Maritime patrol aircraft

Maritime patrol aircraft
Il-38 (A Soviet MPA)

A maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), also known as a patrol aircraft, maritime reconnaissance aircraft, or by the older American term patrol bomber, is a fixed-wing aircraft designed to operate for long durations over water in maritime patrol roles - in particular anti-submarine, anti-ship and search and rescue.



Blackburn Iris biplane flying boat patrol aircraft of the interwar period
World War I and World War II era

The first aircraft that would now be identified as patrol bombers were flown by the Royal Naval Air Service during World War I, primarily on anti-submarine patrols. At first blimps were the only aircraft capable of staying aloft for the long periods of time (as much as 10 hours) needed by the patrols whilst carrying a useful payload. Shorter-range patrols were mounted by adapted bombers such as the Sopwith 1½ Strutter. Later in the war aeroplanes were developed specifically for the role. These were usually large floatplanes such as the Short 184 or flying boats such as the Felixstowe F.2.

Many of the World War II patrol aircraft were converted from long-range bombers or airliners (such as Germany's Focke-Wulf Fw 200 "Condor"). To cover the Mid-Atlantic Gap that existed the British introduced a "Very Long Range" version of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber which was capable of patrolling the areas between Iceland and Greenland and attack German submarines. Purpose-designed aircraft were also used, including the American Consolidated PBY Catalina.

Post World War II

After World War II the patrol role was generally taken over by conversions of civilian airliners that had range and performance better than most wartime bombers.[nb 1]The latest jet-powered bombers of the 1950s did not have the endurance needed for long, over-water cruising, and more importantly did not have the low loitering speed necessary for anti-submarine operations. The main threat to NATO powers throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s were Soviet submarines, which were located primarily with the use of sonobuoys, and which then could be attacked with homing torpedoes.

Since the end of the Cold War the threat of a large-scale submarine attack is remote, and many forces are downsizing their patrol aircraft fleets. Those still in service are used primarily for counter-smuggling and Exclusive Economic Zone enforcement duties.

Armament and countermeasures

The earliest patrol aircraft carried bombs and machine guns. Between the wars the British experimented with equipping their patrol aircraft with the COW 37 mm gun. During the Second World War depth charges that could be successfully dropped replaced "anti-submarine" bombs.

Patrol aircraft also carried defensive armament which was necessary when patrolling areas close to enemy territory such as Allied operations in the Bay of Biscay targeting U-boats starting out from their base.

As a result of Allied successes with patrol aircraft against U-boats, the Germans introduced U-flak (submarines equipped with more anti-aircraft weaponry) to escort U-boats out of base and encouraged commanders to remain on the surface and fire back at attacking craft rather than trying to escape by diving. Equipping submarines with radar warning equipment and the snorkel made them harder to be found.

To counter the German long range patrol aircraft which targeted merchant convoys the British introduced the CAM ship which was a merchant vessel equipped with a single fighter aircraft which could be launched once to engage the enemy aircraft.


View of a P-3C showing the MAD (rear boom)

Maritime patrol aircraft are typically fitted with a wide range of sensors:

  • Radar to detect surface shipping movements;
  • Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD) to detect submarines. The MAD detecting head is typically mounted on an extension from the tail to minimize interference from the rest of the aircraft;
  • Sonobuoy dropped from the aircraft into the sea to detect submarines, transmitting the data back to the aircraft for analysis;
  • ELINT sensors to monitor civilian and military telecommunications;
  • Infrared camera are also useful in monitoring shipping movements.

Also the aircrew's eyes may be used, in some cases aided by searchlight or flares.

A modern military maritime patrol aircraft typically carries a dozen or so crew members, including relief flight crews, to effectively operate the equipment for up to 12 hours at a time.

Examples of maritime patrol aircraft

Fw 200 Condor
World War II era

Shorter ranged aircraft such as the Lockheed Hudson with a range of 1,700 nm were used in "coastal reconnaisance".

Post World War II
Irish Air Corps, CASA CN-235 Maritime patrol aircraft
RAF Nimrod MR2 patrol aircraft taxis

Small (often carrier-based) ASW or anti-ship aircraft are not normally considered to be MPAs. These include Kyushu Q1W, SB2U Vindicator, Breguet Alizé, Fairey Gannet, Grumman AF Guardian, Grumman S-2 Tracker and Lockheed S-3 Viking.


  1. ^ The British used a further development of the Avro Lancaster bomber - the Avro Shackleton - and then followed it with a conversion of a civilian jet - the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod


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