Patrol Squadron Four (VP4) at US Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island, Washington became an operational P-8 squadron after achieving its safe for flight certification 5 May.

With two aircraft stationed at Whidbey, the VP4 “Skinny Dragons” are still waiting for a total of seven aircraft before deployment, US Navy LTJG Max Casillas, a P-8 tactical coordinator at VP4, told reporters during a Boeing P-8 tour in May. The US Navy has seven P-8 squadrons and five P-3 squadrons, with plans to transition P-3 crews to create a total of 12 P-8 squadrons.

At Whidbey, VP4 is assisting legacy crews with that transition. Pilots and tactical commanders will find a tactical control panel on the new maritime patrol aircraft, as well as a heads up display that gives pilots increased situational awareness compared to the P-3.

“The SA between what’s happening in front and happening in back is different because a lot of things that mission crews were only able to see on their big screens, we get most of that information now in the front, and that wasn’t the case before,” says LTJG Summer Gonzalez, a US Navy spokeswoman. “We would have a mission video capability, so if they’re looking at cameras, tracking anything with radar, we can bring it up here and look at it.”

Today, the P-8 is approved for five Raytheon MK54 lightweight anti-submarine warfare torpedoes and can hold the Boeing AGM-84D Harpoon in four wing weapon stations. Two other weapon systems are planned to come online in the future directly underneath the fuselage, but the navy is still not authorised to carry weapons there since the weapon is still in development, Casillas says.

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“They’re going to be right under if not just a little bit forward of the mission crew work station, so kind of on the center of the fuselage, behind the flightdeck,” he says.

Two other weapons slated to come online would be housed forward on the exterior in weapons stations three and four. Those weapons would likely be used for mining purposes, Casillas says.

As the Navy moves into its next generation of maritime patrol, there are a few elements of the legacy aircraft the former P-3 crews will miss. When the P-8A's high altitude anti-submarine warfare weapon capability (HAAWC) reaches initial operational capability in 2020, the Navy will step away from the low-altitude operations required by the magnetic anomaly detector. HAAWC’s air-launched accessory (ALA) kit with GPS guidance system integrates onto the Mk54 torpedo, allowing the weapon to be released from altitudes as high as 30,000ft. HAAWC will become available to Australia, India and the UK after 2020.

“I personally miss it,” Casillas says of the detector. “Just because there’s nothing more exciting than being in an ASW situation and hear sensor three go ‘MAD MAD MAD!’”

Boeing is building the US and UK P-8s on the same production line and the lot 8 configured aircraft will mirror each other essentially, Maritime Patrol & Reconnaissance Aircraft programme manager Capt Tony Rossi said in April.

Last summer, the US Navy awarded Boeing a $60.8 million contract for a new software capability on the P-8 that will automatically correlate data from various sources including sea search radars and electromagnetic spectrum sensors. The upgrade is planned as part of the Increment 3 Block 2 improvements to the Poseidon. The aircraft’s third increment is expected to reach initial operational capability by 2020 and would improve Poseidon’s ability to detect submarines and surface vessels FlightGlobal previously reported. The multitude of sensors allows the operator to filter through an overwhelming amount of data, Rossi says. Increment 3 Block 2 would constitute a retrofit for the UK aircraft, if the UK requested the upgrade, he adds.