'You really fly this ... and it's just a joy'

28 February 2019 by Claire Hunter

Orion landing at Avalon

From pursuing Russian submarines during the Cold War, to the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, the AP-3C Orion is one of the RAAF’s quiet achievers.

But to Wing Commander Marija “Maz” Jovanovich, it’s like a much-loved old friend.

“I could talk about [how special Orions] are for about three hours,” she said, smiling. “The aeroplane itself is beautifully designed – it’s one of the most enduring aeroplane designs in the history of aviation – and when you look at her, you can see that by how clean she is: she’s got clean wings, she’s got a clean airframe, and she flies beautifully.”

Wing Commander Marija Jovanovich

Wing Commander Marija Jovanovich: "She flies beautifully."

Now, after 50 years of military service for Australia, the P3 is being retired and the RAAF has donated one of the aircraft – AP-3C Orion A9-659 – to the Australian War Memorial.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the P3 is an extremely versatile aircraft, capable of land and maritime surveillance, anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, naval fleet support, and search and rescue operations.

Based at RAAF Base Edinburgh in South Australia, it played an essential role during the Cold War and has served in the Middle East as well as on search and rescue missions around the world.

Orion

Manufactured in 1985, ‘659’ completed its final flight on 28 June 2018 and was officially handed over to the Memorial at the 2019 Avalon Airshow. 

For Jovanovich and the crew, it was a day of mixed emotions.

“We fly these things all the time and kind of take it for granted, but doing the last flight was a little bit special,” Squadron Leader Benn Carroll said.  “Even taxiing out of Edinburgh was a little more emotional than we anticipated, and bringing it here [to Avalon] for the shutdown for the final time, certainly was.  

“I’m glad we got the job done, [but] it’s a bit of a sad day as well. It’s a real pilot’s plane. Unlike most aircraft these days, which are highly automated, you really fly this thing, and it’s just a joy.”

Squadron Leader Benn Carroll

Squadron Leader Benn Carroll: "It’s a real pilot’s plane."

Carroll grew up wanting to be a pilot and has been flying P3s for the past decade.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s just great fun to fly... It is challenging and rewarding all at the same time; it’s constantly pushing you and challenging what you know and what you are able to do, but it’s also just a magical experience.”

Warrant Officer Greg Ball

Warrant Officer Greg Ball: "It’s really special to be a part of it."

For Flight Engineer Warrant Officer Greg Ball, 659’s final flight was particularly poignant.

“It’s really special to be a part of it and to know it’s going to the War Memorial,” he said.

“They’re all special for different reasons [but] this aircraft was my first as a flight engineer. I started maintaining them in 1989 and about 10 years later I became a flight engineer.  The first flight on the flight engineer course was on this aircraft … so it’s … a special day. I’m from Canberra, so I’ll definitely get there to have a look when it’s ready.”

Warrant Officer Paul Darveniza

Warrant Officer Paul Darveniza: “It’s been a great journey."

Flight Engineer Warrant Officer Paul Darveniza agreed. He started working on the P3s more than 30 years ago and remembers the day 659 arrived.

“It’s been a great journey,” he said. “I joined the Air Force in 1982, when I was 22 years old, and I always wanted to go to work on the P3s. I was a technician when this one got delivered, and I’m pretty sure I marshalled it in... It’s just been a fantastic experience.”

He remembers a number of high-profile operations, including the rescue of British sailor Tony Bullimore in 1997, whose sailboat capsized 2,500 kilometres off the Australian coast in the Southern Ocean during an around-the-world race.

“They’re the big moments,” Darveniza said. “There was stuff from the Prime Minister and the Queen… It was just amazing.

“It’s really developed as an aircraft over time … and I like the camaraderie of the crew and the way you work as a team… It keeps you young.  Every day’s different and you don’t know what to expect. You’ll be on a flight and all of a sudden you get a call and you have to go and do something else... You learn to expect the unexpected.”

