TOPICS > Nation

China Surveillance Plane Collision: What Happened?

April 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: We have two official U.S. takes on the spy plane incident with China. First, to the question of exactly what happened 12 days ago. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld spoke to that at a Pentagon news conference this afternoon. Here are some excerpts.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Now as to the collision, for the past 12 days we’ve heard the People’s Republic of China and the People’s Liberation Army’s version. Our crew was detained during that period, and we were not able to hear firsthand the facts as to what actually took place. You’ll recall there were two key issues: One issue was as to whether or not the EP-3 had made a turn into the fighter aircraft.

The answer is it did not. It was flying straight and level. It was on autopilot, and it did not deviate from a straight and level path until it had been hit by the Chinese fighter aircraft, at which point, the auto pilot went off and it made a steep left turn and lost some 5,000 to 8,000 feet of altitude as the crew attempted to regain control. Second, with respect to the Chinese air space being entered, it is well understood in international agreements that if an aircraft is in distress, that it broadcast that on the accepted international channels. The pilot made a decision to head toward Hainan Island.

I am told that the crew made some twenty-five to thirty attempts to broadcast mayday distress signals and to alert the world — as well as Hainan Island — that they were going to be forced to land there. The other Chinese fighter aircraft was in close proximity to the United States Navy EP-3. One would assume they were in contact with their airfield. The plane proceeded in on a perpendicular to the runway, made a 270-degree turn so that everyone on the ground and in the air would be aware that they were in distress and making an emergency landing.

When they landed, they were greeted with armed troops, so I suspect that the people in the airfield knew they were coming. So the question is, what caused the collision? This is not an unusual practice, to fly these reconnaissance flights. The United States has done it hundreds of times. At least six countries fly reconnaissance missions in Asia, including China. There was nothing new or different about the mission on March 31.

What is new is that the Chinese pilots have been maneuvering aggressively against our aircraft in recent months. I mentioned the video we have that shows one such encounter. This is an aircraft, a Chinese aircraft very similar to the one that crashed. And it took place in January… I believe January 24. Does it say?

PILOT: Roger.

DONALD RUMSFELD: The voices are the American pilots, crew.

SPOKESMAN: Got to be ID on them.

SPOKESMAN: How far are we?

SPOKESMAN: One’s right there.

SPOKESMAN: Right in front of us. Same altitude. All right. We got bop thumped.

SPOKESMAN: I felt that one.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You might pause there for a second. What he’s talking about is a plane comes up underneath and the jet wash jars the slower, more stable, bigger aircraft and causes turbulence that throws the plane around. That’s when they used the word “thump.” Look at the plane’s mushy behavior. He’s flying at a very slow speed for a fighter aircraft.

SPOKESMAN: This guy is having a little bit of problem. He is squirrelly, not steady. He is having a hard time maintaining the air speed. He has his flaps down a little bit.

DONALD RUMSFELD: Those planes are not designed to fly at 250 knots.

SPOKESMAN: He’s moving out a little bit.

SPOKESMAN: He’s falling back.

DONALD RUMSFELD: You can see how close it was. And you can see the angle of attack on the fighter aircraft. He’s trying to fly much slower than he is supposed to be flying.

SPOKESMAN: …tightening up on that side…

DONALD RUMSFELD: A few more comments in this instance, of the collision on the end of March and the first of April, our aircraft was in international air space. The F-8 pilot who later hit our aircraft made two aggressive passes at the EP-3. On one pass, he came within an estimated three to five feet of the aircraft. On the third pass, he approached too fast and closed on the EP-3 and then flew into the propeller of the outer engine.

This occurred some 70 nautical miles from Hainan. The F-8 broke into two, plunged into the sea and the collision caused the nose cone of the EP-3 to break away and damage the second engine or propeller on the right side of the aircraft and to send pieces of metal through the fuselage. Why did the Chinese pilot act so aggressively? It is clear that the pilot intended to harass the crew. It was not the first time that our reconnaissance and surveillance flights flying in that area received that type after aggressive contact from interceptors. We had every right to be flying where we were flying.

They have every right to come up and observe our flight. What one does not have the right to do, and nor do I think it was anyone’s intention, is to fly into another aircraft. The F-8 pilot clearly put at risk the lives of 24 Americans.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, what can you tell us about what the crew was able to destroy in terms of intelligence data and equipment on board that plane before the Chinese boarded? And could you also provide us a little more detail? You talked about they were greeted by armed guards. Can you fill in the blanks there, tell us how the Chinese treated the American crew, and were they forced off the plane at gunpoint?

DONALD RUMSFELD: The crew has a checklist; they went through that checklist and did an excellent job of doing everything that was, I believe, possible in the period of time they had. With respect to the guards coming aboard the aircraft, they boarded the aircraft. They were armed and they invited the crew off the aircraft.

REPORTER: That sounds like a diplomatic answer, Mr. Secretary. Were they, in fact, forced off the aircraft at gunpoint?

DONALD RUMSFELD: I do not know if the guns were even taken out of the holsters.

REPORTER: If I could follow up here, when you say “excellent job,” are you satisfied that the crew was able to destroy enough of that data and equipment that it could not be of any intelligence help to the Chinese?

DONALD RUMSFELD: The crew is being debriefed. And what we know at this present time is that they succeeded in doing a major portion of their checklist.