An 8,000-Ft. Plunge and a Tough Choice

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The video was chilling. On Friday afternoon, after the U.S. flight crew was safely back in the U.S., Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began a reporters' briefing with a frightening recording made by a U.S. EP-3E crew flying near China in January. The video image showed a Chinese F-8 jet hotdogging and harassing the American aircraft. Flying on the very edge of controllability, the F-8 pilot slowed his fighter down enough to dance alongside the U.S. plane. At one moment the nose fell dramatically, almost banging into the U.S. plane. U.S. officials say the pilot could very well have been Wang Wei, who two weeks ago accidentally flew his plane into another EP-3E.

There is no U.S. video of that collision, but details of the flight that emerged last week were even more terrifying. The accident over the South China Sea very nearly killed all 24 aboard the U.S. plane. Chinese fighters had intercepted U.S. reconnaissance missions 43 times since December, Lieut. Shane Osborn knew as he flew his EP-3E in the early hours of April Fools' Day. Six times, F-8s zipped past the lumbering U.S. planes with less than 30 ft. to spare. Twice they had come within 10 ft. of the U.S. aircraft, "thumping" them by rocking the American planes in the turbulence of their exhaust. But on the 44th intercept, the Chinese, according to the U.S. account, went from a close call to a collision with the plane carrying Osborn and his 23 crewmates.

The episode began when a pair of F-8s scrambled from the Lingshui air base on Hainan Island and began shadowing the U.S. plane. Wang brushed twice within 5 ft. of the U.S. plane before he misjudged and flew his jet's tail through the EP-3E's left outboard propeller. "The first thing I thought," Osborn recalled Saturday, "was this guy just killed us." The F-8 broke in half, slicing off the EP-3E's nose and disabling the right wing's inner engine. Wang fell to his death along with the flaming wreckage. The U.S. plane plunged into "an almost inverted dive," Osborn said. Since there are few windows on the EP-3E--most of the crew members huddle over screens and oscilloscopes requiring a dark interior--most of the crew never saw the F-8s approach their plane and knew of the danger only as the plane kicked hard over.

They grabbed for parachutes and began strapping them on as Osborn and his flight crew bellowed "Mayday!" into their mikes. It took about 5 min.--and up to 8,000 ft. of altitude--before Osborn could regain control. As the plane's unbalanced engines and sheared nose combined to shake the EP-3E violently, Osborn decided his best choice was to make for Lingshui, the closest airfield and one the F-8s had left only minutes before. Once the crew realized it was going to land in China, it began carrying out its "classified destruction plan," which parcels out the plane's most sensitive gear for erasure or destruction by individual crew members.

Accompanied by the surviving F-8, Osborn's plane flew toward the Chinese airstrip, staying over water as long as possible to avoid upsetting his surprised hosts. About 20 min. after the midair collision, the EP-3E made a hair-raising landing, unable to slow down because its braking wing flaps had been wrecked in the accident. A dislodged antenna had wrapped itself around the EP-3E's tail, further complicating the landing. Chinese troops quickly surrounded the prized plane, wielding weapons and demanding over bullhorns that the Americans abandon the craft. After a tense 15-min. standoff--during which the U.S. crew continued to destroy much, but not all, of the classified material aboard the plane--they surrendered to the Chinese.

The Bush Administration's jet jockeys applauded the performance. Rumsfeld, a onetime naval aviator, praised Osborn's coolness, even as he criticized Wang's hotdogging. Such high jinks, said Rumsfeld, who used to teach formation flying as a naval jock, were absurdly dangerous. Osborn's flying, by contrast, got nothing but raves, especially from another Administration pilot. "As an old F-102 pilot, let me tell you, Shane, you did a heck of a job bringing that aircraft down," President Bush telephoned the 26-year-old. "You made your country proud."