Hainan Island incident
|Hainan Island incident|
The damaged EP-3 on the ground on Hainan Island
|2 J-8IM aircraft||1 EP-3E SIGINT aircraft|
|Casualties and losses|
|1 J-8 destroyed
1 pilot missing, assumed dead
|1 EP-3E damaged and captured
24 aircrew captured and detained
On April 1, 2001, the Hainan Island incident occurred when a mid-air collision between a United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft and a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet resulted in an international dispute between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China.
The EP-3 was operating about 70 miles (110 km) away from the PRC island province of Hainan, and about 100 miles (160 km) away from the Chinese military installation in the Paracel Islands, when it was intercepted by two J-8 fighters. A collision between the EP-3 and one of the J-8s caused the death of a PRC pilot, and the EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The 24 crew members were detained and interrogated by the Chinese authorities until a statement was delivered by the United States government regarding the incident. The exact phrasing of this document was intentionally ambiguous and allowed both countries to save face while defusing a potentially volatile situation between militarily strong regional states.
This sea area includes the South China Sea Islands, which are claimed by the PRC and several other countries. It is one of the most strategically sensitive areas in the world. The United States and the People's Republic of China disagree on the legality of the overflights by U.S. naval aircraft of the area where the incident occurred. This part of the South China Sea comprises part of the PRC's exclusive economic zone based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Chinese claim that Paracel Island belong to China (This and similar claims have been persistently contested by Vietnam, the Phillipines, and international observers). The PRC interprets the Convention as allowing it to preclude other nations' military operations within this area, but the United States does not recognize China's claim over the Paracel Island and maintains that the Convention grants free navigation for all countries' aircraft and ships, including military aircraft and ships, within a country's exclusive economic zone.
A PRC Sukhoi Su-27 force is based at Hainan. The island also houses a large signals intelligence facility which tracks U.S. activity in the area and monitors traffic from commercial communications satellites. As early as May 22, 1951, Hainan was targeted at the behest of U.S. Naval Intelligence for RAF photo-reconnaissance overflights, using Spitfire PR Mk 19s based at Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong.
In the air
The EP-3 (BuNo 156511), assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1, "World Watchers"), had taken off as Mission PR32 from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. At about 09:15 local time, toward the end of the EP-3's six-hour ELINT mission, two Chinese J-8s from Lingshui airfield, on the Chinese island of Hainan, approached the EP-3 as it flew at 22,000 feet (6,700 m) and 180 knots (210 mph), on a heading of 110°, about 70 miles (110 km) away from the island. One of the J-8s (81192), piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3. On the third pass, it collided with the larger aircraft. The J-8 broke into two pieces; the EP-3's radome detached completely and its No. 1 (outer left) propeller was severely damaged. Airspeed and altitude data were lost, the aircraft depressurized, and an antenna became wrapped around the tailplane. The J-8's tail fin struck the EP-3's left aileron forcing it fully upright, and causing the U.S. aircraft to roll to the left at 3-4 times its normal maximum rate.
The impact sent the EP-3 into a 30° dive at a bank angle of 130°, almost inverted. It dropped 8,000 feet (2,400 m) in 30 seconds, and fell another 6,000 feet (1,800 m) before the pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, got the EP-3's wings level and the nose up. In a September 2003 article in Naval Aviation News, Osborn said that once he regained control of the aircraft he "called for the crew to prepare to bail out." He then managed to control the aircraft's descent by using emergency power on the working engines, such that an emergency landing on Hainan became a possibility.
For the next 26 minutes the crew of the EP-3 carried out an emergency plan which included destroying sensitive items on board the aircraft, such as electronic equipment related to intelligence gathering, documents and data. Part of this plan involved pouring freshly brewed hot coffee into disk drives and motherboards.
The EP-3 made an unauthorized emergency landing at Lingshui airfield, after at least 15 distress signals had gone unanswered, with the emergency code selected on the transponder. It landed at 170 knots (200 mph), with no flaps, no trim, and a damaged left elevator, weighing 108,000 pounds (49,000 kg). Following the collision, the failure of the nose cone had disabled the No. 3 (inner right) engine, and the No. 1 propeller could not be feathered, leading to increased drag on that side. There was no working airspeed indicator or altimeter, and Osborn used full right aileron during the landing. The surviving Chinese interceptor had landed there 10 minutes earlier.
Lt. Cdr. Wang was seen to eject after the collision, but the Pentagon said that the damage to the underside of the EP-3 could mean that the cockpit of the Chinese fighter jet was crushed, making it impossible for the pilot to survive. Wang's body was never recovered, and he was declared dead.
Cause of collision
Both the cause of the collision and the assignment of blame were disputed. The American government claimed that the Chinese jet bumped the wing of the larger, slower, and less maneuverable EP-3. After returning to U.S. soil, the pilot of the EP-3, Lt. Shane Osborn, was allowed to make a brief statement in which he said that the EP-3 was on autopilot and in straight-and-level flight at the time of the collision. He stated that he was just "guarding the autopilot" in his interview with Frontline. The U.S. released video footage from previous missions which revealed that American reconnaissance crews had previously been intercepted by Lt. Cdr. Wang. During one such incident, he was shown approaching so close that his e-mail address could be read from a sign that he was holding up. Based on the account of Wang Wei's wingman, the Chinese government stated that the American aircraft "veered at a wide angle towards the Chinese", in the process ramming the J-8. This claim cannot be verified since the Chinese government refuses to release data from the flight recorders of either aircraft, both of which are in its possession.
