U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft have been in the sky over Jacksonville for more than 50 years and that won’t change in the foreseeable future.
As the Navy transitions from its P3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft to the new P-8A Poseidon, Naval Air Station Jacksonville remains the only antisubmarine warfare base on the East Coast.
Aircraft flying into and out of the base along the St. Johns River — and for the next few months, Cecil Airport during a $52 million renovation of the runways at NAS Jacksonville — is just part of the story.
While the primary mission of the P-3 and P-8A is hunting enemy submarines, the Jacksonville-based air crews have a global mission, said Capt. Anthony Corapi, commanding officer of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11.
“We have national and worldwide strategic impact,” he said Monday to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.
In addition to constant surveillance of the waters east of the United States, air crews from Jacksonville squadrons also are deployed to monitor the escalating tension in North and South Korea and searching for seagoing drug smugglers in Central American waters.
They’re also keeping an eye on terrorists in the Middle East and what the Chinese are up to 1,000 miles off their coastline.
Operating near El Salvador, Jacksonville aircrews are patrolling every day to locate drug smugglers in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and Central American authorities.
The P-8’s advanced technologies, including high-resolution cameras and 3D radar that functions day or night in all weather, allows detection of even the latest smuggling vessels, fiberglass submarines that cruise almost completely submerged as they carry drugs out of Central America toward the U.S. coast..
“We are the eyes and ears,” said Corapi.
Aircraft and crews based in Jacksonville are currently stationed at bases in the Philippines and in Okinawa to monitor the western Pacific region.
The Chinese are building 1,000 miles off their coast islands large enough to have 10,000-foot runways and aircraft hangars.
While the Chinese government has not made any official statement regarding the man-made islands, “They’re not building them for tourism,” said Corapi.
With three years remaining until the Navy completes the transition from the propeller-driven P-3 to the jet-powered P-8, NAS Jacksonville already is becoming a center of operations for the next generation of surveillance aircraft, the MQ-4C Triton, Corapi said.
With a wingspan greater than the P-8 and all the latest electronic surveillance equipment, the unmanned Triton is designed to perform reconnaissance missions at altitudes up to 60,000 feet.
Mission duration also is increased from about 11 hours for a P-8 crew to days or longer with in-flight refueling.
“It can stay up for a long, long time,” Corapi said.
The Triton is scheduled to be fully operational in January 2018.
All of the squadrons at NAS Jacksonville are scheduled to be transitioned into the P8-A by Oct. 15, when the base will celebrate its 75th anniversary as part of the Jacksonville community.
Capt. Howard Wanamaker, commanding officer of the base, said what began as a small training airfield for biplane pilots before World War II has grown into a 3,800-acre facility where more than 20,000 military personnel and civilian employees work each day. “We are a mini-city,” said Wanamaker.