Sensors Aid P-8 Crew in Airliner Search

The U.S. Navy is relying on its new maritime patrol aircraft’s radar and infrared sensors to help scour a swath of ocean for the missing Malaysian airliner, officials said.

The service’s P-8 Poseidon, designed to hunt submarines, arrived in Perth, Australia, this week from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 widened to the southern Indian Ocean amid satellite imagery of possible debris.

The search for Flight 370, which went missing March 8 about an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport on a flight to Beijing, is the naval plane’s first high-profile international mission.

The twin-engine P-8A, a military version of the Boeing 737-800, is one of six such aircraft the Navy stationed in Okinawa, Japan, in recent months as part of the Pentagon’s shift in strategic emphasis to the Asia-Pacific region.

The plane is outfitted with sensors well-suited to searching for personnel or debris on the surface of the sea, including an AN/APY-10 surveillance radar made by Raytheon Co. and MX-series electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) camera made by L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., officials said.

“The radar can alert a crew that something abnormal exists on the surface of the ocean, whether it be a ship, a life raft, or a small object,” Cmdr. William Marks, a spokesman for the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, said in an e-mail. “Then the EO/IR camera can provide the visual picture, acting as the eyes of the crew, day or night.”

He added, “The combination of radar and EO/IR is a significant enhancement over a visual search, as it increases the area of coverage and the probability that a feature on the ocean’s surface will be detected,” Marks said.

Also found on military drones and aerostats, L-3’s MX-20 sensors are high-definition imaging systems, with 2 megapixel zoom, and other features.

“If suspect debris were spotted, the aircraft would more than likely use the EO/IR camera at close range to identify exactly what was detected and would provide the necessary information to lead salvage ships to the wreckage,” Marks said.

In a recent report, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester said the aircraft can’t perform its primary missions such as hunting submarines or conducting broad-area surveillance due in part to “sensor shortfalls.” A Boeing official said many of the issues identified were related to software that has since been fixed.

The nine-crew P-8, which has a range of about 1,200 nautical miles, last week joined the search for the airliner to assist its Cold War-era predecessor, a P-3C Orion made by Lockheed Martin Corp., which has a range of about 2,400 nautical miles and is still operating out of the Malaysian capital.”

While the P-3 has a longer range, as well as radar, infrared and night-vision cameras, the P-8 is faster, with a top speed of 564 miles per hour, and can generally spend more time searching a site, Marks said.

“The missions are generally scheduled to be airborne for 9-10 hours total, including any time spent transiting to and from the search area,” he said. “In order to reach an outer search areas, the P-8A can transit up to 900-1200NM, still leaving 3-4 hours to conduct the search prior to returning to base.”

LaToya Graddy, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, agreed, saying, “The aircraft’s dash speed and transit time has to be taken in consideration,” when comparing performance differences between the P-3 and P-8.

The international search for the Malaysian airliner ended on Thursday with aircraft crews finding no sign of the two objects spotted by a commercial satellite. The search is expected to resume Friday morning.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_

    Beats the guy in binos looking out the window.

  • Robbie

    Is the P-8 air-refuelable?

    • Ronnie

      The guy with the binos is

    • Deuterium2H

      Hello Robbie,

      Yes. It has a receptacle in the upper forward fuselage (just aft of the ****pit) to accept a flying boom type refueling system, as is used by the USAF.

      • Steve

        its there but the navy has deferred testing it and getting it cleared for use. So no inflight re-fuel till probably late 2016.

  • hibeam

    I would have guessed hinder. Thanks for the update.

  • hibeam

    With a 1200NM range we can protect San Francisco Bay and most of the Gulf of Mexico.

    • Deuterium2H

      Hello Hibeam,

      That doesn’t take into account it’s aerial refueling capability. Aerial refueling effectively doubles it’s range, and allows approx. 22 hours flight time, which is limited by the engine oil consumption.

      • badbadleroybrown

        Why is it not possible to solve that issue? If you can refuel, surely you can refill the oil capacity. I’m sure I am missing something important but really just want to know.

        • ronaldo

          Sure enough bblrb, it is not practical. Remember that this is a commercial airframe. If you have seen any contemporary engine nacelle design you would quickly see there is not a single square centimeter available for the plumbing to handle an oil replenishment system.

          But let’s assume that you could extend the flight time to a greater than 22 hours length. What would that buy you ? I assure you that the crew is totally wasted after a mere 22 hours on duty, the food for the 22 hours has run out, the lavatory is full, and every one needs to get home and get some serious rest. 22 hour pilot shift ? Hah ! That exceeds the FAA and (probably Navy) minimum rest standards.

          Even cargo dogs wouldn’t sign up for that, no ?

      • hibeam

        Thanks. I feel better now. 1200nm doesn’t cut the mustard. They should have mentioned that in the article.

        • SuperGuest

          They should have mentioned that almighty hibeam doesn’t think 1200nm is enough?

          • hibeam

            Its not enough. That’s why its air refuel-able. Try to keep up.

        • ronaldo

          No, frankly they shouldn’t have. Do not measure the quality of an article without including your ignorance on the basic subject and aircraft mission.

