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US Spy Plane Mission Commander's Press Conference

Transcript: EP-3 Mission Commander's April 14 Press Conference (Osborn reports on events leading up to April 1 collision)

Speaking at a press conference in Hawaii April 14, the mission commander of the U.S. surveillance plane that collided with a Chinese military jet April 1 (local time) gave a detailed report of the events prior to the accident and the following struggle to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory.

Navy Lt. Shane Osborn said that on previous missions Chinese aircraft shadowing the American surveillance plane "would get pretty close to us," but on that day there were two times where Chinese aircraft came within three to five feet of the Americans.

"We were definitely concerned at this point, but we were heading away [from China] . .. holding altitude . . . [and] just keeping it steady," he said.

"[The Chinese pilot] would come up, close, co-altitude, within about three to five feet, was making gestures, pulled back a little bit, came back up again and made some more gestures, and then the third time his closure rate was too far," Osborn said.

"Instead of under-running, [the Chinese pilot] attempted to kind of turn and pitch up, and that was when his vertical stabilizer -- where it meets the fuselage of the aircraft -- impacted my number one propeller, basically pretty much tearing his aircraft apart. As the front end came apart, I pitched up, and his nose hit our nose and his tail went up and punched a hole through my aileron. And that caused -- with the drag and the hole in the aileron and that -- that's what caused the uncontrolled roll," Osborn continued.

Osborn said the sudden turn the Chinese accuse the American plane of taking -- far from being the cause of the accident -- was in fact a result of the collision.

"I also want to state that the sharp left turn they're talking about is when the aircraft went out of control after the number one prop was impacted" along with the plane's nose, he said.

Prior to the collision, Osborn stressed, "[Our] aircraft was straight and steady, holding altitude, heading away from Hainan Island on auto-pilot when the accident occurred."

Osborn said after the two aircraft made contact, "The first thing I thought was this guy just killed us."

"The [U.S.] plane snap-rolled to about 130 degrees angle bank, which is getting near the inverted side, I remember looking up, seeing water when I lifted the head up," he continued.

"I had full rudder, full aileron, and I wasn't getting any response. But I had about 30 degrees nose down. The plane was in an almost-inverted dive. As the air speed came on, the plane slowly, slowly rolled out with heavy, serious vibration problems because that prop was still spinning with parts of it missing, obviously out of balance. So once I got wings level, I was still very concerned and still didn't, at that point, think we were going to be able to get the plane down," Osborn recalled.

Osborn said he followed accepted international procedures and alerted the Chinese traffic control tower on Hainan Island in advance of the emergency landing.

"We made at least 15 mayday calls over two-forty-three-dot-zero guard frequency," he said.

"I know we were transmitting, so I can't tell you what the [Chinese] heard and what they didn't because I wasn't in their tower," he said.

Osborn said the Chinese authorities treated all the American crew members with politeness and respect once they landed on Chinese territory, and ensured the Americans had medical care.

"They obviously fed us, fed us well, and the only unpleasant part was the interrogations and the lack of sleep," he said.

When asked by a reporter whether China should apologize to the United States for the collision, Osborn replied: "My opinion on what China does or doesn't do isn't important, but I'm here to tell you we did it right."

"No apologies [are] necessary on our part," Osborn said.

Following is a transcript of the press conference from the U.S. Pacific Command's Web site:

(begin transcript)

UNITED STATES PACIFIC COMMAND

TRANSCRIPT

Navy Lt. Shane Osborn, EP3 mission commander

Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Mellos, EP3 crewmember

Press conference before crew's departure to Whidbey Island, Wash.

Saturday, April 14, 2001

Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii

U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs Officer, Cmdr. Bruce Cole: I want to thank you for being out here today. Before our crew takes off here from Hickam Air Force Base and heads to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, we wanted to give you an opportunity to hear a few words from mission commander, Lt. Shane Osborn. After his very short words, we would then like to then open it up to questions to you. What we'd like to do then is I'll call on the questioner. We have these gentlemen with microphones. They will bring a microphone over to so you can ask your question. And again, we will wrap this up at 7 o'clock to get them on the airplane and get them on home. Lt. Osborn...

