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Chinese Plane Flew Too Close

Friday , April 6, 2001

By: Paul Richter, Times staff writer

WASHINGTON -- The American spy plane at the center of a U.S.-China diplomatic storm may have been disabled after an aggressive Chinese fighter pilot flew too close beneath the Navy EP-3 and was sucked by turbulent air currents against the belly of the larger aircraft, Defense Department officials said Thursday.

Piecing together the possible causes of the midair collision from what they acknowledge was limited evidence, Pentagon officials speculated that the fighter pilot may have lost control after flying as close as 10 feet to the American plane in an effort to intimidate its crew.

The collision probably smashed the Chinese F-8's cockpit and threw off debris that damaged the EP-3's propellers, nose cone and flaps, officials said.

They acknowledged that their analysis was partly guesswork, based on the appearance of the damaged aircraft in photos from China, on a brief radio conversation with the American pilot just after the collision, and their knowledge of recent U.S. reconnaissance flights in the region.

U.S. officials have not had a conversation about the accident with the 24 U.S. crew members, who were detained by the Chinese after their crippled plane landed on Hainan island in southern China shortly after the incident Sunday morning.

The U.S. description of the events differs radically from the version offered by the Chinese, who say the collision took place when the U.S. plane suddenly veered into their smaller aircraft.

The events that led to the collision have become a major international issue. The Chinese have demanded an apology, and American officials have replied that none is warranted, although they have expressed regret over the apparent death of the pilot of the F-8. U.S. officials insist that although the EP-3 was eavesdropping on Chinese military operations, it was in international airspace and proceeding in full accord with international rules.

U.S. defense officials say they strongly believe that the U.S. plane was flying straight and level, as it customarily does throughout its missions. They say the EP-3's last turn occurred a little less than 10 minutes before the collision--a U-turn away from the Chinese coast and toward Okinawa, Japan, where its flight originated.

U.S. officials and military pilots say the F-8's maneuvers were dangerous not only because of the proximity of the EP-3, but also because it is difficult to maneuver a high-speed fighter jet while trying to shadow a much slower propeller-driven aircraft such as the EP-3.

The F-8 pilot who was lost, Wang Wei, was well known by U.S. fliers to be especially aggressive in encounters over recent months with American reconnaissance planes, defense officials said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said Wang had a record of flying close alongside U.S. planes that the pilot felt were intruding on Chinese airspace.

"It appears to me on this occasion he simply exceeded his grasp," said Lugar, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees.

Another member of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), described the Chinese flier as a "cowboy" who regularly tried to create turbulence that would toss the U.S. planes around.

"This pilot . . . even flew next to our pilots and showed them his e-mail address, to show you what kind of a hot-dog pilot he was," Roberts said in an interview with Associated Press.

U.S. officials said that Chinese fliers try to divert U.S. spy planes from their paths by flying in front of them and pushing their tails side to side in a signal for the American crew to change course.

But when the U.S. planes remain on course, the Chinese switch to bolder tactics.

Often, the Chinese pilots hover beneath the U.S. planes, taking pictures with still and video cameras, then blast forward at top speed to alarm the American fliers and jar their planes with the ensuing turbulence.

But officials and military pilots say these close-range maneuvers are especially risky near an EP-3 because the plane is a notably "dirty" aircraft--that is, surrounded by turbulence that could contribute to a collision.

"The big plane can suck you right into it," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a former commander of Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. "You've got to be really careful."

Under international rules for such "intercept" encounters, military aircraft are supposed to stay at least 200 feet apart, McInerney noted.

The American EP-3 pilot, in his brief distress call, reported that the underside of the aircraft had been struck and damaged.

The collision was probably no more than a glancing blow, defense officials said. Nonetheless, it disabled the outer of two engines on the EP-3's left wing, damaged the inner propeller on the right wing and lopped off the plane's nose cone. The collision also damaged the flaps, which are control surfaces on the trailing edges of the wings that are used to generate more lift or to slow the airplane.

Chinese officials say Wang was able to eject from the F-8.

But the Pentagon said the damage to the underside of the EP-3 may mean that the cockpit of the Chinese jet was crushed, making it impossible for Wang to eject and sending the plane into a spin.

The collision was nearly catastrophic to the U.S. plane as well, defense officials said. The damage to the propellers probably caused intense vibration, and damage to the flaps would have caused the pilot to fear that he could lose control of the craft, officials said.

The loss of the nose cone meant that the plane had lost its airspeed indicator, they said.

Landing safely was "a considerable piece of airmanship," Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday.

After landing on Hainan island, the American pilot radioed home that "we are being met by armed Chinese," an official said. The pilot did not give any further details of the collision.

Though Chinese fighters had become increasingly bold in recent months, U.S. officials said they never considered adding fighter escorts to the reconnaissance missions. It could have escalated the confrontations, they said, and would have been diplomatically questionable, since the two nations are not at war.

The U.S. reaction to the aggressive intercepts had been confined to diplomatic efforts, which had little effect, officials said.

Current and former military pilots say there is no point in a reconnaissance plane trying any quick evasive maneuvers, as suggested by the Chinese description of events Sunday, because there is no chance the plane could elude the far faster fighter jet.

"The best you can do is be slow and deliberate, so they know what you're going to do and there's less risk of accident," said one pilot, who asked not to be identified.

Pentagon officials said they believe that the Chinese may have begun interrogating the 24 crew members. Yet they said that the 21 men and three women aren't under wartime rules that would require them to limit disclosure to their name, rank and serial number.

They also wouldn't be subject to U.S. miliary discipline on their return for disclosing information under those circumstances, one official said.


U.S. defense officials speculate that a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane because the jet was flying too close beneath the larger plane. It is common for jets to scramble to monitor reconnaissance flights. Here's a look at what the Pentagon thinks might have occurred:

  1. As it is about to make a U-turn off China's coast, the EP-3 is joined by a Chinese F-8 jet.
  2. The F-8 flies directly beneath the EP-3, coming within 10 to 20 feet of the plane's belly.
  3. Turbulence from the larger EP-3 causes the jet to be pulled toward it.
  4. After colliding with the EP-3, the jet breaks up and its debris damages the EP-3. The F-8 plunges into the ocean and the EP-3 lands on Hainan island.

Sources: Staff reports, "Jane's Electronic Mission Aircraft"