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Cryptologic Technician 2nd Class Josef Edmonds from Davis, Calif., is welcomed home by his children upon his arrival at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, Wash. Following stop overs in Guam and Hawaii, crewmembers of the U.S. Navy EP-3 ARIES II aircraft involved in the Mar. 31 accident with a Chinese F-8 aircraft were welcomed home after being detained in China for eleven days after the Navy plane made an emergency landing at Lingsui Air Base on Hainan Island, China. (U.S Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd class Michael B. W. Watkins)
U.S./China standoff in detail
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US Spy Plane Crew Comes Home To A Hero's Welcome



OAK HARBOR, Washington, April 15 (AFP) - The cloudy skies had cleared when the DC-9 carrying the 24-member crew of the US spy plane circled Whidbey Island Naval Air Station before touching down.

The crew returned home to a hero's welcome Saturday after 11 days detention in China, hailed by family and thousands of well-wishers as heroes for performing their duty under life-threatening pressure.

Thunderous applause greeted the "Whidbey 24," dressed in khaki flight suits, as each appeared in the plane's doorway, saluted Navy officials and rushed into the arms of teary-eyed wives, children, husbands and friends.

Lieutenant Shane Osborn and his crew then marched along a red carpet into cavernous Hangar Six of Ault Field, waving US flags to thunderous applause from those present.

Family and friends lined the tarmac, waving floral bouquets and home-made signs reading "Welcome home, heroes!" after the plane touched down at 3:57 pm (2257 GMT).

At the podium, dignitaries including Washington State Governor Gary Locke and US Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were dwarfed by a giant American flag at the end of the hangar.

"To all Americans, thank you for your unwavering support!" Northwest Regional Navy Commander Rear Admiral Vincent Smith said before some 5,000 flag-waving people.

Osborn was singled out for praise by his crew, who said he successfully stabilized the damaged plane as it plummeted towards the South China Sea, after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet.

"I credit him with saving the lives of his crew," said Base Reconnaissance Commander Rear Admiral Michael Holmes.

"I'd like to thank God for allowing myself and my crew to be here," Osborn said, "because it was definitely Him flying that plane."

An emotional Osborn thanked Americans for their "overwhelming" support through the ordeal.

"We didn't know for while if anyone knew, other than the top officials," he said. "It just confirms what we all believe: the spirit is still strong in the United States of America."

Locke said the 21 men and three women had performed "a near-miracle" in saving the crippled US Navy EP-3 Aries surveillance plane and destroying the sensitive equipment and material on board.

The Democratic governor also praised the administration of President George W. Bush for resolving the standoff.

"As Americans we can look at this as a crisis averted and say that our government rose to the occasion and succeeded," Locke said, calling the episode "a model for the peaceful resolution of future challenges."

This rural island of tree-covered hills and narrow pastures set in the heart of Puget Sound lived through every tense moment of the standoff that began on April 1, when the EP-3 collided with the Chinese fighter.

Ties between military and civilians here run deep: military personnel account for 7,000 of the island's population of 62,000.

For days, now the streets of Whidbey Island's closely knit communities have been bedecked with Stars and Stripes flags, yellow ribbons and balloons and welcoming banners.

Fluttering yellow ribbons also sprouted from every available street light, tree and fence post.

Despite damage to its navigating equipment, the lumbering EP-3 made it to Lingshui Airport on China's Hainan island. The Chinese jet hurtled into the sea, presumably killing the Chinese pilot.

The standoff was defused late last week when the United States presented China with a letter saying it was "very sorry" for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for the US plane making an emergency landing without permission.

A Newsweek poll Saturday showed that 69-percent of Americans approve of President Bush's handling of the standoff with China.

Most attending Saturday's rally had no doubt who the good guys were.

"I root for the home team," said Tina Judd, 32.

Base officials here tried to keep the festivities low-key, hoping to get crew members back to normal routines as quickly as possible. No member of the administration attended, and there were no parades -- not yet anyway.

But Oak Harbor will honor its local heroes -- they will have their own float in the town's annual Holland Happening parade on April 28.

And in a move that has raised some eyebrows in this community with conservative Dutch roots, the town has accepted an offer from the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders of the National Football League to dance in the parade in the crew's honor.

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