Had you flown that area before?
Sure, sure. ... I'd been flying in that part of the world for a couple of
Do you get used to seeing Chinese fighters?
It's pretty amazing what you can get used to. A lot of people have asked that.
Yes, we've been getting intercepted for years and years ... so as much as you
can get used to something like that, having two or three armored fighters
flying off your wing, well, we were used to it.
When you say "intercepted," what do they do?
They just come out to take a look at us. We're in international airspace. We
would do the same thing if we had an aircraft flying up and down our coast. [They]
just look at us and see what we're doing, let us know their presence.
Do they get close?
Not usually that close. They had become more aggressive over the recent months.
They'd been closer and closer, but they'd never been that close, on the side of
our wing. It's usually a pretty good distance off. ...
Did you know that particular pilot?
They are out there flying. They've got a helmet on with an oxygen mask and an
eye guard, so we don't know which one's which. They fly different planes, just
like we do.
Whereabouts were you when the incident happened?
We were about 70 miles southeast of Hainan Island. It had been a slow day and
we were getting ready to go home. We had about ten minutes left before it was
time to head home, and that's when we got intercepted. It was the first
activity we'd had.
What did you see?
I was sitting in the right seat and saw two fighters. They actually overshot us
by quite a bit, by about half a mile off our wing, off the right side. They
always stayed on the island or land side of us. They kind of overshot us,
pulled up, and then just kind of hung out there.
It was time to go home so we started a very gradual turn with the autopilot
away from Hainan Island, heading to the northeast basically, and were heading
home. We figured they'd peel off and head back to base, but they didn't.
What happened then?
Obviously, we have people man the windows for something like that, and we
received a call from the back. They said, "Hey, they are joining up on us."
That was nothing new, so at that point we weren't nervous. But you could hear
the tension in the voices rising steadily as they got closer and closer. There
were just calls from the back, "Hey, he's right off our wing, he's tight,
that's the closest I've seen," you know, all types of comments. ...
What do you remember of the actual incident?
He came up on us twice, and both times were really close. The second time, I
could see him right out of our cockpit -- he was like ten feet away. Looking
right in his face, I was like, "This isn't good." We were nervous. I'm just
guarding the autopilot, making sure we don't make any movements into him
because it was that close, a couple of feet from hitting us.
He dropped away once, came back. The second time I was like, "OK, he's going
home for sure." Then when I heard him come the third time, I had an eerie
feeling. I just knew he was going to hit us, because he wasn't stable. He was
all over. The third time, you heard screams coming from the back as he came and
he pitched up into us. ...
The plane just shook violently and we kind of pitched up. I heard a pop, and
that was his nose hitting ours. He shot off to the side and we were upside down
before I knew it. [I was] trying to stop the plane from going completely
inverted ... and I was pretty certain we were dead at that point.
We were upside down in a large reconnaissance aircraft. I had lost my nose. I
could hear the wind screaming through the plane, and I knew that number one
prop was violently shaking. We were pretty much inverted. I was looking up at
the ocean, so it was not a good feeling.
Yes, it sure was.
So what did you do?
I put some inputs in that weren't responding. I put full regular and full right
rudder in to try and keep the plane from spinning out of control. The plane
just wouldn't respond; it just stayed there. We were in an inverted dive and we
lost about 8,000 feet, upside down, and as the airspeed came on, the plane
finally rolled out of it.
At that point, we had a runaway prop that was missing large chunks and
violently shaking and we tried to get that shut down. It wouldn't shut down.
... I'd lost my airspeed in any case, so I couldn't tell how fast we were
going. There was a lot of noise in the cockpit; we'd obviously depressurized
with the holes in the nose. I put full power on the other three remaining
engines, but we were still screaming out of the air. It wouldn't hold the
altitude up that high with all the drag, so it took to about 8,000 feet before
we could hold the altitude. We started out at 22.5, and it was 8,000 feet
before we were flying again, so it was a rough day. ...
You thought at [one] stage you might have to use your parachutes?
