Navy Aircraft Not A 'Spy Plane,' DoD Says
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 4, 2001 The Navy EP-3 aircraft and its 24-member crew now on the Chinese island of Hainan were conducting routine reconnaissance in international airspace over the South China Sea and not spying, a DoD spokesperson said.
Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley noted at an April 3 Pentagon press briefing that espionage wasn't part of the Navy aircraft's mission.
A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II maritime patrol aircraft, similar to the one in this undated file photograph, was involved in a midair collision in international airspace with fighter aircraft from the Republic of China on March 31, 2001. U.S. Navy File Photo.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"This was overt, routine surveillance and reconnaissance, which is carried out around the world on a pretty regular basis by a variety of nations, the United States among them," Quigley said, refuting media reports that have suggested the EP-3 was on a spy mission.
Reconnaissance missions are carried out in international airspace under international rules, he said, adding that "the terms 'spy,' and 'spy plane,' and '24 spies on board,' and stuff like that just doesn't reflect the actuality" of the EP-3's mission.
He said he couldn't substantiate reports that the Chinese were stripping the Navy aircraft, calling such reports "rumors."
Quigley said the U.S. State Department has the lead in obtaining the release of the Navy aircraft and its crew, and that an U.S. diplomatic delegation met with the EP-3 crew April 3.
President Bush said April 3 that a military officer with that U.S. delegation "tells me they are in good health, they suffered no injuries, and they have not been mistreated.
"Our crew members expressed their faith in America, and we have faith in them. They send their love to their families. They said they're looking forward to coming home, and we are looking forward to bringing them home."
The president noted April 2 that the United States had offered the Chinese help in searching for the missing fighter pilot who collided with the American plane on March 31.
Bush noted that the United States' approach throughout the situation has been to keep the accident from becoming an international incident.
"But now it is time for our servicemen and women to return home, and it is time for the Chinese government to return our plane," Bush said. He added that the unresolved situation "has the potential of undermining our hopes for a fruitful and productive relationship between our two countries."
Quigley called the mid-air collision "an accident, to the best of everybody's knowledge." He said there had been "several fairly close approaches by Chinese fighters" around U.S. surveillance flights in the past three to four months.
"We have expressed our concerns to the Chinese, thinking that they were flying too close, creating an unsafe situation," he said, adding that U.S. officials would need to interview the EP-3 crew to completely assess the cause of the collision.
After the collision, about 70 miles from Hainan, the EP-3 flashed a mayday and then made the short flight to the nearest airfield -- which was on Hainan, he said.
"Clearly, we believe there is a diplomatic solution to this incident and not a military one," Quigley said, adding that senior defense officials continue to be concerned over the welfare of the EP-3 crew and the concerns of their families.