The grainy black and white images, captured by a handheld videotape from the cockpit of the EP-3, shows the same Chinese F-8 that collided with the surveillance plane earlier this month crossing in front of a similar reconnaissance aircraft on Jan. 24, diving below it and jostling it in its jet wash and most dramatically, flying erratically within the span of the EP-3's wing tips.
The American crew can be heard commenting on the F-8's "squirrelly" flight.
"He's having a hard time maintaining his airspeed,' said one voice. "Oh yeah, he's having problems," said another. They nearly dropped the camera at one point when the fighter roared across the windshield.
The Chinese pilot is visible in the cockpit and appeared to wave at the camera. It is not known whether it was Wang Wei, the pilot who died in the April 1 collision, although the tail number of the plane was the same.
Rumsfeld, a former Navy aviator, related the U.S. crew's version of events, which differ sharply from the official Chinese reports.
"For 12 days, one side of the story has been presented. It seemed to me that, with the crew safely back in the United States, that it was time to set out factually what actually took place," Rumsfeld said.
"The controlled press in China has been characterizing it the way that we have heard repeatedly on television and in our media. And I think that it's important for the people of the United States and the people of the world to hear what actually took place.
"You know, ultimately the truth comes out, and notwithstanding efforts to the contrary, the reality is that what actually happens in life ultimately is known. And now is the time to begin that process," he said.
He said Chinese pilots have been "maneuvering aggressively" during intercepts, of which there have been 44 in recent months. The Clinton Administration formally protested the behavior in December in a diplomatic "demarche."
Two interceptors came within 10 feet of a U.S. plane and six within 30 feet, unsafe flying distances. The U.S. Air Force intercepts foreign aircraft from 500 to 100 feet, depending on the command and the experience of the pilot, according to an Air Force pilot.
"It is clear that the pilot intended to harass the crew. It was not the first time that our reconnaissance and surveillance flights flying in that area received that type of aggressive contact from interceptors," Rumsfeld said of the collision.
Rumsfeld was adamant the collision was accidental
"You've got to know that no pilot intentionally takes his horizontal stabilizer and sticks it in the propeller of an EP-3. He did not mean to do that," he said.
The Pentagon and State Department face their next challenge next week -- getting the heavily damaged, $80 million EP-3 out of Hainan, where it remains in Chinese possession since its emergency landing. U.S. and Chinese officials will meet April 18 to negotiate that end.
Rumsfeld's blunt characterization of the Chinese pilot's flying and his assertion that the Chinese have intentionally mischaracterized the incident do not appear calculated to appease the People Liberation Army Air Force.
Rumsfeld said the Chinese are purposefully delaying the start of negotiations until next week to get more time with the plane, a signals intelligence aircraft that contains highly classified components.
"There's no question in my mind but that one of the things holding it up is they're accessing that aircraft to see what they can learn.
The Chinese military is well known for its ability to "reverse engineer" technologies by looking at the finished product and figuring out how it works, what its capabilities are and how to build one of their own.
But according to Rumsfeld, they won't learn much: most of the sensitive technology on board the EP-3 was destroyed by the crew, according to Rumsfeld.
"What we know is they were successful in doing a major portion of that checklist," he said. "They did everything possible in the time they had."
There was not a lot of time. The plane was aloft for just 20 minutes between the collision and landing, and for at least five minutes of that time pilot Lt. Shane Osborn, 26, was fighting to keep the plane from crashing. One engine was out, one engine was damaged, a propeller was damaged, and the nose cone of the aircraft had snapped off, sending bits of metal into the EP-3's fuselage and wrapping around the tail of the plane. The plane dropped violently 5,000 to 8,000 feet in altitude after the accident, although the exact details are not known because the planes altimeter was broken.
The F-8 was cut in half by the impact. Its pilot and wreckage remain missing.
Rumsfeld contradicted Chinese claims that the EP-3 violated their airspace by landing without announcing itself and without permission.
"When they landed they were greeted with armed troops, so I would suspect they knew they were coming," Rumsfeld said.
In fact, the crew issued 25 to 30 Mayday signals over open channels "to alert the world as well as Hainan Island that they would be forced to land there," Rumsfeld said.
t is accepted practice for aircraft in distress to land at the nearest possible airfield, and Rumsfeld listed at least three occasions when the United States or NATO has refueled and repaired foreign aircraft - including a Chinese airliner -- without commandeering the plane or taking the crew captive.
Rumsfeld took pains to establish the legitimacy of the military's continued surveillance and reconnaissance flights in the South China Sea, and with this mission in particular.
"It was a clearly marked aircraft on a well known flight path we have used for decades," Rumsfeld said. "We had every right to be flying where we were flying. They have every right to come up and observe our flight. What one does not have the right to do, and nor do I think it was anyone's intention, is to fly into another aircraft. The F-8 pilot clearly put at risk the lives of 24 Americans.
"Reconnaissance flights have been going on for decades. They are not unusual. They are well-understood by all nations that are involved in these types of matters," Rumsfeld said.
China flies similar missions itself, Rumsfeld said. Observers presumed that Rumsfeld was not referring to Chinese flights over the United States, but over neighboring countries.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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