NOAA faced with tough choices as hurricane-tracking planes near end of lifespan

Wednesday - 7/16/2014, 10:25am EDT

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration planes used for tracking and forecasting hurricanes — known as the P-3 Orion — are reaching the end of their lifespan, according to a new report published by the Government Accountability Office.

NOAA owns two P-3 Orion planes. The aircraft use a Doppler radar to gather information about rain and wind within a tropical storm or hurricane. NOAA uses this data to predict the path and intensity of storms.

The P-3s are in "high demand for hurricane work," the report said. From June through the end of September each year, the aircraft are required to be available for hurricane research and usually are not available for any other purpose.

P-3 Orion (Source: NOAA)

Yet the P-3s are nearly 40 years old, and NOAA officials say the aircraft will only be operational for another 15 years.

The agency plans to re-wing the planes in fiscal 2017, but as repairs become more expensive, NOAA must decide "whether to invest in additional costly service life extensions or replace the aircraft," the report stated.

NOAA has already begun to explore alternative aircraft options once the P-3 are no longer operational.

The agency's airborne composition plan serves as a guide to the future composition of NOAA's fleet.

In addition, NOAA is looking into the potential of drones.

"Thus far, unmanned systems have proven to be a valuable new tool in NOAA's environmental data-gathering toolbox," NOAA told Federal News Radio.

But GAO said no proof exists to date on the cost-effectiveness of using drones, and the unmanned aircraft may not be practical in all situations.

In the report, GAO recommended that NOAA develop a capital asset plan to manage its fleet. GAO said a plan would allow NOAA to make long-term decisions about maintenance, repairs and purchases within its fleet that fit within sequestration level budgets.

"We are currently developing a long-term capital asset plan for our fleet, which consists of nine specialized environmental monitoring and research aircraft," NOAA told Federal News Radio. "We expect to complete the plan in the near future. Meanwhile, we are making significant investments that will extend the service life and capabilities of our aircraft, and enhance our ability to meet mission requirements. For example, we are in the process of upgrading the engines on our WP-3D Orion aircraft to increase their fuel efficiency and reduce maintenance costs. We also plan to install new wings on the P-3s to further extend the service life of these unique aircraft."

GAO cited NOAA's decision to purchase a third P-3 for $9 million. The plane was never used and is now being disposed.

"Without a comprehensive and integrated capital asset plan, NOAA risks not having sufficient analysis or justification to make sound critical decisions," the report said.