SPY plane crew honored for exceptional performance and courage

Friday, May 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md. (AP) _ Capping weeks of celebratory appearances since returning home, the 24-member crew of the Navy surveillance plane that made a harrowing landing on a Chinese island was honored Friday with medals for extraordinary performance and courage.

Under gray skies, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saluted and pinned the medals on each of the 24. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumseld looked on and spoke briefly with each.

``You come from a distinguished squadron,'' Rumsfeld said later in remarks lauding the crew for their service. ``We honor you today and celebrate the fact that you returned home safely to your families and to your country.''

The pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, is credited with heroically regaining control of the EP-3E Aries II aircraft after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea and landing it safely.

For his efforts Osborn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

``Lt. Osborn's dedicated efforts ultimately ensured the survival of 24 crewmembers and preserved a vital operational asset,'' his award citation read.

The others received the Air Medal for exceptional achievement. As the senior officer, Osborn and the senior enlisted member of the crew, Senior Chief Nicholas Mellos, also received the Meritorious Service Medal for their leadership roles during the 11 days they were detained in China.

Earlier Friday the crew visited the White House.

``There's the good man,'' President Bush said as he greeted pilot Osborn. The president and Vice President Dick Cheney gave Osborn and his crew _ all in their dress whites, some toting cameras _ a tour of the Oval Office.

``The vice president and I are thrilled to be able to look you in the eye and say thanks for your service to the country,'' Bush said, saluting the crew's ``class and dignity'' throughout their 11-day ordeal in Chinese custody.

On the day of their release, Bush said the American people ``are proud of our crew, and we look forward to welcoming them home.''

And welcomed they were, as heroes at every stop.

``We're just servicemen doing a job,'' crewman Jeremy Crandall said during an appearance at North Boone High School in Poplar Grove, Ill. ``We went through an ordeal and survived it, and now we're home. You guys might call us heroes; we call it doing our jobs.''

Crandall's welcome back to Illinois also included an April 18 appearance at Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ``Take Me Out To The Ball Game'' during the Chicago Cubs' seventh inning stretch. The Cubbies rewarded him with a doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-3 and 5-3.

Among Navy medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross ranks among the most prestigious, ahead of the Bronze Star and just below the Legion of Merit. It is awarded for an act of heroism or achievement in flight ``so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart'' from his comrades, according to military records.

The commander of Pacific Fleet, Adm. Thomas Fargo, recommended Osborn for the award.

The United States is negotiating with China for the return of the crippled EP-3E surveillance plane that remains on Hainan island. ``We're working to get the plane home. We're making progress about getting the plane home,'' Bush said on Friday. ``But today, we get to celebrate the fact that the crew is home and that's the most important thing.''

The Chinese fighter pilot died after his jet tumbled into the South China Sea following the collision with the Navy plane, which had been on a routine mission. China blamed the U.S. plane for the accident, while U.S. officials said it was the jet that caused the crash by flying too close.

Osborn is credited with saving his crew by bringing the four-engine propeller plane out of an uncontrolled dive for an emergency landing.

At Andrews, the military has brought in a similar EP-3E Aries surveillance plane to stand in for the crew's aircraft.

The backdrop for the medal ceremony is the opening ceremony of the annual Joint Service Open House at Andrews, in the Maryland suburbs just outside Washington.

Expect the usual array of tanks, fighter jets and transports at the Pentagon's air extravaganza. The Thunderbirds also get to perform their crowd-pleasing aerobatics, and an Army reservist will show why she became a world skydiving champ.