Spy Crew Feared They Were 'Seconds from Death'
|Senior Chief Nicholas Mellos, from Ypsilant,
Mich., the senior enlisted member of the detained EP-3 crew, is
greeted by the Commanding Officer of Fleet Air Reconnaissance
Squadron One (VQ-1) Cmdr. Bernard Lessard, upon boarding a chartered
aircraft for the first leg in their trip back to the United States.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. John A. Giles)
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The crew of the US spy plane have blamed the Chinese fighter pilot for
the collision which caused their plane to crash land, US officials said
A day after the 24 crew members
returned to a hero's welcome in the US, the most detailed account yet of
the collision was released. This indicated that the Chinese pilot crashed
into the spy plane's left engine after twice flying within three feet of
the aircraft. The Chinese jet then struck the plane's nose, snapped in
half and plunged into the sea.
The US spy plane began to plummet
but the pilot brought it under some sort of control within minutes. Still
in difficulties, he landed the plane at a military airfield on China's
As armed Chinese soldiers shouted through
megaphones and waved their arms outside, the crew frantically destroyed
classified material for 15 minutes, senior US diplomats said.
"They made it clear they wanted us off that aircraft," said Navy
Lt Shane Osborn, the pilot of the EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance
plane, according to US diplomats.
In accounts garnered from
relatives, who heard the first-hand reports from members of the crew when
they reached Hawaii, The Los Angeles Times assembled a picture of a plane
plunging and lurching out of control, a cabin in chaos, and crew members
convinced that they were only seconds away from death. At one point, they
rushed to strap on parachutes, believing that their only hope lay in
baling out into the South China Sea.
But "the way it was spinning,
there was no way they could get out," said James Coursen, the father of
one of the Navy technicians on board after talking to his son. "It was
chaos in there. They thought they were all going to die." With his plane
hurtling towards the ground, the US pilot repeatedly sought permission to
land in China, but could not have heard the answer even if one had been
"We were unable to hear any response that they did
give due to holes in my pressure bulkhead causing air noise into the
aircraft," Lt Osborn told the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, after
his release. Lt Osborn has been widely praised as a hero for bringing the
plane down safely against the odds.
An avalanche of hair-raising
details emerged from a variety of sources as the 24 American crew members
continued their debriefing in Hawaii. They are due back on the US mainland
later today for a triumphal homecoming at their Whidbey Island base north
Some crew members told relatives that the pilot had
physically "wrestled" the plane down, using brute strength in the absence
of most other ways of controlling the plane. Mrs Diane Osborn, the pilot's
mother, said that just landing the plane "took every ounce of strength he
Photos and video clips were also circulating, showing just
how close the two Chinese fighters were approaching. One photo, apparently
e-mailed to relatives by one of the crew, showed the plane piloted by Wang
Wei within feet of the US plane. US accounts said that his plane was cut
in two after colliding with the US plane's propeller. It was said that
there was no question of the pilot's survival.
As President Jiang
visited Cuba yesterday, the pilot's widow said that she supported
Beijing's decision to release the American crew "because China and the
world need peace". "Under the circumstances, letting the 24 crew leave
China clearly demonstrates our government's broadmindedness and
humanitarian spirit," she said.
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