"Special Projects"

translated from Centerline of January 1987 - a publication of the Valkenburg Aircraftspotters Foundation

The United States Navy normally has its aircraft squadrons listed in a row. With the exception of a few special squadrons, such as VAQ-33, VXE-6 and VXN-8, they are shared evenly between the Atlantic Wing and the Pacific Wing. Only two squadrons are not mentioned (yet) in official US Navy publications. These are:

VPU-1 P-3B NAS Brunswick, Maine

VPU-2 (SP) P-3B NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii

Besides that they are not mentioned in reference books, not much is known about these Navy Patrol Units. Many "tall stories" have been written about these squadrons and the Orions they are operating the last year. We cannot blame the writers because many questions remain unanswered since the existence of these squadrons became known. Many of these questions will probably remain unanswered, because the subject we are writing about is typified by secrets and mysteries. After a couple of years of research only one conclusion was possible: the 2 VPU's are invloved in espionage projects. This simple statement is not enough and must be substantiated by a thorough theory. An important help by the development of this theory was the book "Spionage vanuit de lucht" ("Espionage from the air") by Dick van der Aart, that was published in 1984. Probably without the writer knew it himself, he described the pre-history of the VPU's. However the establishment is not mentioned in the book. Also there is photographic evidence made by aircraft spotters, that shows Orions with false squadron-markings and BuNos. A short article about the change of command at VPU-2, published in a US magazine, was of great importance and was the first clue to the existence of the squadrons. To substantiate the theory we compiled the following list of important facts:

* Since the fifties the US organizes so called penetration flights to collect information on communist air defence systems.

* During such a flight a US Navy PB4Y Privateer was shot down on 8 April 1950.

* The official report on this incident was made public after 25 years in October 1975. It became clear then that the aircraft was not conducting a normal training flight, but a "special electronic search project mission". A nice designation that is used by the Americans when the real mission is espionage.

* During the period 1951-1969 seven more occasions of US aircraft (Neptunes, Mercators and Constellations) that were attacked during similar "patrol" missions became known.

* The final case was the shoot down of an EC-121M Super Constellation of VQ-1 on 14 April 1969.

* According to an American eye-witness, USN Orions are being re-painted in order to look like other aircraft.

* The Special Project squadrons are not mentioned in any official US Navy publication.

* P-3B Orions BuNos 153450, 154575, 154584 and 154585 are seldom spotted by aircraft spotters. If they are spotted they are not wearing any squadron-markings.

"ANYTIME ANYWHERE" (the squadrons)

The existence of the squadrons is not known for long. That is because they were established just in 1982, but also because extremely less publicity was given. The mission of the squadrons is also not described yet, but in the article VPU-2 is designated as "Patrol Squadron Special Projects". These last two words are indicating an espionage mission according to insiders. In the same article the squadron is identified as a "test-unit", but that could also mean that they are testing foreign air defence systems. We can make the assumption that the VPU's are not utility squadrons (like VC-1, VC-8) or test squadrons (such as VX-1 and VX-4), but squadrons that have a mission that the Americans will not officially admit. The squadrons will normally co-operate with the US Navy electronic reconnaissance squadrons: VQ-1 at NAS Agana, Guam and VQ-2 at NAS Rota, Spain. Another remarkable fact is that almost all available information is connected with VPU-2.

VPU-1: about this squadron not much is known. It exists and there are enough reasons to believe that it has its homebase at NAS Brunswick, Maine. Their fleet consists of 2 or 3 Orions and in 1984 VPU-1 received a "Meritorious Unit Commendation". The history is probably similar to the history of VPU-2. That seems logical and is based on the following facts:

* from the history of VP-26: "Returning to Brunswick in early 1978, the tridents were awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation for operations conducted by squadron and Special Projects aircrews throughout 1976-77".

* From the highlights of the career of the CO of VQ-1: "Patron Special Projects Detachment Brunswick, Me 1979-1981" and

*from the career of a VQ-2 officer: "In 1974 he reported to Patron Two-Six Special Projects Detachment in Brunswick, Me, for duty as a Multi-Sensor Mission Commander".

Probably the squadron also started in 1969 as a detachment of VP-26, to become a permanent detachment in 1979 and established as VPU-1 in 1981.

VPU-2: the birth of this squadron is described in the US article. The full date of establishment was 1 July 1982. In 1985 the unit's tail-code became known: "SP" (never seen on the tail of an Orion). In 1986 we discovered the squadron-patches that are illustrated with this article on a poster of all VP-patches. The "Special Projects" patch indicates that the squadrons personel is a select and skilled party. The other patch shows a wizard with his hands over the earth (probably the Pacific) with in the middle of the ocean a wind vane. The squadron's motto is a nice reflection of this whole story: "Anytime Anywhere".

"SPECIALLY EQUIPPED P-3B's" (the aircraft)

Thanks to keeping records of observations of Orions with USN squadrons for many years, it became clear that four P-3B Orions were never seen in the colours of a Patrol squadron. These four aircraft were listed on an official Orion-listing of 1984, mentioning that they were assigned to VPU-1 and VPU-2. Furthermore the list contained a UP-3A with VPU-2 and an extra P-3B with VPU-1. Since the latter is now assigned to VP-94 it probably was a temporary bounce-bird. Also remarkable is the fact that these four Orions are almost the only aircraft that are not TAC/NAV modified. They may be "specially equipped" but are not "Super Bees".

Probably they are very inconspicious without big black radomes like the EP-3B and EP-3E Orions of VQ-1 and VQ-2. The "special equipment" must be inside the aircraft.

