|Lt. Shane Osborn speaks to the
media before he and his crew's departure from Hickam Air Force
Base, Hawaii, April 14 for their home base on Whidbey Island,
Washington. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sharon Baltazar)
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Reliving the U.S. Spy Plane Crisis
With two crewmembers wrestling to regain control of the severely
mangled EP-3 Aries II as it plunged nose down towards the South China
Sea, the crew in the cockpit of the U.S. Navy plane prayed silently
as they stared death in the face.
Moments later, the sheer brute strength of the pilot Lt. Shane Osborn
and his fellow crewman paid off. The plane pulled out of its 7,500
foot descent and Osborn ordered his co-pilot Lt. (J.G.) Jeffery Vignery
to transmit the mayday calls while he personally told the 23 crewmembers
on board to prepare for a bail out.
"At the time I called for bailout, I never had a thought in my mind
that I was going to be able to get out," Osborn told ABCNEWS' Good
Morning America today.
Sitting at the controls of a U.S. Navy P3 on Whideby Island,
Wash., days after the 24 Americans who were detained in China for
11 days returned to their home, Osborn and Vignery relived the moments
of crisis that captured America.
"I was hoping I might be able to get the rest of my station out,"
said Osborn. "But there was no way you could keep that plane up right
and run in the back and jump out."
But fate - and remarkable aviation skills - came together to save
the lives of the 21 men and three women on board the EP-3 Aries II.
The P3 Osborn sat in today is similar to the four-engine, low-wing,
propeller EP-3 Aries II although the controls inside are differently
A Stunning Ordeal
For the crew, it was a harrowing tale that began as their reconnaissance
aircraft cruised on autopilot 22,500 feet above the South China Sea
on April 1.
But the routine reconnaissance mission began to go wrong as two Chinese
F-8 fighter jets approached the slow-moving aircraft, one getting
The Chinese pilot Wang Wei twice "buzzed" them, abruptly flying frighteningly
close at a steep angle, said Osborn.
"It was a hostile intercept. It was the closest we had obviously ever
seen," he said. "I could even see him face-to-face out the window
as he came up."
Since the U.S. Navy plane was only flying at 180 nautical knots, Wang,
in a jet built for high speeds was struggling to maintain balance
at that slow speed, said Osborn.
The next thing Osborn knew, was the Chinese pilot had done a "run
in" on the U.S. plane. Heading directly for the EP-3 Aries II, the
F-8 hit the propeller of the U.S. plane's No. 1 engine, on its far
left, from underneath.
He said the Chinese jet was cut in two, ricocheting off the nose cone
of the U.S. plane, which then flew off, rolling the turboprop into
a steep dive.
Sitting in the cockpit with the wind and debris whipping in from the
punctures in his badly mangled aircraft, there was one thought that
flashed through Osborn's mind. "The first thing I thought was, 'This
guy [the Chinese pilot] just killed us,'" he said.
The F-8 plunged into the sea and Wang has been presumed dead.
In a posthumous honor, Chinese television today reported that Chinese
President Jiang Zemin conferred the title of "Guardian of the Air
and Sea" on Wang.
In its evening broadcast, Chinese Central Television today reported
that a Beijing company set up the "Martyr Wang Wei's Internet Memorial"
in cooperation with Xinhua, the country's official news agency.
Stealing a Prayer
For Vignery, who was seated on the right side of Osborn through the
dramatic moments, a few moments were snatched for a prayer to Jesus.
"I had asked him before, but I wanted to make sure I got it right
at the point," said Vignery. "I definitely didn't think we were coming
out at that point."
But come out they did. After issuing between 15 and 30 mayday calls
on internationally recognized distress frequencies, Osborn landed
the mangled aircraft at the Lingshui air base on the Chinese island
Then came an 11-day detention as China and the United States locked
into a diplomatic standoff as both sides looked for a face-saving
You Can Checkout, But You Can't Leave
As senior noncommissioned officer on the team, Sr. Chief Nicholas
Mellos was responsible for keeping up the morale of the 24 crewmembers
through their detention.
It was like training come alive, Mellos told Good Morning America.
"We acted like we were back home on Whidbey Island, no different,"
What was different though, were the periods of sleep deprivation.
"We would wake up and then go to sleep and you would never fully sleep
because you always had your eye open with the door open just to hear
what's going on or somebody going to get interviewed."
Lt. Regina Kauffman, a navigator and one of the three women crewmembers
on board, kept fit by using chairs in her room as weights.
There were even lighter moments, said the crew, such as the time when
their Chinese captors asked them for the lyrics of the Eagles' smash
hit, "Hotel California."
The crew did manage to cobble up the lyrics and if the forbidding
lines, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave,"
unnerved them, they weren't saying.
"We tried to keep in good spirits about it," said Kauffman. "We kept
singing just to keep the morale up. And that was a good thing that
helped us." The crew has been given a 30-day break to recover from
But even as the crew gets a 30-day break to recover from their ordeal,
on the diplomatic front, there's still business to be conducted and
judging from the rhetoric emerging from Washington, it looks like
Chinese and U.S officials are scheduled to meet in Beijing Wednesday
to discuss several issues concerning the incident including the return
of the EP-3 Aries II, which remains in China.
Speaking to reporters in Washington today, White House spokesman Ari
Fleischer said the U.S. intends to take a tough stance at the meeting.
"The agenda as far as the United States is concerned is to provide
a clear and graphic explanation of the U.S. view of the cause of the
accident, and discuss ways of avoiding similar accidents in the future."
Fleischer's statement came as U.S. officials said there were no plans
to move the aircraft carrier the USS Kitty Hawk into the region.
Adm. Dennis Blair today laid out a series of options for continuing
reconnaissance flights in the region including having the USS Kitty
Hawk position itself in the South China Sea. But it was decided that
the presence of the carrier would seem provocative, defense officials
The USS Kitty Hawk is expected to continue on its way to Guam island
and would not position itself in the South China Sea.
ABCNEWS' Martha Raddatz and Ann Compton in Washington contributed
to this report.
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