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A P-3 Orion Turboprop at 46,000+ feet? It happened!

On February 4, 1971, Aircraft commander Commander Donald H. Lilienthal, flying P-3C Orion BuNo 156512 (c/n 5506), set a world horizontal flight altitude record for the heavy turboprop class of 45,018 feet (13,721.5 meters). Lilenthal was flying from Edwards Air Force Base in California at the time.

However, this was just one of several speed, distance, time-to-climb, and altitude records Lilenthal and his crew set over a two-week period early in 1971.

On January 22, Lilenthal took off from Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan. He and his crew then flew non-stop to Naval Air Test Center Patuxent River in Maryland- a distance of 6,857.75 miles (11,036.47 kilometers). The flight took only 15 hours and 32 minutes to complete. But…the Orion had to deviate its course to avoid foreign airspace, which lengthened the actual distance flown to 7,010 miles (11,218.5 kilometers)!

The record-setting flight crew were: Patrol Plane Commander CDR Lilenthal, Pilot CAPT R.H. Ross, Pilot LCDR F. Howard Stoodley, Navigator LT R.T. Myers, Meteorologist CDR J.E. Koehr, Flight Engineer ADJC K.D. Frantz, and Flight Engineer AEC H.A. Statti.

After arrival NATC Pax River, Lilenthal wasted little time between record-setting flights. On January 27 Lilenthal, still flying 156512, set a new record for speed over a straight 15 kilometer course of 500.89 miles per hour (806.10 kilometers per hour).

After the setting a new record for speed and already owning the record for distance, Lilenthal and crew transited to Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. No records were broken during the cross-county flight, but once at Edwards several more records fell. First the new horizontal flight altitude record fell on February 4. Then it was time-to-climb time.

On February 8, Lilenthal and crew set time-to-climb records for 9,843 feet (3,000 meters) in 2 minutes 52 seconds; to 19685 feet (6,000 meters) in 5 minutes 46 seconds; to 29,528 feet (9,000 meters) in 10 minutes 26 seconds; and 39,370 feet (12,000 meters) in 19 minutes 42 seconds.

Not done yet, Lilenthal continued climbing the Orion until it reached a world record altitude of 46,214.2 feet (14,086.1 meters). Remember readers- this is not a jet-powered aircraft. The Orion is a turboprop!

At the time of the record-setting flights Orion 156512 was a standard production aircraft with no modifications and assigned to NATC Pax River. 156512 went on to serve for 24 years with VP-31, VP-9, VP-46, VP-65, VP-16, and VP-45 before being stored at AMARG Davis-Monthan AFB in 1995.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.