This is a first hand account regarding the rescue mission undertaken by Continental Airlines to repatriate the crew of the Navy EP-3 involved in a mid air collision with a Chinese fighter on 01 Apr 2001.
Since the mid-air collision on April 1,2001 between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft and a Chinese jet fighter, I had watched the news with mild interest. This was mostly due to the proximity of Guam to China. I never dreamed that I would playa role in this intensely watched international drama.
Somewhere in the negotiations between the United States and the Chinese Governments, it was decided that a civilian aircraft should be sent to retrieve the 24 crew members being detained on Hainan Island, China.
A call was made to Continental Airlines headquarters in Houston, Texas.
Continental was chosen because of its Guam base and its ability to launch this kind of operation at a moments notice. From there, the operation took shape through the tireless efforts of many people working behind the scenes in a coordinated effort between the airline, the military, and the State Department.
On Saturday, April 7, 2001, I received a call at home from Captain Ralph Freeman, Continental Micronesia Director of Flight Operations. Ralph told me that the military wanted to charter one of our jets to conduct a rescue mission and asked if I would be one of the crew members. I said yes without hesitation.
Later we were told that we would need to get passport pictures taken in case the Chinese Government required visas. We got the required photos and were under the impression that we would leave immediately. However, the negotiations slowed over the demand from the Chinese that the U.S. issue an apology that the U.S. was unwilling to give. Meanwhile, the Continental crew remained on call 24 hours a day. Our Uniforms were laid out and our bags were packed and waiting by the door.
On Wednesday evening April 11, 2001, at about 630 PM Ralph called again to say that the two parties were very close to an agreement to release the U.S. crew and to come to the airport. Upon arrival, we were given a briefing sheet listing the information that we would need to conduct the flight.
We would carry a Repatriation Team consisting of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force specialists, 14 people in all. Doctors, Psychologists, and communications people with lots of gear showed up on the ramp near the airplane, ready to board. They were all dressed in casual civilian clothes.
The 155 seat jet was fitted with 2 full stretcher kits bolted in over rows of seats complete with Oxygen tanks and I.V. bottles. They did not know the condition of the 24 detained crew members and they were not going to take any chances. They were prepared.
When our crew was fully assembled, it consisted of 11 people. 2 pilots to fly the jet and an extra to provide relief because of the extensive flight time involved. They were Captain Tom Pinardo, Captain Pierre Frenay and I. We also carried 5 very experienced Flight Attendants.
They were Debbie Percell, Susanne Hendricks, Jean Tang, Cynthia Iverson, and Beverly Haines. Our 2 onboard mechanics were Peter Lum and Julius Aguilo. Our load planner was Mike Torres.
At about 9:30 PM we received a call asking that we arrive in China no earlier than 6:00 AM, just about sunrise. It was obvious that the entire exchange would be photographed and they wanted day light conditions.
We estimated that a 2:15 AM departure from Guam would put us on the ground in Haikou precisely at 6:00 AM local China time. (2 hours earlier than Guam) Some of us just stayed on the plane, others accepted the company's invitation to come to the Continental Presidents Club, a local VIP lounge at the airport to try to get some rest. It was difficult to get any rest with our much anticipated mission so near.
By 1:00 AM the pilots were back in the briefing room going over the weather, flight plan, fuel requirements and everything else that goes into a flight. Again, we loaded up the airplane and finally departed Guam International at precisely 2:15 AM.
The stretcher kits and medical gear were not the only special additions to the airplane. The company had loaded a special file into the navigation database of the flight management computer (FMC). This allowed us to gain access to navigation data needed to operate in this part of China, which is not in our normal route structure. The Repatriation Team carried sophisticated equipment to communicate with the military and government officials that would monitor our progress throughout the flight.
The route of flight took us straight west from Guam toward the Philippines along the G467 airway. About half way across we turned north directly toward Hong Kong. This routing was designed to avoid flying through Taiwanese airspace, something that the Chinese could consider offensive.
