Three of the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s fleet of six P-3K2 Orion aircraft flew in formation over Wairarapa on Tuesday as part of their farewell flight above the North Island before they are retired at the end of the month.
The Orion fleet, which have been in service for 57 years, will be replaced by four P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, the first of which arrived in New Zealand last month.
The Government bought the new Poseidon fleet during Carterton mayor Ron Mark’s tenure as Minister of Defence.
Although Mark was waiting for the P-3 fleet to fly over Carterton on the back balcony of Buckhorn Bar and Grill, he almost missed their swansong: “The P-3 Orions took me by surprise when they flew over because they’re very quiet”, he said.
“I remember noticing how quiet they were when I completed a mission in one as a youngster serving in the Middle East.
“I’m sure many an illegal fisherman has been surprised by them too over the past 55 years.”
The aircrafts’ longevity is “a credit to the men and women who maintained them, especially over the last 20 years; keeping them in the air at all costs.”
While Mark acknowledged the final flight would have been a bittersweet occasion for the air force, he said it was personally satisfying to see the new P-8 aircraft arrive in New Zealand.
“It was a project that I took to cabinet, so it was a very fine moment, one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Mark said.
The first P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft arrived in New Zealand in 1966.
Since then, the P-3 fleet has specialised in fisheries and customs surveillance, search and rescue missions, and humanitarian aid and disaster relief.
Although they have mainly been deployed in New Zealand, the South Pacific, and the Southern Ocean, they have also completed missions in every continent across the globe.
Over the past 57 years, the fleet has flown 147,978.2 hours.
The aircraft have been involved in numerous high-profile operations, including the Queen’s Birthday 1994 search and rescue mission after several vessels were caught in a huge storm during the Auckland to Suva yacht race, the search for flight MH-370 following its disappearance in 2014 while en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, and recent security patrols for the UN in the East China Sea to counter smuggling activity to North Korea.