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Briefing on Return of EP-3 Crew

Presenters: Rear Admiral Craig R. Quigley, DASD PA
April 11, 2001 8:50 PM EDT

Wednesday, April 11, 2001 - 8:50 p.m.

(Briefing on Return of EP-3 Crew)

Adm. Quigley: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am very pleased to report to you that the 24 men and women of our aircrew have started their journey home.

We'd like to do two things tonight. One in Washington, D.C. and one in Hawaii. I will be very brief here from the podium in the Pentagon and discuss with you the contracting procedures and the time lines and the locations and things of that sort from the movement of the 24, the airplane that picked them up, where it started, when it got to Hainan, when we expect it in Hawaii, and I'll be followed about a half an hour after that from the folks in Hawaii who will brief the arrival ceremony procedures and details, the repatriation process, the debriefing process, how they're talking care of family concerns and any additional movement questions that we may not be able to answer here.

So with that I'd like to go to the one chart that I have.

We chartered, through the U.S. Transportation Command with Continental Airlines out of Guam. Now for that airline, Guam is one of their hubs.

So what we asked for was an aircraft to be available to carry a certain number of people and to be available on three hours notice.

The way that Continental did that was to provide a 737 with two crews. So that one crew could be in a rest cycle while the other crew would be able to get that aircraft ready to launch within three hours.

They took off this morning, and we've got Eastern Daylight Time and local time here for your convenience.

As you go down the right side of the chart, the local times, that is not a typo. Because you cross the International Date Line you stay at Thursday the whole time. So if you're the aircrew it's Thursday when you left Hainan. It will be Thursday when you get to Guam. It will be Thursday when you get to Hawaii. So that is not a typo. Okay?

We took off from Guam at about 12:40 EDT this morning, or this afternoon rather. Many of you I believe saw that. Arrived at Meilan. Now for those of you who do not know where that is, I think most of you have seen where Haikou is on the northern coast of Hainan Island. Meilan is slightly south and east of there. It's a smaller city with a smaller airfield, but that was the one that the Chinese wanted us to use.

So we arrived there about 6:00 p.m. on the dot, by my watch tonight, Eastern Time, and they were on the ground about an hour and a half.

While they were there they refueled the plane, and I'm sure many of you also saw the point at which all 24 of the aircrew walked on board the aircraft and they took off without incident.

They will arrive Guam about midnight our time tonight. And from here on all the times are our best projection.

You have the wind working against you as you travel west, and you have it working for you as you travel east. You notice the two times there on the Guam to Hainan leg. The 5.8 hours was the approximate time it took the aircraft to go from Guam to Hainan Island. And yet we're only estimating about 4.5 hours to get back because we've got a tail wind and we've got an assist.

So right now they're staying on that time line pretty well, and we'll just have to adjust that as time passes. But our best guess at this point is about midnight Eastern Time to arrive in Guam.

On Guam they will transfer from the 737 into a U.S. Air Force C-17. They will also have the opportunity to shower, shave, change into a fresh set of clothes, get a good meal, and telephone their families.

We estimate about four to five hours on the ground in Guam to do all of that. Again, that's somewhat variable.

Then take off in the C-17 with about an eight hour flight time to arrive in Hawaii at Hickam Air Force Base at 6:30 in the morning Hawaii time Thursday, which will be about 12:30 in the afternoon our time tomorrow.

At that point I will turn it over to the folks in the Pacific command for further details on the arrival ceremony, how we're taking care of family concerns, the actual debriefing process that they will go through over the next two or three days.

But that is the time line and the mechanics of how we moved from, among the various points.


Q: With all due respect, can you please help us out? I mean we're not in Hawaii. Can you please tell us how long you expect them to be there and your best guess at the moment about when they'll be leaving Hawaii and...

Adm. Quigley: Our best guess is a couple of days, but it's just that.

We do have a team, a repatriation team on board the 737. They will transfer with the 24 crew members to the C-17 and continue on to Hawaii.

In that crew are people who have done this before. It includes psychologists, medical doctors, intelligence officers, and specialized skills such as that to make sure that their physical health, their mental condition is good, and we will begin the debriefing process right then and there. It's already begun, I suspect, on board the 737.

So you get a 12 hour more or less jumpstart on the whole process before you get to Hawaii.

To a certain extent you have to play that by ear, but what we're looking for is before the details of the collision start to fade in any human being's mind with time, we want to see if we can capture their memories while they are still fresh and get their understanding in their own perceptions and their own words of the details surrounding the accident, time line leading up to it, everything, Barbara. As complete as we can get it.