Approaching the Chinese coastline, we contacted Hong Kong radar control. After establishing radar contact with us, the controller gave us a short cut to expedite his traffic flow. This was bad because it cut off considerable distance and would result in arriving too early. We compensated by slowing our airspeed until the computer again estimated a 6:00 AM arrival. The instant we turned across the short cut, the inter phone rang from the back of the plane. They wanted to know why we had deviated from the flight plan. We told them it was due to Hong Kong traffic and that we had adjusted our airspeed. We were still on schedule.
Now we were approaching our destination, Haikou airport on Hainan Island. Captain Pierre Frenay was at the controls. The weather was 2000 ft overcast with 5 miles visibility and light winds out of the east.
Pierre made an ILS approach to and landed on runway 9. Haikou airport is much the same as many other airports in the world that serve jet transport aircraft. It has an 11,000-ft runway with standard lighting and navigational facilities. We touched down at 6:07 AM. The first early morning light was beginning to illuminate the sky. The local air traffic controller instructed us to follow a vehicle that was beside us on an adjacent taxiway. He led us to a remote part of the airport, away from the main terminal buildings.
Once we had parked and shut down the engines, we saw many uniformed Chinese military personnel and vehicles. They did not appear to have weapons. Portable stairs were brought up to the airplane and we opened the main cabin door.
The Repatriation Team that we carried had been briefed to close down all of their communications equipment prior to landing and put it away.
They were also briefed to remain in their seats in a non-threatening posture in case the Chinese military came aboard. The first and only person to come aboard was an Air China employee. He spoke English and was to act as the translator between our group and the Chinese military. He instructed us to have everyone fill out both arrival and departure documents. He collected all of our passports and left the aircraft.
Before he left, he said that only one person at a time would be allowed to deplane. Peter Lum, one of our mechanics went down to supervise the re-fueling and servicing of the airplane. When that was complete, I went down to do the walk-around inspection. I did this rather slowly because I wanted to have a chance to look around. While I was out on the ramp, a skirmish developed between people who were trying to climb a wall to photograph our aircraft and the Chinese police. Somehow, CNN managed to carry our arrival and departure live.
Once the airplane was serviced and ready to go, we looked anxiously around for any sign of the buses that carried our 24 detainees. Before that could happen however, we had a problem to deal with. A U.S. military General who was on the scene to assist in the transfer came storming up the stairs and demanded to speak with the Captain. Tom Pinardo responded. The General said that the entire mission was now in jeopardy. A document called the general declaration, which is standard on all international flights, had listed the destination as Haikou, China R.O.C. The initials ROC stand for Republic of China which is .. Taiwan! The Chinese were very upset over this. Tom quickly crossed out ROC and replaced it with P.R.O.C., the Peoples Republic of China. This seemed to satisfy them.
With the airplane ready to go and the paperwork complete, 2 buses pulled up and the 24 U.S. service men and women saluted as they bolted up the stairs and settled into the back of the plane. When the last one was aboard, our passports were returned to us. The stairs were withdrawn, the cabin door closed, and we started the engines and departed. It was my turn at the controls.
Once airborne heading straight south we broke through the clouds into the bright sunshine. Pierre made a PA announcement that we were over international waters and leaving Chinese airspace. A great cheer rose from the back of the airplane. A short while later we received a telephone patch over the HF radio from Mr. Joseph Prueher, U.S. Ambassador to China. He wanted to speak with Lt. Shane Osborne the 26 year old EP-3 Aircraft Commander. Lt. Osborne came to the cockpit and put on a headset. The Ambassador told him that on behalf of the President of the United States and the entire country he wanted to say welcome home . He went on to say how proud he was of everything the crew had done from their airmanship in saving the lives of the crew and aircraft, to their conduct on the ground once they had been detained.
They had truly done an excellent job.
