In wartime, extreme measures crashing the plane or ditching into the sea might have been expected. The plane carried life rafts and its crews are trained to survive such landings. But even though some military officers are grumbling that the spy plane never should have landed on Chinese soil, most military officers interviewed in recent days think the EP-3 crew made the right choice. "That plane can fly back to Japan on three [of its four] engines," a senior Navy officer said. "So it had to be pretty damaged to limp to Hainan. You have to give the crew credit for saving 24 lives."
Once the crew realized it was going to land in China, it began implementing its classified destruction plan, which parcels out the plane's most sensitive gear for erasure or destruction by individual crew members.
Some of the steps, such as erasing computer memory units that recorded the day's mission, are relatively simple. Others shredding the computer floppy disks containing various encryption codes are more complicated. The most sophisticated gear various eavesdropping and cryptographic code machines could be kept from prying eyes by smashing it with hammers and hatchets aboard the aircraft. Or it may have been pushed out of the plane's cargo door in weighted bags, in sort of a "Sailors Meet the Sopranos" moment, while still over the ocean, Navy officials say. Additional papers and tapes could have been destroyed, probably after the plane was on the ground, by stuffing them into special containers and then detonating special destructive grenades inside them.
The crew should have had sufficient time to perform such tasks: Armed Chinese troops didn't come aboard the plane until about a half an hour after the plane landed, some 90 minutes after the midair collision, Pentagon officials estimate. But now, with much of the gear destroyed but the crew's memories and knowledge intact, comes the next chapter. U.S. military personnel are instructed only to reveal their name, rank and serial number to interrogators, and Pentagon officials doubt the Chinese have asked for any more than that.