659

The aircraft was also involved in rescuing another sailor, Thierry Dubois, during the same race, and in January 2003, it became one of the first aircraft to deploy to Afghanistan as part of Operation Slipper. It also conducted the first Australian P-3C operational combat mission over Iraq during Operation Falconer on 16 March 2003,was used during the Black Saturday bushfire disaster in Victoria in 2009, and took part in the 2014 search for Malaysian Airlines MH370, the largest and longest-range airborne maritime search operation ever conducted.

“It’ll be sad to see the P3s stop flying … but everything changes,” he said.

“They’ve all got their different quirks and they’ve been worked hard. I’m just glad I got to fly in the aircraft and enjoy the camaraderie of the crew [during] my 36 years in the military….

“I’ll probably walk past and give it a pat [to say goodbye]… It’s good to come back and to be part of something that’s going to be … at the Memorial for the rest of time.”

On board the Orion.

For Jovanovich, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend. She shares her birthday with 659 and completed her first operational flight in the aircraft.

“It was surprisingly emotional. You really feel it, because that’s the end of the line for 659,” Jovanovich said.  “They’re all hand built [and] each aeroplane has its own personality, so it’s like saying goodbye to an individual, not just an airframe…

“It’s a different vibe on each aircraft, it really is, and they all handle differently.

“She flies beautifully through a massive air speed range … without any computers really. She’s just an intricate system of ropes and pullies – and then you look at what she does: so, so many roles all over the world – search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, overland intelligence reconnaissance, maritime surveillance, and a whole bunch of other things.”

Jovanovich remembers an anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia in 2010 which turned into a major search and rescue operation.

“We got hailed by a US ship, the Winston Churchill,” she said. “Somalian refugees [had been] trying to cross across to Yemen. They were intercepted; they were getting towed back; and they were offered food and water. They rushed to one side [and] the barge overturned.  

“[So you are] going up to do what you think is a routine anti-piracy mission, which sounds strange in itself … and you find yourself in a very emotional search and rescue, with people who have already perished,, and looking for people who are missing.”

The Orions have been Australia's eyes and ears in the sky for 50 years.

For half a century, the P3s have been Australia’s eyes and ears around the world and their retirement marks the end of an era.

“This is a really special aeroplane, and I say that now as somebody who has flown over 30 different types, including the F15s, F16s, F18s,” Jovanovich said. “We talk about the fast jets as being war-fighting aeroplanes, but this is a weapons platform: it carries torpedoes; it carries anti-shipping missiles; and it will use them if it is deemed necessary…

“[But] the best way to describe anti-submarine warfare … it’s like playing chess at 400 kilometres an hour against an enemy you can’t see: and in that context, when a crew works well, it is just poetry.”

Jovanovich completed her first deployment as a crew captain with 659.

“I’ve had quite a few interesting adventures on quite a few tails, including this one,” she said. “At that point you’ve been training for a number of years, and you’ve just been cut loose to go around the world on your own, and this is the girl I flew. On that same deployment I had my very first ‘engine out’ … a three-engine landing, as a captain. I’d been through aircraft emergencies, but there was always somebody there to help you … but at that point, it’s all up to you.”

At work inside the Orion.

She remembers flying figure eights in the sky just north of Edinburgh as part of a new test system.

“The conditions were just perfect, so for a couple of hours we were cutting these figure eights, and leaving these big figure eights in the sky,” she said. “When we landed there were people outside taking photos and people were calling the base to see what was going on. We didn’t know anything about it, we knew we were leaving con trails, but we didn’t know just how weird it looked.”

Orion

Today, she remains passionate about flying and the work they do.

“Initially it was all about the adventure of it, and then it just becomes part of you,” she said.

“Now it’s pretty much one of the few ways I feed my soul. There’s just a huge sense of freedom. Even if you are out there to do a job, you feel a huge sense of freedom of being buttoned up in an aeroplane and on your way…

“It’s going to be magnificent to be able to go to the War Memorial, and actually be able to visit: it will be like visiting an old friend.”

Watch Handmade Hero: an amazing aircraft here.

The Orion