Now how long exactly that will take, we're not sure. We are going to try our darndest to have the crewmembers reunited with their families by Easter. That is our goal.


Q: Has Secretary Rumsfeld been able to contact the crew at all on the plane? Or has any other U.S. official?

Adm. Quigley: Not yet. I don't think we have the ability to communicate with the crew on the 737. We probably will be on the C-17, but he has not contacted the crew yet at any point.


Q: How certain are you that you'll get the plane back, the EP-3 that's on the ground at Hainan Island?

Adm. Quigley: Well, we're certainly going to try. I mean as you saw in Ambassador Prueher's letter released earlier today, that is one of the things that we're going to begin discussing with the Chinese on the 18th, a week from today. And we're sure going to try our very best to get the plane back. We consider it American property, and we want our plane back.

Q: The letter would seem to imply that there's been some agreement to return the plane and it's simply a matter of working out a plan for carrying that out. Has there been any indication from the Chinese that they will return the plane?

Adm. Quigley: That's not how I read the letter. No, not to my knowledge.


Q: Can you give us an idea of the cost of this charter? How much...

Adm. Quigley: I asked that very question before I came up here and I don't have the answer yet. The folks at U.S. Transportation Command were the ones that actually issued the contract to Continental. Let me take that question. I don't think I'm going to have it tonight, but I will be able to get it.

Q: And a follow-up, when was that contract made? Was it today? Was it a few days ago? When was that deal signed?

Adm. Quigley: We had the, I think the actual contract was signed over the weekend so that the aircraft would be prepared to leave as early as Monday. Because this was not clear as to when we would finally come to an agreement with the Chinese.


Q: How many people are on the repatriation team?

Adm. Quigley: Thirteen.


Q: Was there a specific demand or request to the Chinese that no U.S. military plane come in to pick up this crew?

Adm. Quigley: I don't know the details that were negotiated through the diplomatic means. I would refer you to the State Department.

Q: Why weren't you just planning contingency wise to just have a C-17 from the very beginning?

Adm. Quigley: Ultimately... I mean that option was available to us, but ultimately that's what the Chinese wanted us to do and we agreed to that.

Q: The Chinese have made a demand that we stop these kinds of surveillance flights. What is the position of the Pentagon on that issue now?

Adm. Quigley: A great issue to... We understand they wish to discuss that on the 18th. We'll hear what they have to say.


Q: Senator Bob Graham said today that he thought the EP-3 would be taken out of Hainan on a barge. Is that correct?

Adm. Quigley: Now... I don't know. The first step to return of the aircraft is to determine its ability to safely fly. And the aircrew from all of the details that we have been able to discern, the pilot made an absolutely spectacular effort to bring that plane down safely.

Now that it's down on the deck, you have to have a pretty good engineering analysis done of the airplane to make sure that you understand what has been damaged as an element of the collision.

So a likely first step would be to put some sort of an aviation engineering team on the ground of two or three or five people perhaps that would have an opportunity to really take a look at the plane and go over it with a fine-tooth comb; see what elements of the aircraft can be repaired on the spot. Those that can't be repaired on the spot, are they a safety of flight issue or not? And make a judgment call as to whether or not I can fly that plane out of there.

If I can, then how do I go about doing that? This would be calling for further discussions with the Chinese as to how I would get parts and tools and technicians and what not in there to fix the plane, where would I do that, details like that we simply haven't gotten to yet.

If the analysis is such that the plane is not fixable as it sits right there, then you would have to take a look at options like disassembly and somehow shipping it off of Hainan Island and to somewhere else to put it on a larger vessel and actually ship it out that way.

So first things first. The engineering team needs to have a good look at it and come to their best professional assessment.

Q: One once again to the question of Chinese demand and next week's talks, the U.S. position has been that that plane was operating legally in international airspace. Is that position subject to change in these talks?

Adm. Quigley: You can't change that reality. The plane was operating in international airspace.

Q: So therefore, that will be the position of the United States next week, that as long as those flights are operating legally in international airspace and therefore will continue.

Adm. Quigley: Again, the Chinese have said that they wish to make that an element of discussion during the talks that start on the 18th. We'll hear what they have to say.


Q: Were there any moments today in which there was serious concern that maybe the crew would not be let go?

Adm. Quigley: I don't know if anybody was considering this a done deal until people were watching that aircraft lift off from Hainan Island. That was a great feeling.

