The heat shimmered off the tarmac despite the early hour of the morning. At 8am the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ played, echoing across United States Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.

The anthem was soon drowned out though as the engines of a P-8A Poseidon roared, sending the aircraft hurtling down the runway. On board were the very first New Zealand crew to take a P-8A on a tactical flight.

It was a significant day for the P-8A Personnel Exchange Program (PEP) of VP-30 Squadron in Jacksonville. The month marked a year since restrictions of movement had been in place for the Covid-19 pandemic.

But that morning, as the P-8A became airborne, the only restrictions were airspace, weather, simulated weapons systems and the imaginations of the “eight” New Zealand crew on board.

With one Kiwi on leave back in New Zealand, the crew were short a co-tactical coordinator for the flight. Up stepped Lieutenant Commander Jason ‘J-Buttah’ Brown. It was to be his last flight at VP-30 and there was an air of excitement as the “honorary Kiwi” jumped on board.

The aim of the flight was to put to the test some of the knowledge gained through instruction since graduating the initial P-8A operator course in September 2020.

The P-8A itself has many similarities to our own P-3K2. Much like the Black Caps’ pace bowling quartet switching between a Kookaburra and a Duke ball, the art is not so much relearning how to do the role required but more so in how to operate the equipment available to its fullest potential. With this in mind, the aircraft held to the north of operating area Whisky 497 off the east Florida coast, ready to spin, seam and swing our way through a sea of simulated enemy threats.

Standing in our way were countless vessels. Merchant vessels carrying cargo, fishing vessels longlining the ocean waters, pleasure craft cruising in the warm winter climate. All of these were potential threats.

Simulated intelligence suggested that weapons were being carried on an unknown vessel in the operating area. The goal was clear; use the tools on board to determine what each vessel in the operating area was and the threat it posed to the aircraft, all while operating from a safe distance away.

The simulated scenario allowed the sensor operators, Sergeants Marlo Bowyer and Ace Lindsay, Flight Sergeant Nick Rowe and Warrant Officer Mike Kennedy, to thoroughly test out the equipment with the radar, electro-optic camera and electronic support measures all being used to classify vessels.

For the Tactical Coordinator (TACCO) on board, Squadron Leader (SQNLDR) Ben Smith, it was an opportunity to experience what types of information the crew could provide him on the P-8A in order to effectively make decisions on how to best employ the aircraft for the mission.

In the flight deck, SQNLDR Byron Wagstaff and captain, SQNLDR Ben Woodhouse, guided the aircraft around above the ocean.

As the flight went on, the “threat” was identified and the aircraft could safely proceed. The aircraft’s multi-role capability soon came into play when a simulated search and rescue task came through for a vessel in distress.

With the United States having a Coast Guard to call on in these situations, this scenario isn’t as familiar or trained for as often at P-8A squadrons as it would be in New Zealand. For the crew on board, it was an opportunity to experience first- hand how the aircraft operates in this role, giving the flight deck and TACCO vital button pushes required to execute a search and rescue profile.

On our return and as we were taxiing back into the flight-line, Old Glory flew in the wind in the background. It was a poignant moment in which to realise just how far the P-8A project has come.

With development already underway in Ohakea and a raft of people throughout the Air Force working extremely hard behind the scenes to prepare for this significant capability, it was a special moment to reflect on.

While “J-Buttah” confided post-flight that he had no real idea what the Kiwis were saying throughout, it was a special flight for him and an example of strengthening maritime ties between two nations. The crew have now returned to their instructing roles on VP-30, looking forward to the next time they can get back in the skies.

Image: The Air Force crew and US Navy Lieutenant Commander Jason Brown, training on the P-8As 

Published in Air Force News - Issue 237(external link)

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