LaRue High graduate glides through skies

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Jonathan Whelan pilots a prop plane for Navy surveillance

By Ron Benningfield

In this age of rocket thrusters and afterburners, 1999 LaRue County High School alumnus and Navy pilot Jonathan Whelan flies a propeller plane that, in comparison to the FA 118, F-122 and other jets is like matching the tortoise to the hare.


But this aircraft, the P-3 Orion, is perfectly suited to the crucial military missions it performs and wouldn’t be as effective at supersonic speeds.

The 117-foot, four engine P-3 is designed for distance and durability, able to stay aloft for hours, performing vital air surveillance and other duties if needed.  The “P” in the title represents patrol since the aircraft is designed for maritime patrol and reconnaissance.

The plane – and Whelan – recently was featured in Jacksonville magazine.

“It’s basically a Boeing 737 fitted with advanced equipment and weaponry,” said Whelan, a lieutenant who will qualify as a Patrol Plane Commander by January at which time he’ll accept full responsibility for the aircraft and its 11-member crew.

The P-3 is a land based, long-range anti-submarine warfare aircraft equipped with detection sensors that are dropped into the water to detect faint engine and propeller sounds emitted from submerged subs. 

 “By dropping the buoys in certain patterns, a crew can locate, track, and destroy a hostile enemy submarine, if necessary,” Whelan explained. 

Initially designed for a Cold War role, the plane has taken on other missions such as counter-drug operations, search and rescue, mining warfare, intelligence gathering, and both sea and land reconnaissance.

“Counter narcotics are now a standard operation for P-3 squadrons,” said Whelan who flies out of Jacksonville. “Small ships and boats in the Caribbean or near Central America are routinely observed and tracked for suspicious drug smuggling activity.”

A powerful camera in the aircraft’s nose allows the plane to provide close-up surveillance photos and video footage.  The pictures can then be linked via satellite to other viewing locations for near-instantaneous decision making by commanders located miles from the action.

“Should the ship be in suspect of drug smuggling, the P-3 crew can direct the Coast Guard to intercept and board the ship in order to inspect its cargo,” Whelan said. “Our squadron currently has two crews operating in Central America to provide counter drug support.”

His most memorable moment to date was the week of search and rescue in the Philippines when typhoon Fengshen capsized the super ferry Princess of the Stars, carrying around 850 passengers.

 “I flew on one of the two crews detached to Clark Air Base (located on Luzon Island 40 miles northwest of Manila) to lead the effort,” Whelan said. The crews shared time on station in seven to eight-hour shifts, combing all island coastland and surrounding waters from sunrise to sunset. 

The planes worked with the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group in recovery of survivors and casualties.

“Once the search and rescue phase was complete, we were then tasked to coordinate further aid and relief to the islands lacking sanitary water and medical supplies,” Whelan continued. “It was a very sobering experience, to say the least.”

Naval Academy

Whelan’s journey to becoming a pilot started his eighth-grade year when he first had aspirations to attend the Naval Academy. He was not accepted into the academy immediately upon high school graduation, so he entered Marion Military Institute in Marion, Ala., to better his chances when he reapplied the following year.

“I was accepted to attend the Naval Academy in February 2000 and was inducted that summer,” he said. “I was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy May 28, 2004.”

Upon entry into the Academy, he at first wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

“I was quickly brought to my senses, however, when I realized how much I enjoyed sleeping in a warm, dry bed and eating three hot meals a day,” he said. “Flying planes always appealed to me as well, so that is the direction I went.”

He chose the Orion with four engines producing 4,600 horsepower each with a top speed just shy of 500 miles per hour. 

“I prefer flying the P-3 rather than fighters because of the multiple roles we play and the fact that we are not stuck on an aircraft carrier,” he said.  “However, it would be nice to only have to fly a couple hours at a time, since sometimes our missions can go upwards of 12 hours.”

He intends to stay with the military as long “as my wife, Shanna, is happy with what I am doing.”

“However, I definitely don’t want to raise kids from a phone while on deployment,” he added. “If that time comes, I would like to be able to come home every day to see them, plus I could definitely picture myself settling back down in Kentucky.”


His first deployment started at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. His squadron, VP-16, one of four stationed in Jacksonville, has completed search and rescue missions near Taiwan, Guam, and the Philippines. They also have flown site visits including exercises in Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Australia, Palau, South Korea and India.

“My crew was moved to Signella, Sicily, at the end of October and I will be operating throughout Europe for the remainder of the deployment,” he noted. 

His future flight plans include a return to the Bluegrass State.

“I definitely could picture myself settling down back in Kentucky,” Whelan said. “It is neat to get away and experience other things, but it is always great to get back home.”