Crew members expected to die after crash with Chinese fighter

A brief, spinning plunge, then destruction of gear

April 13, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

In the aftermath of the April 1 incident, crew members told relatives that they were convinced they would die after the EP-3E surveillance plane plunged thousands of feet in a few seconds. They frantically strapped on parachutes in hopes they could jump free.

But "the way [the plane] was spinning, there was no way they could get out," said James Coursen, after talking to son Shawn Coursen, a Navy cryptologic technician. "It was chaos in there. They thought they were all going to die."

Crew members spoke with pride of how much surveillance gear and data they were able to destroy before landing in China.

After Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot, landed safely on Hainan island, the aircraft was immediately surrounded by Chinese soldiers who demanded that the 24 crew members leave the plane at once.

During the crew's stop in Guam earlier yesterday, each member was given a cell phone to call family and friends.

The crew said the four-engine EP-3 was knocked into a dive after the Chinese F-8 fighter, flying close beneath it, struck the propeller of the left outboard engine with its tail, according to U.S. officials.

The collision caused the EP-3 to roll sharply to the left and nearly turn over, the officials said.

The collision damaged the spy plane's flaps, control surfaces on the rear edges of the wings that can increase lift and allow the aircraft to fly more slowly. 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., father of Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ramon Mercado Jr.

But then, he 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," Coursen said.

The crew considered "ditching" - landing the plane in the water - after the pilot regained control, family members said, but feared that the damage might prevent them from slowing the aircraft enough to bring it down safely.

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."

Jeoff Hanser of Billings, Mont., said his brother, Jason Hanser, a cryptologic technician, told of immediately beginning to destroy secret documents and equipment.

"He said they were breaking things, scrambling things and even throwing things overboard. He told us he was very proud that the Chinese didn't get any of the good stuff. ... He said that they all just did what they were trained to do."

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