Navy plane crew gives an account of collision

Flight engineer recalls chaotic scene as pilots struggled with controls

April 15, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HONOLULU -- "This guy just killed us."

That was Lt. Shane Osborn's first thought as the tail of the Chinese F-8 jet fighter sliced into the far left engine of his lumbering Navy surveillance plane two weekends ago, he said yesterday.

"The plane just snap-rolled," Osborn said, describing how his huge aircraft heeled more than 130 degrees to the left, nearly turning over, and then plunged 7,500 feet. "I remember looking up and seeing water."

He and several members of the Navy crew spoke at a dawn news conference here at Hickam Air Force Base, giving crew members' first public account of the collision.

The flight engineer, Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Mellos, used a single word -- "mayhem" -- to describe the scene in the cockpit as Osborn and his co-pilots tried to get their plane under control with nearly all their instruments and controls gone, and as other crew members tried to smash the secret equipment. All the while, there was a howling noise as air rushed in through holes in the hull, Mellos said.

The EP-3E surveillance plane, with its crew of 24 and a trove of electronic surveillance equipment, was traveling "straight and steady" on autopilot, Osborn said. It was a routine patrol, he said, adding that the crew members had no reason to reproach themselves. "No apologies necessary on our part," he said.

The Navy plane was heading away from Hainan island when the Chinese jet began making harassing passes, coming as close as 3 feet to 5 feet away, he said.

"I was definitely concerned at this point," he recalled.

The Chinese plane, flown by Wang Wei, became unstable, Osborn said, as it tried to slow down to the speed of the American plane, which was traveling at 185 knots. Jet fighters are designed to fly at much higher speeds, and Wang lost control.

American officials have described the Chinese pilot as having a record of dangerous harassing tactics.

"His vertical stabilizer impacted my No. 1 propeller," Osborn said, describing how the Chinese jet's tail cut into the leftmost of his plane's four engines and then fell into pieces. "His nose hit my nose."

The bullet-shaped nose cone of the EP-3E, which houses much of the plane's instrumentation -- including the vital speed and altitude indicators -- sheared off, and pieces of the wreckage hit the No. 3 engine, the inside right, and pierced the plane's pressurized cabin, causing air to rush in with a roar, he said.

Below, Osborn said, he could see pieces of the Chinese jet in flames and a parachute descending.

At 10,000 feet, he said, he was able to hold altitude and began to stabilize the plane. "I called for bailout," the lieutenant recalled. Then, he said, as the crew struggled into parachutes, he thought: "We may be able to ditch. I activated the emergency destruct plan."

But by then, he said, the plane had hardly any working controls.

An experienced EP-3 pilot, in an earlier interview, described the landing of the crippled plane as an astounding feat and described the technical difficulties involved.

The plane had lost power in two of its four engines. More important, the propeller of the far-left engine had been knocked clear of its gears, leaving its blade in a flat, rather than "feathered," position. That meant, this pilot said, that the blades spun independently because of air resistance, becoming a brake on one side, opposing the thrust of the two working engines.

The loss of the nose cone meant more wind resistance -- the plane was flying with a flat front -- and caused the loss of vital instruments that tell how fast and high the plane is flying and so are crucial to landing. The flaps on the wings, also crucial to landing, were gone, too, he said.

In the cockpit, Mellos, the flight engineer, recalled a chaotic scene as Osborn and his two co-pilots -- identified by Navy officials as Lt. Patrick Honeck and Lt. j.g. Jeffery Vignery -- shouted at each other, struggling with the unresponsive controls.

Osborn was shouting out mayday messages over the radio. In the back, crew members were wielding axes and sledgehammers to smash the surveillance gear.

"It was like we've trained and trained and trained for," Mellos said. "Thank God for the training."

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