TECHNICIANS say spy plane could fly, with repairs

Saturday, May 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The American technicians who inspected the damaged Navy spy plane on China's Hainan island concluded it could be repaired and safely flown off the island, U.S. officials say.

The Bush administration has not decided, however, how to proceed with retrieving the $80 million aircraft, officials said Friday after the Lockheed Martin Corp. technicians finished their inspection.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said privately that he prefers that it be flown off Hainan, but Chinese officials have indicated to American officials in Beijing that they would not permit that, according to two defense officials who discussed the matter on condition they not be identified.

An alternative would be to partially disassemble the four-engine turboprop plane and transport it by barge or aircraft, but that would take more time.

``We want our aircraft back as soon as possible,'' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. ``We continue our discussions with the Chinese on the return of the aircraft.''

Rumsfeld was expected to consult with Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, this weekend before deciding how to proceed. The Lockheed Martin team that inspected the plane was heading Saturday to Blair's headquarters in Hawaii to submit its findings, officials said.

At stake for the United States, besides the practical issue of cost, is the political value of ending this contentious episode with a dignified departure rather than being forced to cart off the prized plane in pieces.

China, of course, sees it differently. It contends that the Navy EP-3E Aries II was to blame for colliding with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea, leading to the fighter pilot's death.

China also strongly objects to the kind of surveillance flights that the EP-3E was conducting off its southern coast. It held the EP-3E's 24-member crew for 11 days after they made an emergency landing April 1 at a naval air base on Hainan. There apparently have been no U.S. surveillance flights in that area since, although the Pentagon insists such flights will resume.

The collision damaged two of the surveillance plane's engines and one of its four propellers. It also caused the plane's nose cone to break off, and pieces of metal punctured parts of the fuselage.

The plane, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is about the size of a Boeing 737 commercial airliner. It was packed with sensitive electronic eavesdropping equipment used to collect intelligence on China's military. U.S. officials have said they believe the EP-3E crew managed to destroy the most sensitive information and equipment before they left, but that China probably has gained some valuable insights.

Before the five-member Lockheed Martin team began inspecting the plane in detail on Wednesday, it was unknown whether the aircraft had sustained structural damage that would make it unsafe to fly. The inspection team reported Friday that it could be flown, although U.S. defense officials said it was too early to know how extensive the repairs might be.

The inspection took one day longer than originally planned because the Chinese military on Thursday refused to provide the electric power that the U.S. technicians requested to run the plane's on-board electronics. On Friday, the Americans received full cooperation and their six hours of work went smoothly, said Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland, a Pentagon spokesman.

If the plane is repaired and flown off the island, it most likely would go first to Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, officials said. That is where the EP-3E began its surveillance mission and where some of the 10 remaining planes in the EP-3E fleet are stationed.