drive out from under it, then cradles were put in place before the lifting crews orchestrated a gentle last landing for the Orion fuselage.

Next, the 12 metre wing was lifted off its truck and placed on waiting bearers in the storage yard. And finally the tailcone was lifted from its truck, and stored outside until it, too, could be mated to the fuselage…

And that was just the first day! 

Now, the long journey of reassembly for presentation could begin.

Rebuilding the AP-3C

The first task was to create some working space and so, in early January just two volunteers raised the Orion’s cradles on their jockey wheels and then, using cables, pulley blocks and the winch on a Toyota Landcruiser, inched the 12 tonne fuselage across the hangar to it’s final display position. 

As the aircraft had been deliberately accepted without its starboard wing, the fuselage was placed with the starboard wing root hard by the hangar wall.

The missing right wing is ‘imagined’ by visitors as they view the aircraft from its left side. 

Sounds simple until you try it… The Orion’s nose cone being refitted. (Photo: Wayne Lee | SAAM)

This approach, already used successfully for the museum’s Fokker F-27 airliner VH-CAT, does more than valuable space. In fact, the port wing couldn’t be attached otherwise.

CAT’s remaining wing is kept in the museum’s stores and, more than a year after the Orion’s delivery, it’s left wing was also delivered into storage – accompanied by a ‘suggestion’ that the museum would soon be needing it when another new display hangar was built alongside A9-756’s current home, to hold future acquisitions.

Meanwhile, the nose gear was re-installed and then the entire fuselage had to be moved forward almost two metres, so the tail fin could pass between the steel roof beams on its eventual installation.

The Orion’s had to be stored and prepared outside, until space became available inside. Fortunately, Adelaide doesn’t see much rain over summer. (airscape Photo)

At last, with the Orion’s fuselage in position, the port wing could be re-fitted. In keeping with every aspect of working on such a large aircraft, this too was a major operation. Again, Airbus provided generous support – literally – in the form of a vital wing trestle, and the team from Nick’s Crane Services were back on hand to do the heavy lifting. 

Around a dozen South Australian Aviation Museum volunteers were also there to help with the process. Happily, the entire operation was completed without any unwelcome drama.

An aircraft again

By March 2018, just three months after being delivered, A9-756 was beginning to look like an aircraft again, with her port wing stretching almost the full width of the hangar and the main landing gear re-installed.

90 per cent done, 90 per cent to go… A9-756 comes together just a few months after being delivered. (airscape Photo)

Meanwhile, work was progressing on the design and construction of permanent support stands to replace the cradles and wing trestle on loan from Airbus. These stands were engineered, cut and welded by Museum volunteers, and are a real tribute to the skill and dedication of the team.

The extraordinary progress continued with the complicated raising and re-attaching of the tailcone which, reaching very close to the roof even without a vertical stabiliser, presented a serious challenge to the crane operators. Once again, they prevailed with remarkable skill.   

Not long after, the volunteer restoration team raised the MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detection) boom into the position and A9-756 was, once again, a complete airframe (minus her right wing and tail fin). 

Next, the two port Allison T-56-A-14W turboprop engines were attached, together with their eight paddle-like propeller blades and spinners. 

The Magnetic Anomaly Boom puts a sting in the Orion’s tail. (airscape Photo)
Engine installation proceeds. Note the tail cone in the background. (airscape Photo)

Work was also proceeding on the reattachment of the many smaller fittings, access panels, wing leading edges, and numerous other items that had been stored since the previous December.

The RAAF AP-3C Orions bristled with external antennae during their service and these were refitted through the seemingly endless task of emptying the crates that accompanied the Orion’s arrival. 

These many protuberances offer real potential for an ‘altercation’ between SAAM visitors and the aircraft.

The small forest of antennae the project from A9-756’s belly. (airscape Photo)

There are also very substantial bomb bay doors to avoid, and so the final display includes a low fence that gives the public a good view around and under the aircraft while helping them to stay safe.  

‘The Mighty Hunter’

Now cleaned up and externally complete, the Orion demonstrated its substantial presence – even within such a large hangar. Work moved to the inside of the aircraft, which is open to the public with perspex screens to protect the fittings from curious or overly sticky fingers. 

The same talented Museum volunteers constructed a permanent boarding stair for visitor convenience and the interior of the aircraft has been fitted with LED lighting. Missing instruments and operational equipment are being added as they can be acquired.

To protect the crew stations from curious fingers, the Museum has installed clear perspex doors fore and aft of the entrance. These provide a generous space within the aircraft and a good view of the secure areas. They can be opened for private cockpit tours and open cockpit events, to give the public a more in-depth look at ‘The Mighty Hunter’.

