Sunday, April 15, 2001

Navy pilot
insists Chinese jet
hit EP-3 propeller

Lt. Osborn's account is the
first by the crew since
their release

By Gregg K. Kakesako

The pilot of the Navy EP-3 surveillance plane, whose crew was held for 11 days, says his first thoughts seconds after the collision with a Chinese jet fighter was: "This guy just killed us."

Lt. Shane Osborn, pilot and mission commander, said yesterday he remembers looking up from the right seat of his 116-foot aircraft and seeing the Chinese F-8 jet fighter in flames and the Chinese pilot's chute as it headed for the South China Sea. The body of Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot, has never been recovered.

After gaining control of his aircraft twenty minutes later, Osborn, 26, made an emergency landing on Hainan island and his crew was imprisoned.

At a news conference before leaving Hickam Air Force Base for the unit's home station at Whidbey Naval Air Station near Seattle, Osborn said the U.S. crew has no reason to apologize to the Chinese for the mid-air collision April 1.

"I'm here to tell you we did it right," Osborn said. "No apology is necessary on our part."

Asked about the classified material and information aboard, Osborn said his crew immediately initiated the "auto destruction" sequence once he had the aircraft level, but declined to elaborate.

Osborn said he also considered ditching the aircraft in the sea.

The EP-3 was "straight, steady, holding altitude, heading away from Hainan island, on autopilot, when the accident occurred," Osborn said.

Despite claims by the Chinese, Osborn said the only time his aircraft turned was after it was hit, when it made a "sharp left turn."

Osborn's vivid account of the moments after the collision with the Chinese fighter was the first the crew has given since it was released from captivity April 11.

Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Mellos described the frantic minutes after impact as "mayhem."

Osborn said the Chinese pilot clipped one of the EP-3's four propellers, breaking the fighter aircraft apart and sending the Americans into a dive.

The EP-3 fell 7,500 feet before Osborn was able to gain control. It nearly rolled over as it headed to the ocean.

"Thank God for the training we do every day," Mellos said. "Without it, we'd be having a different press conference."

Osborn said: "As the air speed came on, the plane slowly, slowly rolled out with heavy, serious vibration problems because that prop was still spinning with parts of it missing, obviously out of balance. So once I got wings level, I was still very concerned and still didn't, at that point, think we were going to be able to get the plane down."

With its nose cone gone and holes in its bulkhead, the EP-3 lost cabin pressure quickly. The Navy pilot said he was able to transmit at least 15 maydays.

Osborn said the Chinese were polite and respectful and fed them well but, he added, the crew was deprived of sleep and suffered unpleasant interrogations. The crew was questioned for four to five hours on the first night, keeping them up for at least 30 hours during its first day in captivity. Then there were numerous, unannounced wake-up calls at all times.

Although his aircraft has been harassed on other missions, this was the closest Chinese fighters had come before the collision.

"Prior to impact," Osborn said, "there were two times when the aircraft closed to 3 to 5 feet."

Each time the Chinese pilot made "a gesture."

On his third pass before the collision, the Chinese pilot made another gesture and was attempting to turn when his craft hit the EP-3's propellor.

Osborn said fuselage of the Chinese jet hit his No. 1 propeller, the outmost engine on the left side, "basically pretty much tearing his aircraft apart."

As the front end of the Chinese jet disintegrated, Osborn said he moved his aircraft upward.

The nose of the Chinese jet then hit the nose of the EP-3.

"His tail went up and punched a hole through my aileron," Osborn said, "and that caused - with the drag and the hole in the aileron and that - the uncontrolled roll."

None of the other crew members spoke. During the 10-minute news conference, they stood in line behind Osborn and Mellos before boarding a C-9 military aircraft called "The City of Seattle." Each was handed a Pacific Fleet coin by Adm. Thomas Fargo, their boss, just before they boarded their plane for the trip to Washington state.

There were no military bands on hand and less than a dozen spectators.

The Navy crew spent 26 of their 48 hours here meeting with investigators since arriving Thursday morning.

Lt. Cmdr. Dave Smith, a P-3 pilot stationed at Kaneohe Bay, said one of things the crew wanted were pizzas, so a supply was loaded on the plane for the trip back to the mainland.

There also were given cases of M&Ms, Snickers, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and cookies prepared by the spouses' club of Patrol and Reconnaissance Force Pacific, which has command of P-3 and EP-3 squadrons.

Their damaged $100 million plane is still on Hainan island.

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