The Orions of the VPU's have the following serials:

152169 UP-3A VPU-2 since 1984?

152736 P-3B VPU-1 from 1983 till 1986

153450 P-3B VPU-1 delivered 10 October 1967

154575 P-3B VPU-1 delivered 28 December 1967

154584 P-3B VPU-2 delivered 26 June 1968

154585 P-3B VPU-2 delivered 26 June 1968

Of the four Heavy Weights it is not known since when they are assigned to VPU. The delivery-dates are those from factory to USN and are taken from the mentioned Orion-list. It is 100% sure that at least four "specially equipped" P-3B's are operated. Only what they are doing and how they look like is a large question mark. Another thing we know for sure is that P-3B's with false serial-numbers and false squadron markings have been observed.

"159519" (what is that?)

Not only the VPU's are mysterious, also several observations of P-3B Orions are very mysterious. At first sight this looks like two totally different cases that only have the mystery in common. We have no evidence that those two cases are connected to each other, but it is not to be sneezed.

The most recent and also the clearest evidence of the re-painting of USN Orions was observed in April and June 1986. During this period VP-19 was on TDY in Japan and between regular VP-19 visits to Hong Kong Kai Tak airport an Orion with side number PE-9 was seen three times. The BuNo on this aircraft was not correct, because #159519 is not an Orion. More doubtly: this BuNo was never used for a USN aircraft! A better look at a photo of this Orion made clear that it was not a P-3C (what it was supposed to look like) but a P-3B variant. Another clear example was a P-3B that was observed and photographed on 21 April 1980 at NS Keflavik and on 22 April 1980 at RAF Kinloss with BuNo 160291, a P-3C belonging to VX-1. During that period VP-46 was on TDY at NS Keflavik and the aircraft was wearing VP-46 paintings and side-number RC-9. A very clear example was observed in September 1981 at NAS Brunswick: two P-3B Orions (one on the ramp and one in the hangar), both with BuNo 154577, VP-8 markings and side #LC-87. The aircraft in the hangar had a clearly visible changed BuNo. These are all recent observations, but the re-painting is done for many years now. The oldest known example is of 1972 when a P-3B was seen in VP-4 markings with BuNo 153440. This BuNo was seen again in 1976 on a P-3B in VP-26 markings, while in 1973 and 1975 also P-3B's were observed with BuNo 153445 and VP-4 markings. Nothing special at first sight, but both aircraft were shot down during the Vietnam war on 6 February 1968 and 1 April 1968 respectively. Both aircraft belonged to VP-26 then. Many more examples of re-painted Orions are known.

Although the USN is doing very much to make the P-3B Orions look like P-3C's, they cannot hide several typical P-3B characteristics. It becomes really difficult when they paint the BuNo of a still existing P-3A or P-3B on the aircraft. The specially equipped Orions are to be identified by the following specific characteristics, which are often not noted at first sight:

1. a black bulge below the nose-radome (just like the RP-3D)

2. a square window just behind the cockpit (LH side)

3. extra aerials below the aft fuselage

For an aircraft spotter "in the field" it will remain very difficult to identify such an Orion immediately. There are only four of them and often a photo will make details public that are not noted during the observation of the aircraft. The grey/white anonymous colour scheme that was introduced in September 1986 will not make identification of the aircraft easier. It saves the USN a lot of paint-work. According to the eye-witness mentioned earlier the aircraft often became much too heavy because of the frequent changes of unit-markings. Questions that remain unanswered after this article are: what is the reason for the re-paintings and are the VPU-Orions the aircraft that are repainted so often? Everything seems to indicate it, but clear evidence is not available.

"UNDER ESCORT" (the theory)

The year 1969 plays a key-role in the VPU-story. It was the year that the VP-4 detachment was established and the year that the first EP-3B variant of the Orion was delivered. It was also the year that a EC-121M Super Constellation (BuNo 135749) of VQ-1 was shot down by North Korean Mig 21's. This aircraft was conducted a penetration flight with the aim to test the North Korean air defence capabilities. It was a mission of VQ-1 and VQ-2 to fly provocative courses to wake up radar activity and to registrate this immediately. These missions were very dangerous with a bad end on many occasions. Except human lives several very expensive aircraft with very expensive equipment were lost. After the Super Constellation was shot down, President Nixon decided to admit the penetration flight in public. He announced that these flights would be continued under escort. The National Security Agency (NSA), that probably organizes these flights had to find an alternative.

The solution was simple: the expensive aircraft of VQ-1 and VQ-2 started to operate on the background, while less conspicuous and less expensive aircraft started to do the dirty work. These aircraft are painted in the colours of regular patrol planes: in case of any problems the explanation can be that the aircraft lost its course by accident. This solution meant the birth of VPU-operations. This theory gives a solution for almost all questions concerning VPU's. When there is a reader who has another vison or who can give additional or corrected information on the subject, we kindly request him to send this to the editorial address.

The activities described in this article are not new. In 1951 a unit named Special Electronic Search Project was established at NAS Sangley Point (Phillippines). This unit became VQ-1 later on and until 1969 the mission of VPU was conducted by the 2 VQ's. That also explains why the VQ's used to be a mystery and that they are operating with their own tail-codes since a few years yet. The Americans will not be happy when they read this article. They are not taking so much trouble to hide these activities for nothing. That is their problem, because for aircraft spotters only the aircraft counts. And with this article we hope have made another aircraft-problem clear.