Operational for less than two years, in 1963, three P-3 Orion aircraft were borrowed from the US Navy and were eventually uniquely modified by the CIA for “black flights”—initially over mainland China.
The P-3 Orion is a peerless airborne hunter. Its reputation as the ultimate maritime patrol aircraft has been earned through more than 50 years of service, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to round-the-clock patrols throughout the Cold War, to today’s guardian of the seas.
As with other aircraft in the world, the P-3 has spawned many different variant models. As explained by David Reade in his book The Age of Orion: The Lockheed P-3 Story, the first variant of the P-3 was unique in that until the late 1990s no one knew of its existence. Although considerably modified the aircraft was kept secret for over thirty years.
Operational for less than two years, in 1963, three P-3A Orions were borrowed from the US Navy and were eventually uniquely modified by the CIA for “black flights”—initially over mainland China.
In June 1963, a maritime patrol P-3A (#149673) was diverted from training flights at VP-30, NAS Jacksonville, Florida and flown to the Naval Aviation Depot at Alameda, California. There, a one-of-a-kind cargo door modification was performed. The Mod included widening the aircraft’s main cabin door, adding a mirror image door next to the existing one. Both doors swung inward and back out of the way, resulting in an opening approximately 53 inches wide. Unfortunately, there was a subsequent lack of additional structural support members and the tail section of the aircraft nearly twisted off during a test flight. It’s interesting to note that despite being eventually repaired, which included a body strap for extra support, the aircraft retained a 4° twist in its tail the rest of its operational unusual career. It was at this time that the Orion became immersed into the black world of classified projects and with two other P-3As (#149669 and #149678) disappeared into temporary obscurity.
Over the next year, the three aircraft went through a series of airframe modifications conducted by such companies as Lockheed and E-Systems of Greenville, Texas. Both #669 and #678 were also equipped with a revised mirror image cargo door modification performed by E-Systems.
The black modifications made to the Orions provided the aircraft with new multi-mission capabilities that consisted of state-of-the-art electronic systems, and advanced avionics that would later lead to the electrification of the Vietnam War after 1969. Mission systems included a side-looking airborne radar (SLAB) for border periphery surveillance, electronic multi-wave band communications intercept equipment for the intercept and recording of Chinese communications and a multi-spectrum infrared detector for passive surveillance. It’s also believed that a newly developed acoustic eavesdropping device was tested aboard the black P-3. The unit was so sensitive that it could detect engine and machine-manufacturing noises at long range. Photo reconnaissance had long been the backbone of airborne surveillance and the Black Orions were apply equipped for slant-range or oblique photography. Airframe modifications included the cargo doors for facilitating paradrops of equipment, arms, ammunition and agents during penetration (cross-border) reconnaissance flights and a weapons bay mounted (motorized) leaflet spreader capable of dropping tens of thousands of propaganda leaflets prepared by the psychological warfare compartment (office) within the CIA. The leaflet drops would take place during border periphery/penetration flights where the leaflets would drift down over mainland cities. Leaflet drops were common occurrences during multi-mission black flights, as was air sampling.
Under the direction of the Atomic Energy Commission, tasked at the time with collecting worldwide air samples in an effort to monitor and track the spread of nuclear weapons development in other countries, the Black Orions were equipped with air sampling/collection apparatus. The air sampling gear was connected to ram air scoops installed on both sides of the aircraft aft of the cockpit. Samples collected could not only indicate that an atomic/nuclear blast had been detonated, but could reveal radioactive particles that could determine the type and power level output of the blast.
The Black Orions were also configured for self-preservation. Due to its operational missions being conducted in very hazardous environments, the aircraft’s turboprop engines had heat dissipating (extended) exhaust shrouds and for a while, shortened propeller blades to decrease the prop noise from the aircraft. The aircraft were also painted “black,” as the world they operated in. The aircraft also bore, at least for a while, National Chinese markings. The probable premise was if they ever got shot down the Chinese markings gave plausible deniability for the CIA and the wreckage would most likely be identified as an L-188 Electra that the National Chinese were known to have for regional airline service.
