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CREW'S RETURN

Crew Was Sure All Would Perish in Wild Plunge

Plane: Americans land in Hawaii. Family members hear harrowing accounts of parachutes being donned, and hurried destruction of secret data and equipment.

April 13, 2001|MARLENE CIMONS and TONY PERRY and SUSAN ESSOYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HONOLULU — The returning crew members of a U.S. Navy spy plane, touching down in the United States after 11 days in Chinese detention, Thursday gave their families heart-stopping accounts of how they nearly ditched their plane in the South China Sea after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter.

Providing new details about the harrowing aftermath of the April 1 incident, crew members told relatives that they were convinced they would die after the EP-3 surveillance plane plunged thousands of feet in seconds. At one point, they frantically strapped on parachutes in hopes that they could leap free.

But "the way [the plane] was spinning, there was no way they could get out," James Coursen, the father of Navy Cryptologic Technician Operator 1st Class Shawn Coursen, said in an interview after talking to his son. "It was chaos in there. They thought they were all going to die."

The crew members also spoke with pride of how much surveillance equipment and data they were able to destroy before landing in China.

The plane, which was conducting a routine military surveillance flight off China's southern coast at the time of the collision, limped to Lingshui military air base on nearby Hainan island. After Navy Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot, landed the aircraft, it was immediately surrounded by Chinese soldiers who demanded that crew members leave the plane at once. The 24 Americans were taken into custody and detained until early Thursday.

After an agreement was reached between the U.S. and Chinese governments, the crew was flown to Guam, then taken on to Honolulu for a hero's welcome at Hickam Air Force Base.

With the crew freed, President Bush spoke harshly Thursday of what the Chinese had done and criticized the Beijing government's record on trade, human rights and religious freedom.

Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, Bush said "the kind of incident we have just been through does not advance a constructive relationship between our countries."

He said that, in a meeting between representatives of the two nations Wednesday to discuss the collision, he would direct U.S. officials "to ask the tough questions about China's recent practice of challenging United States aircraft operating legally in international airspace."

Reconnaissance flights, he said, "are a part of a comprehensive national security strategy that helps maintain peace and stability in our world."

During the crew's stop in Guam earlier Thursday, each member was given a cell phone and wasted no time calling family and friends to exchange messages of love and relief, and to describe their ordeal.

The American crew said the four-engine EP-3 was knocked into a dive after the Chinese F-8 fighter, flying close beneath it, struck its tail against the propeller of the engine on the outside of the left wing, according to U.S. officials who have knowledge of the crew's reports.

The collision caused the EP-3 to roll sharply to the left and nearly turned it over at one point, said the officials, who requested anonymity.

The collision damaged the spy plane's flaps, which are control surfaces on the rear edges of the wings that can increase lift and allow the aircraft to fly more slowly, the officials said. One engine was put out of commission, two propellers were damaged and the nose cone, which held important instruments, was sheared off.

"My son said the crew did not know whether they were going to live or die; many started praying to themselves," said Ramon Mercado Sr. of Corona, father of Navy Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ramon Mercado Jr. "It was all very frightening."

But then, the elder Mercado said, "they realized they were going to come out alive and they all cheered a little bit."

"My son said that every day they were in captivity they thanked the pilot for getting them down and saving their lives," James Coursen said.

The crew considered ditching--landing the plane in the water--after the pilot regained control, the family members said, but feared that the damage might prevent them from slowing the aircraft enough to bring it down safely. The EP-3 had lost both airspeed indicators and, with the other damage, "everything you know about that aircraft has changed--you can't play with it to see how slow it will go," said John W. Comerford of Palos Verdes Estates, the father of Navy Lt. j.g. John Comerford and himself a pilot.

"They probably would have had to ditch in excess of 200 knots, which would have been suicide," said the elder Comerford. Ditching "would have been a very poor choice" because of the plane's limited capabilities, he said. "You're in a horrible situation, and you've got to get it down somewhere to save everyone."

Diane Osborn of Norfolk, Neb., said her son, the pilot and mission commander, struggled to bring the plane in. Just landing the plane "took every bit of strength he had," she told MSNBC television.

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