SUBIC BAY NAVAL BASE, Philippines — Three U.S. Navy fliers rescued by Vietnam after they were forced to ditch their plane in the South China Sea last week returned today to their Philippines base to a warm welcome.
The three, including the co-pilot who is three months pregnant, were turned over today to U.S. officials and flown from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok, Thailand, and on to Subic Bay. The pilot expressed their thanks to the Vietnamese navy and government for their rescue and the hospitality extended.
About 120 relatives and friends carrying "welcome home" signs and balloons greeted the aviators as they arrived.
The fliers were rescued on July 12 after their CT-39E transport plane, on a routine flight from Singapore to Subic Bay, went down near the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, China and other nations.
"They're fine. It was an arduous ordeal, so they're tired, but they're very happy to be back home and to be with their relatives," Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. J. D. Van Sickle said.
Co-pilot Lt. (j.g.) Elizabeth A. Steinnecker, 29, of Tampa, Fla., said "I feel fabulous" as she hugged her husband, Chris, who also is a Navy pilot.
Before leaving Bangkok, she told reporters, "The baby is doing wonderfully, thank you," adding, "He is going to be one strong kid."
Lt. Richard K. Mauer, the downed plane's pilot, said, "We would like to thank the Vietnamese navy for pulling us from the sea, the Vietnamese government for extending the courtesies and hospitality to us."
"They treated us very well. They were very concerned for our safety," said the 30-year-old pilot from Harveys Lake, Pa. "We were very concerned that everybody back home knew we were alive. It's good to be back here."
Steinnecker said their unexpected stay in Vietnam was "interesting" and they were treated more as tourists than prisoners.
The third flier was Petty Officer 1st Class Michael R. Neel, 34, of Albuquerque, N.M.
The Navy said the fliers reported their navigational instruments failed and the plane ran out of fuel after missing a stop in Malaysia.
Vietnamese naval forces rescued them shortly after they crashed, Radio Hanoi said.
The quick return of the fliers was one more sign of improving relations between the United States and its former enemy.
The three fliers, dressed in flight suits, smiled and chatted as they walked into an informal debriefing with U.S. Ambassador William A. Brown after landing in Bangkok.
"We are very grateful for the fact that they are alive and well and they got back and that it was done in an expeditious manner," Brown said later.
"They were well treated," he said. "There is no question of that in their own minds--bearing in mind the limitations that they landed in very unusual circumstances."
Brown said the landing was professional.