One of the more interesting self-preservation modifications to the Black Orions was the addition of Sidewinder-missiles for self-defense against Chinese MiGs. The Mod included missile rails mounted on the Orions’ wing weapons stations, an observation bubble installed in the top of the fuselage in the aft section of the plane and a fire control unit setup in the cockpit. In 1964-65, these three would have been the only Orions in the world to have been equipped with Sidewinder missiles and one is believed to have shot down a MiG fighter during this period.
The Black Orions were among a number of specially configured aircraft utilized by the CIA for clandestine black flights since before the Korean War. The Black Orions were flown from secret airbases on the Island Nation of Taiwan into the night on flights that would take them over China. The CIA was most interested in communist China, from its development as an industrial nation to its proliferation of nuclear weapons and ICBM missile technology.
Although the CIA’s U-2 activities were exposed in 1960 and the agency’ s worldwide reconnaissance operations were somewhat curtailed, overflights of the mainland China region continued in earnest with the Black Orions (for a time) taking up the lead, starting in 1964.
The P-3 flew low altitude missions skirting along the southern Chinese coastline with occasional penetrations of the border to ferret out enemy air defense radar systems to map their location. Overland flights were conducted to locate military installations and airfields, as well as to record military communications traffic and gather data as to the level of China’s industrial complex. Other overland flights included dropping leaflets and sampling the air besides paradropping agents or equipment and arms to indigenous counter-insurgents. The CIA later tasked the Black Orions with additional surveillance missions overland in Burma and up to Tibet, to gather data on Chinese military operations against the civilian populace there.
With the turboprop engines providing fast dash speeds cone and a heavy payload carrying capacity, the P-3 was actually capable of performing all the CIA’s multi-mission taskings on one flight—and often did.
A typical mission flight would have the Black Orions leave Taiwan at such a time to put the aircraft close off the coast of mainland China by dark. With night enveloping the country, the P-3 would skirt along the coast recording communications traffic, electronic signals and industrial acoustic data. Other aspects such as photography, infrared imagery and radar information could also be gathered as the aircraft penetrated the coastline and ventured inland across the southern region of the country. At this point, additional data collection could be continued as preparations were made for agent or equipment drops. Leaflet drops could also be conducted at this point. At some point the aircraft would then cross the border into Burma and later up into Tibet to collect intelligence data before making the trip all the way back towards Taiwan, landing soon after daybreak.
In September of 1966, one of the Black Orions was detached from its operations over China and was assigned to a joint Department of Defense/Defense Intelligence Agency operation via the US Air Force. The aircraft was provided to support an intelligence-collection program in Vietnam codenamed “BENT AXLE.” The program involved gathering intelligence to locate Guerrilla encampments and NVA troop concentrations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail system of Laos and North Vietnam. The Black Orions operated out of Okinawa, Japan, at night and flew over Vietnam, conducting one of the first electronic intelligence gathering missions of the conflict. After 1968-69, the incorporation of electronic surveillance/reconnaissance in the Vietnam conflict commenced under an ever widening program called “IGLOO WHITE.”
This aircraft was only used for a short time, flying directly from its mission over Vietnam to the United States and the Naval Air Station Alameda in January of 1967. The two other Black Orions followed several months later.
The Black Orions existed between May 1964 and April 1967. The multi-mission Black P-3 had been something of an on interim aircraft for the CIA. Operating between an era of somewhat mission-dedicated airborne platforms, previously used and newer sophisticated aircraft to come on line—namely the-SR-71 which made its first test flight in 1965 and became fully operational by early 1967. The SR-71 took over most of ap the black flight missions over China and Southeast Asia.
Within months of the Black Orions’ arrival back in the United States, the aircraft were back at E-Systems undergoing modifications that would establish the next official P-3 variants for the US Navy, the EP-3 Orion.
The Age of Orion: The Lockheed P-3 Story is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy via Station Hypo and CIA