On the ground
For 15 minutes after landing, the EP-3 crew continued to destroy sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, as per Department of Defense protocol. They disembarked from the aircraft after soldiers looked through windows, pointed guns, and shouted through bullhorns. The Chinese offered them water and cigarettes. Kept under close guard, they were taken to a military barracks at Lingshui where they were interrogated for two nights before being moved to lodgings in Haikou, the provincial capital and largest city on the island. They were treated well in general, but were interrogated at all hours, and so suffered from lack of sleep. They found the Chinese food unpalatable as it included fish heads, but this later improved. Guards gave them decks of cards and an English-language newspaper. To pass the time and keep spirits up, Lts. Honeck and Vignery worked up humorous routines based on the television shows The People's Court, Saturday Night Live and The Crocodile Hunter. These were performed as they went to meals, the only time they were together. They gradually developed good relations with their guards, with one guard inquiring of them the lyrics for the song "Hotel California" by the Eagles.
Three U.S. diplomats were sent to Hainan to meet the crew and assess their conditions, and to negotiate their release. They were first allowed to meet with the crew three days after the collision. U.S. officials complained at the slow pace of the Chinese decision.
The 24 crew members (21 men and 3 women) were detained until April 11, shortly after the U.S. issued the "letter of the two sorries" to the Chinese. The Chinese military boarded the EP-3 and thoroughly stripped and examined the aircraft's equipment. Reliable sources have speculated that the crew were only partially successful in their destruction of the on-board data and technology, although no official information has been released.
Letter of the two sorries
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The "Letter of the two sorries" was the letter delivered by the United States Ambassador Joseph Prueher to Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan of the People's Republic of China to defuse the incident. The delivery of the letter led to the release of the U.S. crew from Chinese custody, as well as the eventual return of the disassembled aircraft.
The letter stated that the United States was "very sorry" for the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, and was "very sorry" the aircraft entered China's airspace and that its landing did not have "verbal clearance".
The United States stated that it was "not a letter of apology," as some state-run Chinese media outlets characterized it at the time, but "an expression of regret and sorrow". China had originally asked for an apology, but the U.S. explained, "We did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize."
There was further debate over the exact meaning of the Chinese translation issued by the U.S. Embassy. A senior administration official was quoted as saying "What the Chinese will choose to characterize as an apology, we would probably choose to characterize as an expression of regret or sorrow."
The crew of the EP-3 was released on April 11, 2001, and returned to their base at Whidbey Island via Honolulu, Hawaii, where they were subject to two days of intense debriefings, followed by a heroes' welcome. The pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for "heroism and extraordinary achievement" in flight. The J-8 pilot, Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, was posthumously honored in China as a "Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters". His widow received a personal letter of condolence from President George W. Bush.
U.S. Navy engineers said the EP-3 could be repaired in 8–12 months, but China refused to allow it to be flown off Hainan island. The disassembled aircraft was released on July 3, 2001, and was returned to the United States by the Russian airline Polet in an Antonov An-124.
In addition to paying for the dismantling and shipping of the EP-3, the United States paid for the 11 days of food and lodging supplied by the Chinese government to the aircraft's crew, in the amount of $34,567.89. The Chinese had demanded one million dollars compensation from the U.S. for the lost J-8 and their pilot, but this was declined and no further negotiations were held.
The incident took place ten weeks after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president and was his first foreign policy crisis. Both sides were criticized following the event; the Chinese for making a bluff which was called without any real concessions from the American side other than the "Letter of the two sorries", and the Americans first for being insensitive immediately after the event and later for issuing the letter rather than taking a harder line.
Following the collision, China's monitoring of reconnaissance flights became less aggressive for a period of time. As of 2011, flights of U.S. surveillance aircraft near the Chinese coastline continued as before the incident.
Hainan is currently the home of the PLAN Hainan Submarine Base, an underground facility capable of supporting nuclear ballistic missile submarines. In March 2009, the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy, was on several occasions approached by Chinese ships and aircraft while operating 75 miles (121 km) south of Hainan; in actions Pentagon officials characterized as "aggressive" and "harassment." In August 2014, the U.S. protested when a Chinese Shenyang J-11BH came within 10 meters (30 ft) of a patrolling Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft and performed acrobatic maneuvers including a barrel roll. In May, 2016, the U.S. protested when two Chinese Shenyang J-11BH aircraft reportedly came within 15 meters (50 ft) of a U.S. EP-3 on "a routine" patrol approximately 50 miles (80 km) east of Hainan Island, China responded by demanding an end to U.S. surveillance near China.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Hainan Island incident.|
- CNN article covering the incident early on
- BBC article
- Frontline interview with the EP-3 pilot, Shane Osborn
- Chinese CCTV Media Coverage in Chinese
- 10 years on