Lt. Osborn: Good morning everybody. I just had a couple comments before we open it up for questioning. First I want to thank America, the administration, and everyone involved in getting us home so quickly. It was surprising, and we're all glad to be back. We can all be proud of this crew. Even though we're two different commands -- one in Naval Air Station Misawa Japan and one out of NAS Whidbey, we definitely operated as one unit, and America should be very proud of these 23 airmen. They did a great job. A couple statements I want to make before we open it up is, one, contrary to some releases, this aircraft was straight and steady, holding altitude, heading away from Hainan Island on auto-pilot when the accident occurred. I also want to state that the sharp left turn they're talking about is when the aircraft went out of control after the number one prop was impacted and the nose. And with that, any questions?

Question: Lieutenant, what can you tell us about the crew's attempts to destroy the sensitive data onboard? There have been reports that some of the crew were back there with pick axes physically destroying equipment. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Lt. Osborn: Sure. At first impact, the aircraft pitched up and then rolled about 130 degrees angle of bank, and lost about 7500 feet of altitude trying to get it out of that dive. Once I rolled wings level, I called for the bail out. We were uncontrolled still at that point. The prop was fairly damaged causing lots of vibration. There was a hole in the pressure bulkhead so we lot pressurization. My nose cone was gone and the aircraft was hard to control. I lost my air speed indication due to the pitot tube getting ripped off and wasn't quite sure of the rest of the damage at this point. We shut down the engine and could not hold altitude at 15,000 feet. It took to about 10,000 feet until it started holding altitude. At that time, I started discussing with my flight station, my senior engineer and Petty Offer Westbrook who was in the seat along with my two other co-pilots, and we decided that we may be able to ditch, but we weren't sure at this point. So at that point, I called for the emergency destruct plan. I can't go into more details than that, and I also called for the ditch and called up the NAV to give me the closest airfield.

Question: Lieutenant, I'm sure you're aware that Washington had complained about Chinese fighters' aggressive harassment of surveillance flights in the past few months. Could you describe what happened before the collision? Was there harassment before, and also, had you experienced this in other missions?

Lt. Osborn: Sure, I can describe that. On other missions, it was nowhere near this harassing, obviously. Prior to impact, there was two times where aircraft closed within three to five feet of my aircraft. We were definitely concerned at this point, but we were heading away. We were heading about 070, holding altitude. Just keeping it steady. I was in the right seat, my copilot, Lt.j.g. Vignery, was in the left. So I was looking across, because at this time we were heading away, and the aircraft were on the island side of the plane. He would come up, close, co-altitude, within about three to five feet, was making gestures, pulled back a little bit, came back up again and made some more gestures, and then the third time his closure rate was too far. Instead of under-running, he attempted to kind of turn and pitch up, and that was when his vertical stabilizer -- where it meets the fuselage of the aircraft -- impacted my number one propeller, basically pretty much tearing his aircraft apart. As the front end came apart, I pitched up, and his nose hit our nose and his tail went up and punched a hole through my aileron. And that caused -- with the drag and the hole in the aileron and that -- that's what caused the uncontrolled roll.

Question: Previous times?

Lt. Osborn: Previous times they would get pretty close to us, but not near that close. You've seen the video also, so that kind of explains a lot of it about the stability of them at those slow air speeds. A hundred and eighty knots is what we run about when we're on-station, and it's pretty obvious that it's not a steady flight.

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about the captivity during the 11 days and also on the flip side of things, whether you may have anything nice to say about the Chinese or about the captivity?

Lt. Osborn: Sure. The captivity was ... They were polite to us and respectful. We were seen by doctors and if anybody had any type of illness they did bring a doctor. They obviously fed us, fed us well, and the only unpleasant part was the interrogations and the lack of sleep.

Question: What did they ask in the interrogation?

Lt. Osborn: I don't really want to get into any specific questions. Obviously, they were interested in the accident first and foremost.

Question: Lieutenant, can you talk about trying to navigate this plane, trying to bring it down when you had very few navigational systems. Maybe you can bring in Nicholas Mellos to talk about that as well. What kind of problems were you facing and how difficult was it to get this plane on the ground?

Lt. Osborn: Osborn: Senior ...

Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Mellos: Mayhem. After the accident, and Lt. Osborn was trying to get the airplane under control, and we were losing altitude, we pretty much well had our hands full trying to analyze what systems we had intact, what systems we'd lost, so I could provide Lt. Osborn with some information while we were yelling cross-cockpit. Petty Officer Westbrook was in the seat, and I was kind of like in the back as a technical advisor to this whole thing, watching Lt. Osborn, Vignery, Westbrook, Lt. Honeck orchestrate this thing like we've trained and trained and trained. And thank God for the training that we do every day. Because I'm here to tell you without it, it'd have been a different press conference today.

