5. Orions run into engine troubles

Updated

The NZ Defence Force's Orion P-3s suffered five engine shutdowns within 15 days last November. Photo: NZDF.

The New Zealand air force’s aging P-3 Orions suffered five separate engine failures within the space of a fortnight, bolstering calls for their replacement. Sam Sachdeva reports.

However, the NZ Defence Force says there is no cause for increased concern following the “precautionary shutdowns” last year.

The P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft were first purchased by the Royal New Zealand Air Force over 50 years ago, in 1966.

An NZDF briefing note to Defence Minister Ron Mark last November said there had been five “engine shut down situations” between October 27 and November 11 following propeller malfunctions, leading to three-engine landings.

That compared to three shutdowns in the previous year, two of which had been identified on the ground.

The briefing said three of the most recent shutdowns were due to seal leaks across separate propellers, which suggested a link to assembly line maintenance or defective seals.

The NZDF said it would carry out an analysis of the shutdowns, but believed there was “no heightened airworthiness or safety concern for the fleet” given the separate factors at play.

The document also noted an increase in the number of propeller changes to the C-130 Hercules, bought between 1965 and 1969, due to leaks and faulty oil indicators.

Continuing to use aircraft more than 50 years old meant their technical systems were increasingly prone to failure, with their age making it difficult to obtain replacement parts.

In March, Mark told Newsroom he had secured “a window” to review the previous government’s plans to purchase four Boeing P-8A Poseidons from the United States.

An option to purchase the aircraft was due to expire at the end of March, but the Government is understood to have secured an extension until July.

Public affairs consultant David Broome, Winston Peters’ former chief of staff, said replacing the C-130 rather than the P-3 should be the Government’s priority given the versatile role they had played in the past.

Broome said the “multi-mission” version of a possible C-130 replacement - the Hercules C-130J - could carry out most of the Orions’ maritime surveillance role if necessary due to budget constraints.

Broome said it was important a decision was made soon, given the lag time between any purchase and when the aircraft were delivered.

Concerns about 'tepid' defence spend - National

National defence spokesman Mark Mitchell said the shutdowns showed the age of the P3s, a fact brought home to him as defence minister.

“My first base visit was to Whenuapai where I grew up as a little tyke and my dad was a P3 pilot. The aircraft I boarded to have a look at, was an aircraft he would have flown when I was born.”

Mitchell said the P-8A came out “head and shoulders” above the other options during the procurement process when Mitchell was minister, and would improve New Zealand’s ability to work with its partners and patrol its EEZ.

However, the “tepid” funding for defence in the Budget bolstered his concerns about whether the Government would provide the necessary funding.

Mark said the problems with the P-3s were a symptom of their age. He was “looking hard” at the options to replace them and knew a decision had to be made within months, but could not comment further.

The NZDF had assured him there were no immediate safety issues with the aircraft, and were monitoring the situation.

Mark said the Government would release a new strategic defence policy statement within weeks, re-examining its predecessor’s 2016 White Paper and whether it was still relevant in the modern environment.

That would be followed by a review of the Defence Capability Plan to provide an indication of the equipment the NZDF needed.

An NZDF spokesman said there were sometimes "runs of unserviceability" given the age of the aircraft, but the P-3s still delivered all necessary maritime surveillance and search and rescue tasks over the period.

Air Force personnel operating and maintaining the P-3s were highly trained both on the ground and in the air, and "normal procedures" were carried out during three-engine landings.