U.S. Aircrew Detained in China Heads Home
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 12, 2001 "The 24 men and women of our aircrew have started their journey home," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley jubilantly announced here April 11 at about 9 p.m. Eastern time.
Three hours later, CNN showed both the aircrew disembarking a commercial charter flight at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and family members back home popping champagne. Guam is 15 hours ahead of New York.
The 21 men and three women, led by Navy Lt. Shane Osborn, slowly emerged from the plane wearing blue baseball caps and olive green flight suits. Each paused at the top of the rolling steps, then descended to salute U.S. military leaders waiting on American soil.
After an 11-day standoff, Chinese authorities had released the aircrew they'd detained on Hainan Island since March 31 when a U.S. Navy EP-3 collided with a Chinese jet fighter.
The propeller-driven U.S. aircraft was on a routine surveillance flight in international airspace when the mid- air collision occurred over the South China Sea. President Bush sent a letter expressing his sympathy to the widow of the Chinese pilot, who is presumed dead.
With the aircrew released, the fate of the EP-3 remains an issue. Badly damaged in the accident, the plane is still in Chinese custody. U.S. and Chinese officials have agreed to begin discussing its return on April 18.
"The pilot made an absolutely spectacular effort to bring that plane down safely," Quigley said. "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."
Navy officials dubbed the crew's homeward journey Operation Valiant Return. Quigley said it began at about 6 p.m. Eastern time, when the detainees boarded a minibus bound for an airfield near the city of Haikow. There, the U.S. charter waited.
U.S. Transportation Command had chartered the 737 out of Continental Airlines' hub in Guam, Quigley told reporters called out for the late-evening Pentagon briefing.
U.S. officials had asked that the aircraft be available on three hours' notice, he said. To do that, Continental kept crews on standby in shifts. The plane had been ready to leave as early as Monday, April 9, Quigley noted.
"It just was not clear as to when we would finally come to an agreement with the Chinese," he said.
The Continental flight departed Guam at about 12:40 p.m. Eastern time and arrived in Hainan five hours later. On the ground for about an hour and a half, the plane refueled and the 24 Americans boarded. The flight took off without incident at about 7:30 p.m. and arrived in Guam at about midnight.
The EP-3 crew had four to five hours in Guam to shower, change into fresh clothes, eat and telephone their families. They then boarded an Air Force C-17 bound for Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, where they are slated to spend two to three days in debriefing.
Quigley said a repatriation team accompanied the crew from Hainan to Guam and Hawaii. It included 13 psychologists, medical doctors, intelligence officers and other specialists.
Along with checking the crew members' physical health and mental condition, he said, the team would have about 12 hours during the flights to "jump start" the debriefing process.
DoD officials want to capture the crews' memories while they're still fresh, Quigley said, "before the details of the collision start to fade." DoD wants to record the crew's recollections of the accident and the timeline leading up to it in their own words to obtain as complete a picture as possible, he said.
"How long exactly that will take, we're not sure," Quigley said. "We're just trying our darnedest to have the crew members reunited with their families by Easter. That is our goal."