The impressively engineered stairs providing public access to the Orion’s interior. (airscape Photo)
Where the action happened… The crew stations in the preserved AP-3C. (airscape Photo)
A rare treat, now reserved for the Museum’s Open Cockpit Days. (airscape photo)

The completed interior also features an audio-visual presentation, funded by Airbus’ generous donation to the display, which recalls the Orion’s extraordinary career.  

An official handover ceremony for the aircraft was held on December 2nd, 2018.

Remarkably, the handover celebration took place just over a year from when those first containers of parts arrived at the museum, and only 51 weeks after the aircraft itself was delivered.

A9-756 in ‘her’ hangar at the South Australian Aviation Museum, Lipson Street, Port Adelaide, SA. (airscape Photo)

Well worth a visit

The event bookended an extraordinary period for the South Australian Aviation Museum. 

While so much work was being done on the Orion, the museum’s volunteers also made considerable progress on their exacting Fairey Battle and Avro Anson restorations; took delivery of a BAe-146 forward section and an Aero-145 light twin; restored a replica Cessna/Bleriot XI; restored and modified their unique, locally designed 1930s Sheppard CS2 for suspended presentation, updated several artefact displays; and took ownership of a Mirage III jet fighter.

What’s more, there has been little sign of this pace diminishing in the years since the handover. An endless sequence of project completions and restorations continue to come down the pipeline and be admirably dispatched by the volunteers. 

The Museum’s Avro Anson restoration continues to make steady progress. This image is from 2018. (airscape Photo)

The most remarkable example would have to be the swapping of the museum’s F-111, A8-134, with another aircraft from Edinburgh, A8-132, so the Australian War Memorial could have the only RAAF F-111 that had seen an operational deployment (to East Timor in November 1999). 

For a brief period in May of 2019, SAAM was the only place in the world where you could still see two F-111s together, as the grand ladies of Australia’s striking power crossed paths.  

Two RAAF F-111 Aardvarks in Adelaide
For the last time… Two RAAF F-111s side by side – A8-134 and A8-132, at SAAM in May 2019. (Photo © Daniel Turbin via SAAM website)

With such dynamic progress, SAAM has become a premier aviation museum – a must-see destination that will reward several repeat visits over the coming years.

From pioneering pre-WW1 artefacts to supersonic RAAF jets, A9-756 looks over a remarkable collection.

And then there’s the hangar roof to extend, so A9-756 can have her tail back…

Visit the museum website for more details.

The substantial weapons bay of the AP-3C, which was capable of carrying a range of Mk.46/MU 90 torpedoes, AGM-84 air-to-surface missiles, air sea rescue kits and more in service. (Photo: Jason Baker | flickr.com | CC BY 2.0)

Technical Data

Lockheed AP-3C Orion A09-756

Power plant:

Four 4,910 shp Allison T-56-A-14W turboprops.

Dimensions:

Wing span 30.38 m. Length 35.61 m. Height 10.27 m.

Weights:

Empty 27,892kg. Max takeoff 64,410kg. Total weapon load 8,740 kg

Performance:

Max speed 410 knots (761 km/h)

Ceiling 28,300ft (8,625 m)

Ferry range 4,136nm (7,665 km)

Initial climb 1,950ft/min (594 m/min)

Mission radius (with three hours on station) 1,345 nm (2,494 km)

Crew:

2 pilots

2 flight engineers

1 tactical co-ordinator

1 navigator/communication officer

1 sensor employment manager

6 airborne electronic analysts

A9-756’s belly, looking forward from the 24 sonabuoy deployment chutes. (airscape Photo)

SAAM

The South Australian Aviation Museum (SAAM) was founded in 1984 and has grown into a premier facility for preserving and displaying the region’s significant aviation history.

The museum’s collection spans the entire history of powered flight in South Australia – from a locally built 1914 radial engine to a complete F-111C ‘Aardvark’. The museum also boasts a substantial collection of operational aircraft engines, which are regularly run for patrons (or will be again, when COVID-19 allows), along with an extensive library and archive.

Volunteers also restore display items and complete aircraft to their original specifications in the museum’s generous workshop space.    

You can see more at saam.org.au and on the museum’s Facebook page.

Sources:

ADF Serials

Joe Baugher’s Aircraft Database

RAAF Museum, Point Cook, RAAF Aircraft Series 3

South Australian Aviation Museum

South Australian Aviation Museum, Props & Mags newsletter (various issues)

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