The crew members said during a debriefing at Hickman Air Force Base,
Hawaii, "the Navy EP-3E electronic eavesdropping plane rolled onto its side,
plummeted more than 5,000 feet and nearly plunged into the sea."
Senior U.S. officials, with access to the debriefing, said they had become
even more convinced than before that the Chinese pilot caused the accident.
The U.S. plane, they said, had been on autopilot, flying absolutely straight
They praised Lt. Shane Osborn, the 26-year-old pilot and mission
commander, for pulling the plane out of its dive and coaxing it – with many
of its instruments inoperable – to an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
The pilot of a second Chinese fighter jet has claimed that the U.S.
surveillance plane caused the accident by suddenly veering to the left. But
officials at the Pentagon and Pacific Fleet headquarters contradicted the
The crew said in their testimony that their plane took no sudden turn.
Rather, the Chinese F-8 fighter made two passes near the lumbering U.S.
plane, coming three to five feet from its left wing.
"On the third pass, he came in too fast," a senior Pentagon official told
the Post. "He tried to decelerate by bringing up his nose, which would bleed
off speed. But when that happened, he lost some fine control, and his tail
came up under the No. 1 propeller" on the far end of the EP-3E's left wing.
Sliced by the propeller, the Chinese interceptor broke in two pieces and
fell to the sea. Meanwhile, a wild ride began aboard the American plane.
Part of the interceptor, or perhaps a chunk of the propeller, smashed
against the nose cone of the Navy plane, which contains its navigational
radar and other instruments. The cone spun away and hit a propeller on the
With two of its four propellers out of commission, the plane began rolling
over, at one point standing on its left wing at nearly a 90-degree angle.
With the nose cone gone, Osborn, the pilot, had little idea of his airspeed
or altitude. The rush of air against the flattened nose violently buffeted
Also, according to Osborn, the flight controls were behaving oddly. Only
after landing did he learn that debris was wrapped around the tail of the
Because the altimeter was broken, no one knows how far the EP-3E fell
before Osborn regained control. Crew estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000
feet, officials said.
One crew member, Shawn Coursen, 28, described the plunge in a phone call
from Guam to his father, James Coursen of Niles, Ohio.
"He told us they all thought they were going to die. They all had their
parachutes on, but he said it didn't do any good because they couldn't have
gotten out, anyway," the elder Coursen said. "He said he doesn't know how
the pilot ever got the plane down."
According to U.S. military officials, as soon as the crew regained control
of the damaged aircraft, Osborn turned toward Hainan Island and began
broadcasting a "mayday" distress signal. He did so about 10 times.
Osborn also repeatedly tried to ask Chinese authorities for permission to
land, but he reportedly received no reply. "We were unable to hear any
response that they did give, due to holes in my pressure bulkhead causing
air noise into the aircraft," Osborn told Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld in a telephone conversation, according to a Pentagon official.
During a telephone conference call with the crew, President Bush
congratulated Osborn for his extraordinary bravery. "As an old F-102 pilot,
let me tell you, Shane, you did a heck of a job bringing that aircraft down.
You made your country proud," he told Osborn.
On the first leg of the return journey, from Hainan Island to Guam aboard
a chartered commercial jet, some of the crew members watched the Cuba
Gooding Jr. movie "Men of Honor," about a Navy diver. Navy cryptologic
technician Steven Blocher, 24, told his father by telephone that they also
"When that happened, he said the whole thing just flashed in front of his
eyes again," said the father, Bob Blocher of Charlotte. "Just from that, I
know there's a residual effect on his psyche."
Meanwhile, the United States and China began a new phase of contentious
diplomacy over where to hold a meeting next week to discuss U.S.
reconnaissance flights. The meeting, agreed upon in the U.S. letter that led
to the crew's release, had been planned in San Francisco. But the Chinese
government now wants to hold it in Beijing, a U.S. defense official said.
The United States has counterproposed Honolulu or Guam, the official said.
As a fallback position, he said, the meeting might be held in Hong Kong.
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