View Full Version : China incident crew pick up

23rd Apr 2001, 05:00
A Bit long but interesting reading !!

April 12, 2001
By Captain Guy Greider
Continental Airlines
Since the mid-air collision on April 1,2001 between a U.S. Navy EP-3
surveillance aircraft and a Chinese jet fighter, I had watched the news with
mild interest. This was mostly due to the proximity of Guam to China. I
never dreamed that I would playa role in this intensely watched international
Somewhere in the negotiations between the United States and the Chinese
Governments, it was decided that a civilian aircraft should be sent to
retrieve the 24 crew members being detained on Hainan Island, China.
A call was made to Continental Airlines headquarters in Houston, Texas.
Continental was chosen because of its Guam base and its ability to launch
this kind of operation at a moments notice. From there, the operation took
shape through the tireless efforts of many people working behind the scenes
in a coordinated effort between the airline, the military, and the State
On Saturday, April 7, 2001, I received a call at home from Captain Ralph
Freeman, Continental Micronesia Director of Flight Operations. Ralph told me
that the military wanted to charter one of our jets to conduct a rescue
mission and asked if I would be one of the crew members. I said yes without
Later we were told that we would need to get passport pictures taken in case
the Chinese Government required visas. We got the required photos and were
under the impression that we would leave immediately. However, the
negotiations slowed over the demand from the Chinese that the U.S. issue an
apology that the U.S. was unwilling to give. Meanwhile, the Continental crew
remained on call 24 hours a day. Our Uniforms were laid out and our bags
were packed and waiting by the door
On Wednesday evening April 11, 2001, at about 630 PM Ralph called again to
say that the two parties were very close to an agreement to release the U.S.
crew and to come to the airport. Upon arrival, we were given a briefing
sheet listing the information that we would need to conduct the flight.
We would carry a Repatriation Team consisting of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air
Force specialists, 14 people in all. Doctors, Psychologists, and
communications people with lots of gear showed up on the ramp near the
airplane, ready to board. They were all dressed in casual civilian clothes.
The 155 seat jet was fitted with 2 full stretcher kits bolted in over rows of
seats complete with Oxygen tanks and I.V. bottles. They did not know the
condition of the 24 detained crew members and they were not going to take any
chances. They were prepared.
When our crew was fully assembled, it consisted of 11 people. 2 pilots to
fly the jet and an extra to provide relief because of the extensive flight
time involved. They were Captain Tom Pinardo, Captain Pierre Frenay and I.
We also carried 5 very experienced Flight Attendants.
They were Debbie Percell, Susanne Hendricks, Jean Tang, Cynthia Iverson, and
Beverly Haines. Our 2 onboard mechanics were Peter Lum and Julius Aguilo.
Our load planner was Mike Torres.
At about 930 PM we received a call asking that we arrive in China no earlier
than 600 AM, just about sunrise. It was obvious that the entire exchange
would be photographed and they wanted day light conditions.
We estimated that a 215 AM departure from Guam would put us on the ground in
Haikou precisely at 600 AM local China time. (2 hours earlier than Guam)
Some of us just stayed on the plane, others accepted the company's invitation
to come to the Continental Presidents Club, a local VIP lounge at the airport
to try to get some rest. It was difficult to get any rest with our much
anticipated mission so near
By 100 AM the pilots were back in the briefing room going over the weather,
flight plan, fuel requirements and everything else that goes into a flight.
Again, we loaded up the airplane and finally departed Guam International at
precisely 215 AM.
The stretcher kits and medical gear were not the only special additions to
the airplane. The company had loaded a special file into the navigation
database of the flight management computer (FMC). This allowed us to gain
access to navigation data needed to operate in this part of China, which is
not in our normal route structure. The Repatriation Team carried
sophisticated equipment to communicate with the military and government
officials that would monitor our progress throughout the flight.