Anything could have gone wrong. The 737 could have broken down before it left Guam. It could have hit weather. It could have had any number of things. It could have had a mechanical malfunction sitting on the tarmac at Hainan Island. So any number of things could have not gone well, and we were very glad when those things didn't happen.

Q: I was thinking more from the perspective of the Chinese deciding that they would not release the crew.

Adm. Quigley: No, not that I know of. I mean once there was an agreement reached with the Chinese, they gave us no reason to suspect that they were anything but sincere in their offer to release the crew.

Q: With the crew now out of China, does the U.S. still consider the EP-3 sovereign U.S. territory?

Adm. Quigley: That will not change. That is U.S. property and we want it back.

Q: Could you talk about anything, about what you might know now about the chronology of the collision that hadn't been talked about because of the sensitivity of...

Adm. Quigley: Not yet. Not yet. We'd need a much more holistic approach to that before we can offer any sort of a comprehensive explanation. That's going to be one of the issues in the next few days, but not yet.

Q: You mentioned that their departure went off without incident. Do you have any details on were they escorted? Were there American diplomats present? Anything...

Adm. Quigley: To be honest with you, my knowledge is limited to what I was watching on television. There was a van of a small mini-bus of some sort that drove up, and that was where the air crew, that's how they arrived at the airfield. They seemed to walk right out of the bus and up onto the steps and onto the plane.

So I could not discern through the television, and I have not heard any specific reports as to the mechanics of who might have been with them. I'm sorry, I don't have that.

Q: Do you know more about the format of the 18th of April meeting?

Adm. Quigley: No. Not yet.

Q: Will Ministry [people] be part of the delegation or will only diplomats...

Adm. Quigley: We just don't have those details worked out yet.

Q: Do you know where that meeting will take place?

Adm. Quigley: Another detail. No. Not yet. We don't.

Q: Can you detail a little bit more now on what the nature of this spectacular landing that the pilot made, some of the things he would have been going through?

Adm. Quigley: No, not yet. I can't.

From our understanding the plane was very heavily damaged during the course of the collision, and it was a spectacular feat of airmanship to bring it down safely. But we want to hear from that pilot in detail what did he perceived as the damage to the aircraft, what control did he not have of the aircraft that you normally would in an undamaged plane. And again, our understanding is not full of that. It's, it will be happening in the days ahead.

Q: I'd think it would be routine for a JAG Manual investigation to be held now.

Adm. Quigley: Yeah, probably will. Probably will.

Q: Will Secretary...

Adm. Quigley: Just a couple more, please.

Q: Will you suspend this type of sovereign flight after this accident?

Adm. Quigley: I'm sorry. Would you say that again?

Q: Will you suspend this type of sovereign flight, information gathering flight?

Adm. Quigley: We have not announced our intentions on future surveillance flights.

Q: After this accident did you suspend?

Adm. Quigley: I'm not going to discuss the scheduling of our surveillance and reconnaissance flights.

Q: Has Secretary Rumsfeld, will he be having any contact with the crew, or will he be attending any of the welcoming ceremonies or...

Adm. Quigley: I suspect he will have some contact, although we're still working out those details. I don't think he's going to be in Hawaii, though.

Q: Do you know if the crew's going to remain together when it arrives at Whidbey Island, and any welcoming home plans on that end?

Adm. Quigley: I suspect you're going to see most of the crew arrive in Whidbey together, although we're going to need to talk to them in the next day or so to try to get their... The crew's home station is Whidbey Island. The squadron's, I should say the parent squadron's home station is Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

But to... There were elements of this particular crew that came from other places as well. We're going to try to discern what their desires are and we will do our very best to meet those desires.

Q: Do you have any idea...

Adm. Quigley: If they want to be part of that homecoming at Whidbey, and even if they're not, that's not where they live and they are stationed, you're darn right they'll be there.

Q: Where...

Adm. Quigley: Tom?

Q: Do we have a good idea of when, what day the homecoming at Whidbey will be?

Adm. Quigley: The first part of the week is the best I can give you right now.

Q: Where was Secretary Rumsfeld when the plane left Hainan Island and...

Adm. Quigley: In his office watching television.

Q: Did he do anything? Did he pop some champagne or...

Adm. Quigley: I don't know. I wasn't with him. I imagine he was pretty pleased as well. I don't know if anybody was in his office with him.

Q: He just watched it all by himself.

Adm. Quigley: Uh huh.


Adm. Quigley: Okay? Thank you very much.

Again, about 9:30 our time the folks in Hawaii will start briefing with the details as I discussed them.

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