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interviews: lt. shane osborn

Was April 1st just a normal day for you?

I'm sure. It was a Sunday. We had a 3:45 mission, so it was an early day, but we'd been flying for about a month with this crew out there in the Western Pacific. It was just a normal mission.

What was the day like?

Actually, we'd been having thunderstorms. We'd cancelled a few times earlier in the week, so we were pretty excited, because the weather was clear all over the Pacific Ocean. So we had good weather and it was an early mission, but we were ready to fly.

Where was your mission taking you?

South China Sea was the area that we were flying. ...

Lt. Shane Osborn was the pilot of the U.S. EP-3 spy plane that collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet on April 1, 2001. Describing the incident and its aftermath, he tells FRONTLINE, "I thought 24 people were going to die in the middle of the ocean, and I wondered if anyone would know why." Interview conducted early autumn 2001.

Had you flown that area before?

Sure, sure. ... I'd been flying in that part of the world for a couple of years.

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?

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 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 it?

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 [collected]?

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 right now.

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 was great.

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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