Iran's Military Is Flying Some Really Old Planes (And They Were Built in America)

David Axe

The Iranian air force’s museum-vintage P-3 Orion patrol planes still are airworthy, a recent flyby indicates.

On Nov. 11, 2019, a Lockheed P-3F Orion belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force flew a low, close pass above the U.S. Military Sealift Command dry-cargo vessel USNS Alan Shepard and USS Normandy, an accompanying U.S. Navy cruiser.

Navy photos depict the unarmed, four-engine P-3 flying near Alan Shepard and Normandy while the vessels transited the Gulf of Oman, a narrow chokepoint between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

The P-3s appearance underscores Iran’s ongoing work to maintain its increasingly aged military arsenal. Decades of sanctions have deprived Tehran of the opportunity to import new warplanes, warships and army equipment.

The Iranians instead have focused on maintaining and upgrading Western- and Soviet-sourced weaponry that for the most part pre-dates the 1979 Islamic revolution in the country.

At least when it comes to the P-3s, the maintenance efforts appear to be working. Iran bought six P-3Fs from Lockheed starting in 1973. The P-3 at the time arguably was the world’s leading maritime patrol plane. Its high speed and superb low-level handling allowed it to effectively hunt surface ships and submarines.

One of Iran’s P-3s, serial 5-8702, crashed in February 1985, according to Scramble, a Dutch aviation magazine. Another P-3F reportedly also was written-off in 1985, ostensibly leaving the IRIAF with just four of the patrollers.

But Scramble has found evidence of five P-3s remaining in the Iranian inventory. “So we believe there was no second write-off in 1985,” the magazine noted. “There might have been an incident, but the aircraft must have been repaired.”

All five extant P-3Fs have appeared in public in recent years. Serial 5-8705 is the plane that buzzed the American ships in November 2019. Sister plane 5-8706 appeared in May 2016. Serial 5-8701 last showed up in October 2009. Serial 5-8703 made its last major appearance in August 2008. Serial 5-8704 showed up in 2006.

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