Lockheed Martin has delivered the first re-winged P-3 Orion to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agency, which begins to restore the long-term viability of a surveillance fleet grounded because of safety concerns until two years ago.

Lockheed's factory in Greenville, South Carolina, plans to re-wing up to 14 of the 16 P-3s operated by the CBP, which search mainly for drug traffickers crossing the US southern maritime border.

So far, the agency has completed the acquisition process to re-wing only 10 P-3s until 2015.

The P-3 fleet is one of four manned aircraft types patrolling the country's borders for the CBP and the US Coast Guard. The CBP also operates Bombardier Dash 8s and the coastguard flies Lockheed C-130s and EADS North America HC-144s (CN-235s).

USN P-3C in Japan
 © US Navy

The CBP also operates the General Atomics Predator B unmanned aircraft system.

But the P-3s fill a key role in the surveillance mission. In the previous fiscal year, CBP officials credited an aircraft originally designed for anti-submarine warfare for detecting and tracking eight self-propelled semi-submersible vessels, each carrying 5,000-6,800kg (11,000-15,000lb) of cocaine.

But a structural fatigue crisis discovered by the US Navy's P-3C community in 2006 forced the CBP to ground its fleet in 2007 and 2008. Lockheed installed an interim structural repair that allowed 11 of the aircraft to return to flying status after 2008.

Meanwhile, the agency also contracted with Lockheed to install completely new wings as a long-term solution.

Lockheed anticipates that the repairs, which incorporate a new metal alloy that is five times more corrosion resistant, will allow the CBP to operate the P-3s for at least 20 more years.

The re-wing upgrade "will ensure this national asset continues to provide second-to-none service for the next 20 years", says Lockheed Martin Aeronautics president Ralph Heath.

Source: Flight International