P-3 Orion: The Submarine Hunter

There was one airplane that loomed larger than others in my childhood: the Lockheed P-3 Orion, the submarine hunter. I loved this plane more than the supersonic jets like the F-4 Phantom or the F-14 Tomcat.

The four turboprop patrol plane would pass by my bedroom window on it’s final approach the Navy Base, Moffett Field. The roar of the four props where as recognizable to me as the call of the scrub-jays. I could identify the P-3 in flight as readily as a soaring turkey vulture.

I wanted to make another sketch of my past and bolstered by my sketching experience at the Castle Air Museum, I wanted to find an example of a P-3 on static display because sketching large unmoving objects makes sketching a bit easier. Much easier.

After doing a little research and reconnoissance through Google Earth, I found my subject near the control tower for what is now known as Moffett Federal Airfield. It was a P-3 Alpha or P-3A for short. Now it was time to sketch it.

Parts of the former Naval base are now open to the public so on a Saturday morning, Grasshopper and I ventured forth with our sketching bags to put the P-3 Orion into our sketchbooks.

While we were at Moffett we also visited the excellent Moffett Field Historical Society Museum which covers all the stages of this former base, from the USS Macon to NASA.

A P-3 flight simulator in the parking lot of the Moffett Field Historical Society Museum.

After visiting the museum we walked south, past the enormous Hangar 1, to the patrol plane, set up our sketching chairs and began to sketch.

The Lockheed P-3 Orion was an extremely successful marine patrol airplane which made it’s way upon the world’s stage in October 1962 as it buzzed two ships bound for Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was designed to be used for marine patrol, reconnaissance, and anti-submarine warfare. The P-3 joins the list of aircraft which includes: Boeing’s B-52 and KC-135, and Lockheed’s C-130 and U-2 which have been in service for over 50 years.

Moffett Field was home to squadrons of P-3s which patrolled the Pacific Coast, on the look out for Russian submarines. In honor of this workhorse, one P-3 was put on public display. This was the plane now sat in front of me as I began to sketch.

The airplane before me was a P-3A BuNo. 150509. It had a long career serving as a training aircraft and served in many squadrons. She flew 9,914 flying hours and was retired after a 29 year career, where she was the last Alpha in service. This is much more efficient and economical than the Navy’s dirigibles or blimps.

I did three sketches of the P-3A. One head on and two detail sketches of the front and tail of the plane. The distinctive “stinger” tail of the the P-3 houses the Magnetic Anomaly Detection (MAD) boom which detects submarines under the water.


Moffet Field

Moffet Field looms large in my childhood, from the P-3s returning from their submarine patrols past my bedroom window to watching airshows on the base (often times from my roof). Although I did not visit or see the Navy Base very often, it’s presence was felt (and heard) every day.

The 1920s saw the rise of the airships, the dirigibles. These lighter than air, airships where being used to transport passengers and also as a means to keep an eye on the enemy’s fleet. They seemed to have a bright future both for civilian and military applications.

Germany was the true innovators with their Zeppelins. These are the airships that bombarded England during World War I but were also victim to antiaircraft fire. 71 % of German Zeppelins were lost in combat and 40% of their crews lost their lives.

Between the World Wars the US Navy was looking for a new base of operations on the West Coast for the ZRS-5 USS Macon. The Macon was built in 1929 and launched on August 8, 1931. The Macon was 785 feet long with a displacement of 7,401,260 cubic feet. It had a top speed of 75 knots (86 mph) and a range of 6,840 miles. The Macon, and her sister ship, the Akron, where just 20 feet shorter than the more well known Hindenburg. While the Hindenburg was filled with hydrogen (with disastrous results), the Macon and the Akron where the largest helium filled dirigibles ever built.

A base site was chosen in the farmlands of the southern Bay Area at Sunnyvale (my home town). Construction on the Navy base started in October 1931 and the centerpiece of the base was, and still is, Hangar No. 1. The hangar was built to house the Macon and other dirigibles. Hangar 1 is considered the largest freestanding structure in the world. The hangar is 1,138 long, 308 feet wide, and is 210 feet tall. The internal area is 351,000 square feet, that is just over eight acres! To give you an idea of the massive size of this hangar, three RMS Titanic ships can fit, side by side, in the hangar, with room to spare!

Hangar 1 is now striped of it’s siding and is currently being restored.

The Navy base was originally named Naval Air Station Sunnyvale but was later renamed after Rear Admiral Donald Moffet who was the Director of Aviation. He was the Captain of the USS Akron (ZRS-4) when it was destroyed in a thunderstorm on April 4 1933 while cruising off the coast of New Jersey. Moffet, along with 72 others perished in the crash, making it the deadliest airship crash in history. As a comparison, in the Hindenburg disaster, 36 people lost their lives, when she burst into flames at Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937.

The USS Macon was christened on March 11, 1933 by Rear Admiral Moffett’s widow. The Macon flew from Lakehurst, NJ on October 12, 1933 to her new base on the other side of the country: Moffet’s Field.

The golden age of the great airships was relatively short lived. The USS Macon first flight was on April 21, 1933, and her final flight was on February 12, 1935. A whole two years of service after about 50 flights. She was only at Moffet Field for four months.

Why only 50 flights? Like the Akron before and the Hindenburg afterwards, USS Macon crashed.

On February 12, 1935, The Macon crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Big Sur. The cause of the crash is debated but her upper fin was damaged in a storm and the airship lost helium causing her to plunge into the ocean. The Macon was fitted with life jackets, unlike like her sister ship and out of 83 crew members, only two perished.

The wreck of the USS Macon now lies on the ocean floor at 1,500 feet below sea level, where it has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Macon’s final resting place is within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

With the crash of the USS Macon, the Navy put an end to the airship program and the short era of the Great Airships in the United State was over. The Macon was the last of the great airstps built by the United States Navy.

Sketching Notes: I sketched the framework of Hangar 1. I was more focused on shape and form than the individual details. I sketched in Grasshopper in the foreground for scale. He was sketching the water tower to the left of Hangar 1.