Question: Lt. Osborn, with regards to the emergency destruct plan. Were you able to destroy everything that needed to be destroyed?

Lt. Osborn: Can't get into that. We activated the emergency destruct plan well out, well off shore.

Question: How about on the ground?

Lt. Osborn: I don't want to talk about what happened on the ground. We were more interested in what they were going to do.

Question: You mentioned the lack of sleep. How long would the Chinese question you for any period of time, and did they deprive you of sleep to question you.

Lt. Osborn: The first night was about four and a half, five hours, starting in the middle of the night. Hadn't been to bed in about 30 hours at that point. And from then on it was definite lack of sleep. Different wake-up calls at all times. So I would try to steal some sleep when I could.

Question: In your opinion is there anything that the U.S. has to apologize for in this incident or is it the other way around that China has to owe us an apology?

Lt. Osborn: My opinion on what China does or doesn't do isn't important, but I'm here to tell you we did it right. No apologies necessary on our part.

Question: Sir, there's been mention that this is still considered an accident. Is there any indication among the crew that this was intentional to try to get the aircraft on the ground in China?

Lt. Osborn: No. They weren't intending for this to happen. No pilot is going to put himself intentionally in an out-of-control flight and have his plane ripped apart and have to eject, obviously. Was it harassing? Yes.

Question: Did you have any previous experience with this pilot, and what are the gestures you are referring to?

Lt. Osborn: I can't really get into that. We've had a past history of some aggressive intercepts obviously you've seen footage, and we can't get into specific pilot to pilot.

Question: Any thoughts about the pilot that is missing and presumed dead? Any thoughts about him or to his family?

Lt. Osborn: We saw a chute. His wingman RTB'd -- returned to base -- before we even got there. And that's all I know. And then we were ... we had our hands full.

Question: The Chinese say that they heard no mayday calls from you. Can you tell me did you make the mayday calls? How many did you make and do you have any indication at all that they may have heard them?

Lt. Osborn: We had holes in our pressure bulkhead. Lots of wind noise due to that and I was keeping the speed up pretty good because I had no air speed indication. I spun up my inertial to a get ground speed indication to kind of give me a rough guess. We made at least 15 mayday calls over two-forty-three-dot-zero guard frequency. I know we were transmitting, so I can't tell you what they heard and what they didn't because I wasn't in their tower.

Question: Once you all were able to land the aircraft what happened next? Were there any words from you and your crew there to everyone else? What was happening on the ground?

Lt. Osborn: It was a lot of people in shock at that point. My biggest thing was to shift gears from just bringing this plane in getting it down. A pretty big relief to get it landed and then getting it shut down. There was someone out there ready to taxi us off and park us. Basically, by the time I got the engines shut down they were already at the door wanting to talk to someone, and I wanted to be the first one to talk to them so I didn't get a real chance to talk to the crew. I just had to go back and address them.

Question: Lieutenant, could you tell us first what went through your mind when the plane struck your propeller. And second, could you or perhaps the chief, give us a kind of physical picture of what was going on as you tried to get the plane stabilized and take it in.

Lt. Osborn: Okay. The first thing I thought was this guy just killed us. As the plane snap-rolled to about 130 degrees angle bank, which is getting near the inverted side. I remember looking up, seeing water when I lifted the head up. And then I also saw another plane smoking towards the earth with flames coming out of it. And senior yelled at me, "Get control of it," and I had full rudder, full aileron, and I wasn't getting any response. But I had about 30 degrees nose down. The plane was in an almost-inverted dive. As the air speed came on, the plane slowly, slowly rolled out with heavy, serious vibration problems because that prop was still spinning with parts of it missing, obviously out of balance. So once I got wings level, I was still very concerned and still didn't, at that point, think we were going to be able to get the plane down.

Cmdr. Bruce Cole: Folks, that's all we're going to have time for. We want to get these good people on the airplane and on their way home. Thank you very much and we'll have some additional opportunities when they get back home for you to talk to them. Thank you and thank you Lt. Osborn and your entire crew.

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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