The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) is conducting regular training sorties with its first upgraded Lockheed Martin P-3K2 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, with its second and third modified examples to arrive in late September.

"The initial aim of our test and evaluation programme is to release the search and rescue and maritime surveillance capabilities of the upgraded aircraft," RNZAF Gp Capt Kevin McEvoy said in a statement. "The flying phase of the aircrew training marks a step change in our work towards that aim."

The training sorties are being conducted from RNZAF Whenuapai near Auckland.

Of the two Orions to be delivered late this month, aircraft NZ4201 is undergoing scheduled depot servicing and NZ4205 is undergoing acceptance testing.

New Zealand accepted its first upgraded Orion, NZ4204, in May 2011. The modernised type features a glass cockpit, an upgraded mission system, replacement communications and navigation equipment, and new sensors.

New Zealand's P-3K2 upgrade started in October 2004, when L-3 Communications Integrated Systems was awarded a fixed-price contract worth NZ$373 million ($291 million). The prototype, NZ4204, arrived at the company's Greenville site in Texas in September 2005 for modification. The aircraft had been due for return in late 2008, but the programme encountered lengthy delays because of stall performance concerns, digital indicated airspeed display anomalies during take-offs and a periodic yaw problem.

Resolving these problems required additional flight-testing and data analysis. The prototype was also unable to fly for six months in 2010, following the discovery of loose fasteners on its wing straps.

In 2010, the New Zealand government issued a defence white paper, which stated aims to replace its P-3 and C-130H aircraft by 2025.

The P-3 will be replaced "with an equivalent level of capability, manned or unmanned", the document said.

Source: Flight International