Well, I knew I wasn't going to get out. I thought some of them might be able
to, so they kept their parachutes on. If the plane started coming apart, I was
hoping at least the back end guys could jump out, and tell the story.
You managed to land.
Sure, we did. We got lucky. I was glad the nose gear came down -- I didn't know
if it was going to or not. We came in and called up the field. I had to pick it
out visually; we didn't have any charts that showed us those types of details
of China. We don't carry that. So we kept making calls and flew by the field
perpendicular to it to take a look down. [We] saw that the strip was clear, so
dropped the gear and landed. They had a pretty good greeting party for us.
It must have been a relief getting down.
Not really. For about two seconds. But now I've got to deal with landing in
communist China. So it wasn't much of a relief. There were a lot of cheers in
the back as we reversed down the runway, but we were lucky to live that day.
Looking back, can you understand why they complained that you caused
No, I can't. ... We told the truth the entire time. We told the truth about it
when we were there. We told the truth since we went home. We did nothing wrong
-- that's all that mattered to me. What they say and what they don't say
doesn't matter. ...
The people in the back -- did they manage to destroy a lot of what they had
Sure. The plane was a mess inside and out, so they did a great job, that crew
back there. They'd been pinned to the floor for 8,000 feet in a dive. It's
pretty scary. Most of them don't have any windows, so they don't know what's
going on, and to be able to get up and recover from that and go through an
emergency destruction plan is pretty impressive. ...
What was it like to be moments from death?
It's a sickening feeling in my stomach that I don't care to have again. The
next time I get it I hope is the last time, let's put it that way. It's not
something you recover from right away, I'll tell you that, and when it's over,
it's still not a good feeling.
Did you think of your family?
Of course. But I thought 24 people were going to die in the middle of the
ocean, and I wondered if anyone would know why.
There was no way that you could communicate?
Well, not when you are upside down. Once we were coming in, obviously, we were
communicating to let them know. And once we landed, we let them know that this
is where we are at, we are safe, we are alive, and everyone's in good health
Did you get any instructions?
They didn't really have time. We had to get the power shut down. I was getting
surrounded with guys with AK-47s, so we didn't have a whole lot of time to go
through instructions. We know what to do in that situation, how to handle it.
We're well trained for this.
What happened when you landed?
They circled the plane and were giving us the cut power sign. I shut down
engines one at a time, taking my time so that we could talk back home, and make
sure we were getting as much information off the plane as we could about what
happened. They were becoming very adamant about us shutting out engines down
and shutting power off.
I wanted to be the first one to talk to them, so I went to the back. They had
an interpreter also standing there. I was the first one to talk to them, and
tried to get him to let me call either the ambassador or my chain of command.
They wouldn't let us do that, and then things went from there. More guys showed
up and they wanted us off the plane. So finally, once we'd took care of what we
needed to on board, we de-boarded.
Were they rough with you?
No, they didn't harm any of us physically.
Where were you taken?
We were at a military base where the F-8 that hit us flies out of. We sat on a
bus for two hours, because they were pretty surprised to have us there,
obviously. Then they took us to eat and then took us to their barracks
basically. We were on a floor and it was guarded with armed guards.
When did you first make contact with the ambassador?
Oh, it was about three or four days later, in the middle of the night. We spent
day in, day out in interrogations -- myself and the other pilots. The first
night they grabbed me at like 11 at night. It had been 22 hours since I'd
slept, and that was pretty physically exhausting, flying that plane in and the
adrenaline rush that you are coming down off of and being scared. So they
waiting until the middle of the night before they started questioning me, and
they questioned me, I think, from midnight to six in the morning that day.
Pretty rough night, and it was obviously pretty scary.
They were getting pretty upset with me and my level of cooperation, let's put
it that way. There was a lot of verbal threats and standing up and yelling.
Then they would calm down for a while and then they would just want me to go
through everything, and what I was willing to talk to them about was the
details of the accident. Like I said, they didn't find anything any more out
the whole 12 days we were there.
