The Navy’s Cutest Planes Are Flying Research Missions
S-3 Vikings used to operate from carriers—now they’re working for science
The S-3 Viking had a long, low-key career flying off aircraft carriers during the Cold War. But when the Navy retired all but three of the chubby submarine-hunters in 2009—giving a fourth to NASA—it afforded the remaining aircraft an interesting second life conducting scientific research and patrolling America’s experimental weapons zones.
But the latest chapter of the S-3’s story might not be the last. The Navy is considering bringing the type back into service aboard its carriers.
After their retirement, 91 of the S-3s wound up at the Air Force’s boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. But three others joined VX-30—the Navy squadron that monitors weapons tests—and another transferred to NASA, which converted it into an environmental research plane.
During its carrier years—it first entered service in 1973—the stubby S-3 hunted submarines, tracked ships and refueled friendly fighters. It’s capable of saying aloft for up to 10 hours—an impressive duration for such a small aircraft—and traveling more than 3,000 miles at an altitude of 40,000 feet.
The twin-engine jet has a hardpoint on each wing for carrying extra fuel tanks or bombs, plus four internal bays. Pilots loved the versatile Viking.
For NASA, the S-3’s range, durability and roominess make it great for observing how the environment interacts with airplane components at high altitudes, and for observing areas of the planet satellites just can’t reach. The space agency acquired its Viking in 2008 and promptly sent it to the tropics to study high-altitude icing.
Today NASA is flying its S-3—based at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland—over Lake Erie to photograph and scan algal blooms with an on-board hyper-spectral imaging sensor. Bad weather blocks imaging satellites from monitoring the blooms, but the S-3 doesn’t mind. It can fly below the clouds.
This is important work. Algal blooms in the lake can be dangerous to human health, producing toxins that two months ago shut down drinking water for half a million people in northwest Ohio. Since July, NASA has flown 14 missions over Lake Erie for a total of 37 flight hours—half of the projected study duration.
The three S-3s remaining with the Navy’s test squadron patrol the Sea Range, a 36,000-square-mile expanse of ocean off southern California. The military tests all sorts of aircraft, ships and missiles in the range—including missile defense systems and laser weapons.
The three S-3s are out to make sure no one accidentally stumbles into the line of fire.
The S-3—nicknamed “Hoover” for its vacuum cleaner-like engine noise—is one of those planes that’s beloved by aviation geeks but doesn’t really register with the general public. It’s subsonic and rather cutesy-looking compared to a fighter. It has never starred in a movie alongside Tom Cruise.
The Viking began as an anti-submarine plane. The general idea was to fly in search patterns for hours, dropping sonar buoys that could detect approaching hunter-killer submarines that could pose a lethal threat to friendly ships.
In the late 1990s, the S-3s also began refueling fighters, launching anti-ship missiles and snooping on enemy electronic signatures. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the S-3 helped spot targets for other jets and ground troops.
The Navy retired the Vikings in an effort to save money, and assigned the Hoover’s many mission to F/A-18 fighters, P-3 surveillance planes and SH-60 helicopters.
All that’s left are the four planes. One with NASA. The other three on range-clearing duty. But for the dozens of S-3s collecting dust in the desert, there might be a chance to return to service.
Of course, that means sacrificing another plane.
The Navy is searching for a replacement for its aging fleet of 1980s-vintage C-2s. The C-2s are long-range airborne taxis that shuttle people and supplies to aircraft carriers at sea.
The Navy could end up choosing to simply upgrade the C-2s with the new wings, cockpits and engines borrowed from the E-2 radar plane. The C-2’s manufacturer Northrop Grumman claims this will save millions on the plane—already known for being highly reliable—that would be lost if the Navy replaced the type with a new aircraft.
But Lockheed wants to the Navy to swap the C-2 for the S-3. This would mean millions of dollars in contracts to Lockheed for a new fuselage while keeping the S-3’s wings, engines and most of the components. The short, stubby plane will be longer—by about six feet—and almost two feet wider.
Since it’s designed for lengthy anti-submarine warfare missions and aerial refueling, the Viking has roughly the same payload as the C-2—about 10,000 pounds. But Lockheed insists an upgraded S-3 will have much greater range.
A carrier relying on resupply from C-2s based in Guam would outpace its logistics chain after passing The Philippines. But S-3s based on the island could expand the carrier’s range into the South China Sea.
A larger fuselage will also allow the plane to haul an entire F-35 engine—a big deal for the Navy.
S-3 versus the V-22
Bringing the C-2 back is also a way for Lockheed to compete with Boeing. The competitor is proposing—with powerful lobbying and institutional support from the Marines—for the Navy to adopt the part-plane, part-helicopter V-22 for the carrier on-board delivery mission.
This would be good for the Marines, but bad for carriers. It would keep the V-22’s production line humming while lowering production costs—given the benefits of producing parts at scale—and save the Marines money on replacement V-22 parts in the years ahead.
But this means selling the Navy on an a much less capable aircraft than the C-2 and the S-3. There’s nothing inherently stopping V-22s from delivering supplies to large mega-carriers. But the shorter-range tiltrotors risk straining the carrier’s logistical backbone and reducing their flexibility to operate in far-flung regions of the world.
There’s another problem. The V-22’s fuselage isn’t large enough to carry a complete F-35 engine. That’s a bit of a major problem considering the Navy wants F-35s to replace many of its carrier-borne fighters.
This means the V-22 carrier on-board delivery aircraft would have to haul engine pieces or carry the heavy engine on a sling. The former translates into lots of added time assembling and disassembling the engines just to move them. The latter would greatly restrict the V-22’s range and speed.
With a modified S-3, Lockheed is gambling on the Navy preferring a safer choice. The Navy also has decades of experience operating S-3s off carrier decks. Nor would there be a need for the Navy to modify its flattops to take on the retrofitted aircraft—unlike the V-22.
One downside is that the S-3s are old planes in their own right. But Lockheed insists the planes have an individual average of 9,000 flight hours left in their lifespan. A medium-to-high altitude airborne taxi and refueling S-3 would also have considerably less wear and tear than if it were hunting ships or submarines.
But this all leaves one big question. Why replace the C-2 at all? It’s old, but it’s still a reliable workhorse. For that, blame for the Marines for wanting a bargain on V-22 parts. In any case, there’s a one-in-three chance the S-3s will return for missions … other than science.