(Adds details, background, Lockheed statement, byline)
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON Dec 17 Nearly a fourth of the U.S.
Navy's fleet of Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) P-3C Orion
surveillance planes, some used in the U.S.-declared global war
on terrorism, are being grounded due to fears of "structural
fatigue," the Navy said on Monday.
It said 39 of the 161 planes in the P-3C fleet were
affected, with repairs expected to take 18 to 24 months per
"Program officials determined that these aircraft are
beyond known structural limits on the lower section of the P-3
wing," the Naval Air Systems Command said in a statement.
No physical event was behind the grounding of P-3Cs, said
John Milliman, a spokesman for the command based at Patuxent
"This is data-driven," he said, referring to a continuing
engineering analysis started in December 2004 to anticipate
components' growing risk of failure.
The grounding is the latest for aging U.S. warplanes used
heavily in post-Sept. 11 operations, including in Iraq and
The Air Force grounded all its older-model F-15 fighter
jets earlier this month for the third time in four weeks after
stepped-up inspections found more metal fatigue.
Enhanced Air Force inspections began after the Nov. 2 crash
of a nearly 30-year-old Missouri Air National Guard F-15C on a
routine training flight.
The P-3C has been a key Navy maritime patrol aircraft since
the 1960s. It is a land-based, four-engine turboprop designed
for long-range maritime patrol, anti-submarine warfare and
In recent years, its missions have expanded to include
reconnaissance over conflict zones in Iraq, according to a Navy
In its statement, the Navy said 10 of the newly grounded
aircraft had been deployed until now but did not say where. It
said a decision was pending on whether to retire some of the
The Navy plans to purchase 108 P-8A Poseidon aircraft being
developed by Boeing Co (BA.N) to replace its aging P-3 fleet. A
Pentagon decision on full-rate production of the P-8A is
expected in 2013, according to a Boeing fact sheet.
Milliman said the grounding was unlikely to have any impact
on the timetable for acquiring P-8As.
The Navy expects to be able to fly P-3s until 2019, as
currently scheduled, given fleet management precautions being
taken, he said.
Lockheed Martin said it would do anything it could to help
the Navy find a solution to the challenge.
"As the original equipment manufacturer, we are uniquely
qualified to offer our assistance," said Thomas Jurkowsky, a
company spokesman. "Besides the Navy, nobody knows this
airplane better than Lockheed Martin."
(Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by John Wallace)