A less-than-agile spy aircraft


Collision: Likening the EP-3E to a flying bus, experts dispute China's claim that the U.S. pilot was at fault.

April 04, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Rusty Weiser, a former Navy tactical coordinator and navigator aboard planes almost identical to the U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing in China on Sunday, can still remember what it feels like to look back and see Soviet or Chinese interceptors closing in.

"It raises your adrenaline a little bit," said Weiser, who retired a year and a half ago and now works at the Naval Academy Alumni Association. "You don't know if this is the day the guy in the cockpit has had a bad day at home or the communication with his commanders breaks down and he fires at you.

"He's in a fighter jet and you're lumbering along in a transport, and all you've got to throw at him is your lunch bag," he said.

Weiser, along with many Navy pilots and several military experts, disputed yesterday China's claim that the American piloting an EP-3E surveillance plane could have been at fault for a midair collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet. One called it a "practical impossibility."

The collision has hit home with a number of pilots with similar experiences who say that the Chinese seem to play a different game than the long-held tradition of midair cat-and-mouse they played with the Soviets. The Chinese, who have only recently been venturing out of their own airspace, seem to be inching closer to American pilots with each encounter.

Experts, as well, point to the limited speed and maneuverability of an EP-3, which in its basic form is similar to its parent design, a commercial propeller-driven aircraft from the 1960s.

"The idea that the [American] pilot was at fault is absolutely inconceivable," said Minor Carter, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who flew intelligence missions near Asia. "You're flying along, steady, and even if you wanted to, you couldn't hit an F-8. It would be like being on a bicycle trying to catch up and hit a motorcycle.

"The Russians would come up all the time just for practice," Carter said. "They would come up and play games, but safely. You knew the rules with them."

One pilot, who asked not to be identified, said the Russians would exchange obscene gestures, and in one instance, pilots from both sides bared backsides at each other. In most cases, they were aware of their intentions because they were listening to them talk.

The EP-3E, a propeller craft with a maximum speed of about 400 mph, is further encumbered by a heavy load of extensive eavesdropping equipment.

The plane's mission is to fly slow and steady along coastlines so linguists, cryptologists and engineers in the back can soak in an ever-growing spectrum of electronic signals, everything from radar to cellular phone transmissions.

"It's a big sponge," said Weiser, who flew the P-3, a similar plane equipped to scope out aircraft carriers and submarines, rather than to listen in.

"It's not a sports car," he said. "It flies level and flat. You're pretty much just driving a bus up there."

Pilots experienced in flying the type of craft the Chinese were using say it is hard to understand how such a collision could have been caused by an American error.

Phillip J. Kolczynski, an aviation lawyer in Santa Ana, Calif., and former F-4 Marine pilot, said, "I flew fighters. If any bomber turned into me and struck me, I wasn't a very good pilot. The fighter pilot would have to be completely asleep."

According to Navy officials, the collision occurred as Chinese pilots in two F-8s intercepted the American plane carrying 24 crew members and collided near its left wing and engine. The Chinese pilot apparently escaped by parachute but has not been located. The American plane issued a "mayday" call and made an emergency landing on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan.

Almost immediately, the Chinese blamed the American craft for the collision, refusing to release the plane and crew and demanding an apology.

Several pilots said they routinely practice water landings in case of emergencies. Historically, they have been successful half the time they have been attempted without causing injury to the passengers. The American pilot in charge of the EP-3 chose instead to ask for permission to land on an airstrip in Hainan.

Some experts are speculating that the Chinese plane may have closed in too fast on the EP-3 and was not able to maneuver out of its way.

A.D. Baker III, author of Combat Fleets of the World, a 1,200-page reference book used by military experts across the country, said the F-8 is relatively modern for the Chinese but is about 35 years behind the most modern equipment available.

"Most of their cockpits are all glass and have an extremely outdated design," Baker said. "It has very poor visibility from the cockpits. The onus would definitely be on the fighter pilot to avoid the transport. It would be awfully hard to ram a fighter plane with a slow-moving transport similar to what Eastern Airlines used to fly in 1960."

Though slow, the wide-bottom plane serves as a perfect moving listening post, able to stay aloft for 12 hours at a time, Baker said.

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