After his conversation with the Ambassador, Lt. Osborne stayed in the cockpit for quite a while and told us his story pilot to pilot of what had happened during and immediately after the mid-air collision with the F-8 Chinese fighter. The fighter came up under their left wing. This pilot made 2 very close passes previously that day. He apparently misjudged the intercept and his vertical stabilizer struck the outboard left propeller on the EP-3. The U.S. plane was in straight and level flight on auto pilot at the time.
The fighter broke into two pieces and plunged into the sea. The U.S. plane rolled to the left almost inverted, the pilot lost control and they began to lose altitude. The Chinese fighter had raked back across the fuselage and knocked off the nose cone causing the aircraft to buffet wildly. When the nose cone departed the aircraft it collided with and damaged the number 4 propeller on the right wing. The collision punctured the pressure vessel and the EP-3 depressurized. The collision also knocked off the pitot tubes eliminating airspeed and altitude indications in the cockpit. It also knocked off the forward bracket for the HF radio antenna. The antenna then flew back and wrapped around the tail.
We were almost upside down and totally out of control Osborne told us.
The dive continued and some crew members donned parachutes. At about 8,000 feet, Osborne regained straight and level flight. They considered ditching the aircraft in the South China Sea but dismissed that option because it was certain to result in loss of life. They headed for the nearest land, Hainan Island. The U.S. crew now faced the most difficult landing of their lives. They made numerous mayday, mayday, mayday radio calls on internationally recognized emergency frequencies. The Chinese did not respond. Somehow, they managed to get the airplane on the ground.
Their next immediate task was to destroy the sensitive electronic surveillance equipment aboard the EP-3. Meanwhile the Chinese military had approached the aircraft in vehicles and were yelling at them through loudspeakers to deplane. The next 11 days would be a very uncertain time for them.
When we met them, they told us that they had not been abused or mistreated. Their food was adequate and plentiful. Sort of like eating in a Chinese restaurant every day one of them said. On the forth day, they got some coffee. On the fifth day, some cokes were provided. The crew did not know what kind of transport would be provided for their return home. They were pleased and surprised to see a chartered airliner from the United States.
The rest of the flight from Haikou to Anderson AFB on Guam was uneventful. During the 5 hour flight the crew was treated to the movie Men of Honor and enjoyed a first class meal. We did not know it at the time but our landing at Anderson AFB was carried live on national television. We taxied to the parking ramp at Anderson where many people had turned out to welcome all of us home. Individuals and families with kids, both military and civilian waved American flags and cheered, showing support for the returning U.S. spy plane crew. Once the 24 U. S. crewmembers and the military Repatriation Team had deplaned at Anderson, they immediately boarded waiting buses and were whisked away.
The Continental crew then became the object of intense media attention. CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Reuters and various print media interviewed us. A dizzying swirl of attention after a very long day. We were happy, tired, and pleased that the mission was so successful as Tom flew the last segment, a 10-minute flight back to Guam International Airport. This time our passengers included Bill Meehan, President of Continental Micronesia, Guam Governor Carl Gutierrez, Lieutenant Governor Bordallo and others.
We thought the day was just about over but we had one more surprise in store. After landing, we were given a heros welcome of our own. The airport fire department was in place to give us the traditional water cannon salute, a rainbow arch of water for us to taxi under. A reception was held at the gate with food, balloons, commemorative plaques, and more media interviews with the local television station.
This was very heady stuff.
As I look back on this one of a kind operation. It could not have happened without the tremendous effort and skills of many people working behind the scenes. Bill Meehan, Mitch Dubner at the SOCC in Houston, Tom Rinow at the CMI SOCC, Captain Ralph Freeman, CMI Director of Flight Operations, and many others had major rolls in coordinating this flight. It was accomplished through teamwork. The fact that it came off without a hitch is testimony to how well all these people did their jobs.
The exposure that Continental Airlines received over this is a marketing managers dream come true. We will be remembered by millions of people as the company who conducted the China Rescue Mission. This was a proud day for Continental Airlines and for America.
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