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A member from the crew of the United States EP-3 aircraft involved in an accident with a Chinese F-8 aircraft arrives at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. He is greeted by Adm. Tom Fellin, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Marianas, on April 12. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Blair A. McClellan)
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As Plane Nearly Rolled Over, Crew Destroyed Secrets

HONOLULU -- The returning crew of a U.S. Navy spy plane, touching down in the United States after 11 days in Chinese detention, Thursday gave their families heart-stopping accounts of how they nearly ditched their plane in the South China Sea after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter.

Providing new details about the harrowing aftermath of the April 1 incident, crew members told relatives that they were convinced they would die after the EP-3 surveillance plane plunged thousands of feet in a few seconds. At one point, they frantically strapped on parachutes in hopes they could leap free.

But "the way (the plane) was spinning, there was no way they could get out," James Coursen, the father of Navy cryptologic technician Shawn Coursen, said in an interview after talking to his son. "It was chaos in there. They thought they were all going to die."

They also spoke with pride of how much surveillance equipment and data they were able to destroy before landing in China.

The plane, which was conducting a routine military surveillance flight off China's southern coast at the time of the collision, limped to Lingshui military air base on nearby Hainan island. After Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot, landed the aircraft, it was immediately surrounded by Chinese soldiers who demanded that crew members leave the plane at once. The 24 Americans were taken into custody and detained until early Thursday.

The American crew said the four-engine EP-3 was knocked into a dive after the Chinese F-8 fighter, flying close beneath it, struck its tail against the propeller of the engine on the outside of the left wing, according to the Los Angeles Times, citing U.S. officials.

The collision caused the EP-3 to roll sharply to the left and nearly turn over, the newspaper said.

The collision damaged the spy plane's flaps, which are control surfaces on the rear edges of the wings that can increase lift and allow the aircraft to fly more slowly, the newspaper said. One engine was put out of commission, two propellers were damaged and the nose cone, which held important instruments, was sheared off.

"My son said the crew did not know whether they were going to live or die; many started praying to themselves," said Ramon Mercado Sr., father of Ramon Mercado Jr., an aviation electronics technician 2nd class. "It was all very frightening."

But then, Mercado said, "they realized they were going to come out alive and they all cheered a little bit."

"My son said that every day they were in captivity they thanked the pilot for getting them down and saving their lives," Coursen said.

The crew considered landing the plane in the water after the pilot regained control, the family members said, but feared that the damage might prevent them from slowing the aircraft enough to bring it down safely.

Diane Osborn of Norfolk, Neb., said her son, the pilot and mission commander, struggled to bring the plane in. Just landing the plane "took every bit of strength he had," she said.

Family members reported that the crew felt triumphant that in the roughly 15 minutes it took to reach Hainan Island they had been able to destroy vital classified material and hardware aboard the plane.

Jeoff Hanser of Billings, Mont., said his brother, Jason Hanser, a cryptologic technician, told of immediately beginning to destroy secret documents and equipment.

"He said they were breaking things, scrambling things and even throwing things overboard," Hanser said. "He told us he was very proud that the Chinese didn't get any of the good stuff."

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