- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

The Navy pilot of the EP-3E surveillance plane repeatedly asked the Chinese for permission to land on Hainan island before he guided his crippled plane and 23 other crew members onto the island's runway, Navy sources said yesterday.
The sources, providing the first details of crew briefings as the former "detainees" landed in Hawaii, said the EP-3E Aries II pilot made the proper pass over the Lingshui military air base before deciding the only way to save the crew was to land without receiving Chinese permission.
He had made repeated radio calls to the airport control tower saying his plane was damaged and needed to make an emergency landing, the sources said.
Another Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the crew of the EP-3E struggled to gain control of the aircraft after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter.
The U.S. crew was preparing to bail out and ditch the aircraft, but the pilot was able to gain control and the decision was made to land at the Hainan airfield.
"[The pilot] said it took all his strength to fly the airplane" after the collision, said the official, who is familiar with early debriefings of the crew.
The crew came back to American soil after the United States submitted a letter Wednesday to the Chinese government saying, "We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but very pleased the crew landed safely."
The debriefing shows that the pilot did, in fact, try to follow international flight rules by seeking permission to land. The sources did not know if China received the radio signals.
The sources also provided information to The Washington Times to demonstrate that the pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, acted properly and was not at fault for the April 1 collision with a Chinese F-8 jet fighter over the South China Sea.
Pentagon officials privately had said that the Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, had a history of reckless flying. They said he repeatedly positioned his supersonic fighter too close to American aircraft conducting reconnaissance missions in international airspace.
The F-8 broke up after colliding with the EP-3E on April 1 and crashed into the South China Sea. Mr. Wang is missing and presumed dead.
Ex-naval aviators previously told The Washington Times that Mr. Wang was attempting to "thump" the lumbering four-engine EP-3E surveillance plane. In this maneuver, the fighter goes under the target aircraft, then pops up and rattles the plane with its jet exhaust.
The second of two Chinese pilots on the intercept said on Chinese state-run television that the EP-3E had "swerved" into Mr. Wang's F-8 fighter.
Lt. Osborn, however, told debriefers he was on autopilot, a position that made it virtually impossible to do anything other than fly straight and level.
The F-8 pilot made two passes close to the EP-3E. The collision occurred during the second pass as the Chinese pilot tried to slow his jet down while pulling up, clipping the front of the EP-3E's left wing with the fighter's tail wing.
The fighter jet broke up and debris damaged two propellers and sheared the Navy plane's nose cone where radar and the air speed detector are housed.
The Navy plane then plunged nearly 8,000 feet and almost inverted until Lt. Osborn regained control about 50 miles from Hainan island.
President Bush spoke to some crew members yesterday. He later said, "From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations and did nothing to cause the accident."
Navy sources said the crew considered bailing out or ditching the plane, but decided that the chances for survival were slim. The plane is equipped with two large rubber rafts. But ex-Navy aviators say that the extensive damage to the plane made a survivable ditching impossible.
The Pentagon has video footage from an earlier EP-3E flight that shows two dangerous encounters with Mr. Wang. In the first encounter, the pilot flies in front of the aircraft, executing a "thump."
In the second encounter, the pilot comes to within 20 feet of the left wing of the EP-3E.
In a telephone call to his mother, Lt. Osborn said the crew struggled to land the damaged EP-3E plane safely.
"He said it took every bit of strength that he had. All the crew helped," Diane Osborn of Norfolk, Neb., told MSNBC. "He was well trained by the Navy and I thank God he gave him the strength to get it down."
A Pentagon official said that, although no specific arrangements have been made for the battered EP-3E to be returned, the Chinese eventually are expected to give it back.
Representatives of the two countries are scheduled to meet April 18 to discuss the plane's return and other issues stemming from the accident.
Pentagon officials have said the crew began destroying valuable intelligence equipment and computer disks as the plane limped for 20 minutes into Hainan island.
Armed Chinese quickly boarded the plane, and during the 11-day standoff, satellite photographs showed a line of military trucks alongside the EP-3E. This led Pentagon officials to believe the Chinese, experts at "reverse engineering" foreign military equipment, were unloading the plane's sophisticated electronics and listening gear.
Bill Gertz contributed to this report

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