Spy plane crew heads home; pilot says no apology necessary
Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
HONOLULU (AP) _ The pilot of the U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing on Hainan island after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet said Saturday his crew has no reason to apologize to the Chinese.
``I'm here to tell you we did it right,'' said Lt. Shane Osborn, commander of the U.S. spy mission. ``No apologies necessary on our part.''
Osborn said the Chinese were polite and respectful and fed them well. He said the ``only unpleasant part'' of the detention was lack of sleep and unpleasant interrogations. He did not specify what the interrogations involved, saying only that the Chinese were mainly interested in the accident itself.
The crew was questioned for four to five hours on the first night, Osborn said. Subsequently, there were wake-up calls at all times.
``I tried to steal some sleep when I could,'' he said.
Osborn spoke at a news conference before the crew headed for a five-hour flight to Washington state for welcoming celebrations at their home base.
The EP-3E was ``straight, steady, holding altitude, heading away from Hainan island, on autopilot, when the accident occurred,'' Osborn said.
``The first thing I thought was, 'This guy just killed us,''' Osborn said, giving a vivid account of the moments after the collision with the Chinese fighter, whose pilot China officially confirmed Saturday was killed.
``Mayhem!'' said Nicholas Mellos, senior chief petty officer, as he described the minutes after impact. The plane fell 7,500 feet before Osborn was able to gain even minimal control, he said.
``Thank God for the training we do every day,'' Mellos said. ``Without it, we'd be having a different press conference.''
None of the other 22 crew members spoke; they lined up behind Osborn and Mellos before boarding a C-9 military aircraft.
The crew's 11-day captivity ended Thursday with what the Chinese accepted as apologies by President Bush. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday described that characterization as ``Chinese propaganda.''
U.S. officials, including Bush, insist the crew was blameless and U.S. reconnaissance missions around China are not hostile.
In Honolulu, the crew wrapped 26 hours of meetings with investigators in which they discussed their ordeal and the plane they left behind on the island.
On Friday, U.S. officials and diplomats in Washington and China offered the first official American version of the collision.
In the minutes after their emergency landing April 1 at a Chinese military airfield on Hainan, the crew scrambled to destroy classified material as Chinese soldiers shouted through megaphones outside, senior U.S. diplomats said Friday.
``They made it clear they wanted us off that aircraft,'' U.S. diplomats in Beijing quoted Osborn as saying. During the news conference Saturday, Osborn declined to comment on whether efforts to destroy the classified material was successful.
``They boarded the aircraft,'' Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Friday at a Pentagon news conference. ``They were armed and they invited the crew off the aircraft.''
In a characterization disputed by Chinese officials who blame the Americans for the collision, Rumsfeld said the EP-3E was flying straight and level over the South China Sea when it was struck by the Chinese jet.
``The U.S. side must take the entire responsibility for the plane collision incident,'' the official China Daily newspaper quoted Premier Zhu Rongji as saying. He said the U.S. spy plane rammed the Chinese jet.
U.S. and Chinese officials plan to meet Wednesday in Beijing to discuss what happened and the fate of the U.S. plane, still being held on Hainan.
Rumsfeld said one of two fighters following the spy craft drew dangerously close three times. On the first two passes, it came within three feet of the left wing. On the third, the Chinese pilot apparently realized he was closing too fast and, instead of passing under the American plane, tried to swing his plane to cut speed, U.S. diplomats said, quoting the crew.
His plane hit the outermost engine on the left wing, then the inner engine, then flipped up into the nose of the EP-3E, shearing it off. The impact broke the Chinese fighter in half and the debris spiraled into the sea, according to the U.S. version. The Chinese pilot was never found.
Spokesmen for Pearl Harbor Naval Base declined to discuss what the crew was telling investigators. But officers who had contact with the crew offered some details on condition of anonymity:
_The investigators were local Navy personnel, intelligence experts and specialists from Washington and elsewhere, including psychologists.
_Some were experts on particular equipment that either was destroyed or may have fallen into Chinese hands, one officer said.
_The crew had a fast-food working lunch on Friday, insisting they wanted to get through the debriefings as quickly as possible. Their schedule had called for 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. meetings on Friday.
_The crew requested and read news clippings on the helicopter crash that killed seven Americans and nine others in the Vietnam search for MIAs and other events that occurred while they were being held.
_Adm. Thomas Fargo, Pacific Fleet commander, in one session offered the crew members stacks of letters from around the country offering words of encouragement and support for their actions in landing their crippled plane in China.