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Tags: Crew: | Spy | Plane | Came | Close | Crash

Crew: Spy Plane Came Close to Crash

Friday, 13 April 2001 12:00 AM

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 and level.

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 Chinese claim.

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 right side.

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 the plane.

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 plane.

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 hit turbulence.

"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.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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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...
Friday, 13 April 2001 12:00 AM
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