So it was the same questions all the time?
No, they would try different ways -- different threats of being tried, and
accusing me of being a master spy, etc., and they used sleep deprivation
techniques. After I didn't cooperate, they took me away from the crew and
isolated me for the next eight days. There they'd have two guys sitting in a
chair smoking cigarettes as I'm trying to sleep, blowing smoke in my face to
keep me awake, and they'd wake me up if I'd fall asleep -- all those sleep
deprivation techniques. I was getting pretty tired, but we hung in there. The
crew did well. ...
How did the ambassador and General Sealock help you?
General Sealock came in the first night. ... We were waiting in a room in the
middle of the night again. We probably sat in there for about an hour and half,
then all of a sudden a general, about six-foot-three, comes walking in the
door. There was no question he was an American.
He was very straightforward and said, "This is what I need. We've got 40
minutes." One of the Chinese officials started arguing with him because he was
writing things down. He argued with him, and when that was done, he asked the
guy if he was going to give him those 60 seconds he'd just used up back. That
was pretty good for the crew's morale, just to see somebody come in and be a
little defiant. We were getting pretty beaten down, not physically, but
actually physically exhausted. He did a lot for us, he really did. We were
always happy to see him, especially that last time, when we were leaving. He
So presumably, once you saw him, you knew you would go back?
We knew we'd get back eventually; we just didn't know how long. This
administration that we have was the biggest morale booster we had. We knew that
this administration would get us home and do it right. That's more important
than getting home -- getting home with your honor and having it done right.
Can you tell me what your crew does?
Collect signals intelligence and that's about all you know we can really talk
about. We collect reconnaissance for the fleet, to provide their war fighters
with an electronic picture of what that part of the world is like.
And what do you call the people in the back?
There's the way back-enders ... it's an affectionate term called spooks. It's
not a derogatory term towards them. We call them spooks in the back.
So you realize it's spying?
Oh, I wouldn't call it spying. I mean, there's no hiding that EP-3. If you've
seen that thing, it's not hard to figure out where that's at. We don't fly
high, we don't fly fast, and we put a pretty good radar return off all those
antennas and dishes hanging off of our plane.
What was it like in the homecoming?
It was great. I hadn't slept in two weeks. We did debrief right when we got
back. We flew, got off the plane and went straight into debrief. We debriefed
all day for two days and then flew back home. I mean, exhaustion wasn't even
the word for it.
But coming home on that jet was awesome. And then Hawaii -- was like 6:37 in
the morning and all these people came out to see us. That was obviously a good
feeling. But the one at [Whidbey Island Naval Air Station] was thousands and
thousands of people. I walked off the plane and I was looking around and I was
like, "Wow, where's my family?" [Laughs] It was really cool. The crew was happy
to see it. From what I remember of it, I got to say hi to the family for a few
hours and then I went to bed. ...
You've always wanted to fly?
Sure, since I was about four.
But you never imagined it could be like this?
No. When I got into the reconnaissance community, I was never planning on being
on TV, never planning on really getting any action. We were behind-the-scenes
guys. That's what our job is: to remain out of the limelight and collect
reconnaissance. So I never thought that anything like this would happen. But
I'm just glad I get to fly.
Did you see what happened to the Chinese pilot?
Sure. As we were inverted going in a dive towards the ocean, I remember looking
out and seeing half of his jet -- the front half, because [the prop] cut him in
half -- with flames shooting out of the back of it screaming towards the earth.
I remember going, "Wow he's in a bad way." I just remember thinking we were
falling at the same rate he was, so I knew we had to be falling at 10,000 feet
per minute easily. It was like looking at Vietnam War footage. That's what it
reminded me of.
Did it ever cross your mind that maybe it wasn't an accident, or did you
just assume it was an accident?
He was harassing us. ... The third time he hit us, is that an accident? I don't
know. Do I think he meant to hit us? No. I don't think he meant to have his
plane cut in two and go under the ocean. But his actions were definitely
threatening my crew in a very serious manner and we all saw what happened. ...
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