      • Steve

        its there but the navy has deferred testing it and getting it cleared for use. So no inflight re-fuel till probably late 2016.

  • MacK

    Was this release a positive show of effort to find that down aircraft or a PR release to justify the expensive of their new Subhunter that doesnt perform as well as the old one?

    • JAXMAN

      PR is good, testing the platform and working out the bugs is better. What new system has not had it’s glitches ????

  • Vikka

    Indian navy has committed 2 p-8 for the search. Great reports coming out about planes performance.

    • Ben

      It might have something to do with the fact that they’re not hunting subs.

      • ronaldo

        Do you know something about that missing 777 that the rest of us don’t ?

      • blight_

        The MAD wouldn’t do much good finding an airplane fuselage in deep water.

        If anything, it advances the initial argument about the new role of maritime patrol aircraft being more than just subhunting. However, P-8 and P-3 are perhaps equally powerless to find the missing jet. By now there shouldn’t be much of anything afloat, and it’s a game for USubV’s and long-duration submarines. I suppose the Seawolf or the Jimmy Carter (and the now long-gone NR-1) would be appropriate for this mission. Alvin and other minisubs need surface ships to bracket the ocean floor with sonar before going into the drink to pick stuff up.

  • hibeam

    A turn to the left followed by disaster. Seems to be going around.

    • JohnnyRanger

      That is good. That is very, very good.

    • blight_

      A hibeam post met with accolades!

      Coincides with the second day of spring. Is hibeam turning a new leaf? News at ten.

  • oblatt22

    The bottom line is that the P-3 is more effective and can search more sea than the P-8.

    The P-8 was designed down to a lower specification at a higher price to maintain contractors profit margins.

    When P-3 crews are taking off at 8:30am for the search no doubt they give a friendly wave to the P-8 folks in the maintenance shed who will have their aircraft ready by 4pm

  • Tanker

    It isn’t clear how a plane with 2400 nm range can go out 1200 nm (and presumably come back) and still have 3-4 hrs on station.

    • EW3

      You’re right

    • Curt

      The article has numerous errors.

      The P-3 and P-8 have roughly the same endurance. Namely 4hrs on station at 1200nm from base. So if the area is closer, the P-3C will have more time on station, further away and the P-8A has the advantage. Feel free to check the NAVAIR website. Of course specific search time all depends on altitude, speed, transit distance, etc. But figure they are roughly the same.

  • Jack Murphy

    It does not have in flight refueling it is a highly modified 737-800 with a -900 wing ( Greater lift ) the numbers are straight out of Boeings announcement as far as the numbers are concerned. To the remark about the P-3 Vs the 737 a few facts are in order Sout-West Airlines is a exclusive airline useing 737-800 with a 99% dispatch rate. Show me 1 aircraft that dod owns with that high a dispatch rate? It is a 2 man cockpit with 7 operators in bak the P-3 has 4 operators in back with no blue tooth no internet capability and over50 years of age:Role Maritime patrol aircraft First flight November 1959 Introduction August 1962 It basicly was a Lockheed Electra that was treated like the Boeing Model 80….the 737 is a great aircraft flying with almost every airline in the worls so parts are never a hard time…experienced manpower for maint and upkeep are available everywhere. 1of the few smart things done by the dod……imho..

    • Mambo

      Yes it does have in-flight refueling. They start in-flight refueler training in 2015.

      • LeoC

        Per Wiki: In-flight refueling is via a receptacle on top of the forward fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. This receptacle will receive a flying boom that is typically used to refuel United States Air Force aircraft, as opposed to the hose-and-drogue system used by other USN aircraft.

    • EW3

      I know this is very thin, but 1200 NM mile range seems too short. Found this is wiki -

      “The 737-700ER is a mainline passenger version of the BBJ1 and 737-700IGW. It combines the 737-700 fuselage with the wings and landing gear of a 737-800. It offers a range of 5,510 nautical miles”

      My point is that the 737 is capable of much greater then 1200 nm range. The way the spec on some websites says the range is 1200 nm with 4 hours over target area, makes me think the range is 2400 nm round trip with 4 hour loiter time.

      • Curt

        It says the same thing on the NAVAIR site.

  • Mike baaisden

    Do you know if submarines are being employed in the search now that the search area is being narrowed?

    • scott

      im sure it would make it a little easier i guess

  • oblatt22

    Marine helicopter carriers would be the ideal way to search and the Marines are ready to deploy in 5 months and after the aircraft has been found.

  • Rob C.

    I think they still have while ago to make the P-8 better than P-3. The P-3’s props can allow the plane to loiter above area allot longer than a Jet liner turn patrol aircraft. The P-8 may look impressive on paper and have allot more advanced equipment, i just don’t think it living up to what they need to do the job of the older plane. Software fixes or not.

  • Andy

    Man, this quote, combined with the F-35 thing. This country is done:
    In a recent report, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester said the aircraft can’t perform its primary missions such as hunting submarines or conducting broad-area surveillance due in part to “sensor shortfalls.”

    Read more:…

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