The route of flight took us straight west from Guam toward the Philippines
along the G467 airway. About half way across we turned north directly toward
Hong Kong. This routing was designed to avoid flying through Taiwanese
airspace, something that the Chinese could consider offensive.
Approaching the Chinese coastline, we contacted Hong Kong radar control.
After establishing radar contact with us, the controller gave us a short cut
to expedite his traffic flow. This was bad because it cut off considerable
distance and would result in arriving too early. We compensated by slowing
our airspeed until the computer again estimated a 600 AM arrival. The
instant we turned across the short cut, the inter phone rang from the back of
the plane. They wanted to know why we had deviated from the flight plan. We
told them it was due to Hong Kong traffic and that we had adjusted our
airspeed. We were still on schedule.
Now we were approaching our destination, Haikou airport on Hainan Island.
Captain Pierre Frenay was at the controls. The weather was 2000 ft overcast
with 5 miles visibility and light winds out of the east
Pierre made an ILS approach to and landed on runway 9. Haikou airport is
much the same as many other airports in the world that serve jet transport
aircraft. It has an 11,000-ft runway with standard lighting and navigational
facilities. We touched down at 607 AM. The first early morning light was
beginning to illuminate the sky. The local air traffic controller instructed
us to follow a vehicle that was beside us on an adjacent taxiway. He led us
to a remote part of the airport, away from the main terminal buildings.
Once we had parked and shut down the engines, we saw many uniformed Chinese
military personnel and vehicles. They did not appear to have weapons.
Portable stairs were brought up to the airplane and we opened the main cabin
The Repatriation Team that we carried had been briefed to close down all of
their communications equipment prior to landing and put it away.
They were also briefed to remain in their seats in a non-threatening posture
in case the Chinese military came aboard. The first and only person to come
aboard was an Air China employee. He spoke English and was to act as the
translator between our group and the Chinese military. He instructed us to
have everyone fill out both arrival and departure documents. He collected
all of our passports and left the aircraft.
Before he left, he said that only one person at a time would be allowed to
deplane. Peter Lum, one of our mechanics went down to supervise the
re-fueling and servicing of the airplane. When that was complete, I went
down to do the walk-around inspection. I did this rather slowly because I
wanted to have a chance to look around. While I was out on the ramp, a
skirmish developed between people who were trying to climb a wall to
photograph our aircraft and the Chinese police. Somehow, CNN managed to
carry our arrival and departure live
Once the airplane was serviced and ready to go, we looked anxiously around
for any sign of the buses that carried our 24 detainees. Before that could
happen however, we had a problem to deal with. A U.S. military General who
was on the scene to assist in the transfer came storming up the stairs and
demanded to speak with the Captain. Tom Pinardo responded. The General said
that the entire mission was now in jeopardy. A document called the general
declaration, which is standard on all international flights, had listed the
destination as Haikou, China R.O.C. The initials ROC stand for Republic of
China which is .. Taiwan! The Chinese were very upset over this. Tom
quickly crossed out ROC and replaced it with P.R.O.C., the Peoples Republic
of China. This seemed to satisfy them.
With the airplane ready to go and the paperwork complete, 2 buses pulled up
and the 24 U.S. service men and women saluted as they bolted up the stairs
and settled into the back of the plane. When the last one was aboard, our
passports were returned to us. The stairs were withdrawn, the cabin door
closed, and we started the engines and departed. It was my turn at the
Once airborne heading straight south we broke through the clouds into the
bright sunshine. Pierre made a PA announcement that we were over
international waters and leaving Chinese airspace. A great cheer rose from
the back of the airplane. A short while later we received a telephone patch
over the HF radio from Mr. Joseph Prueher, U.S. Ambassador to China. He
wanted to speak with Lt. Shane Osborne the 26 year old EP-3 Aircraft
Commander. Lt. Osborne came to the cockpit and put on a headset. The
Ambassador told him that on behalf of the President of the United States and
the entire country he wanted to say welcome home . He went on to say how
proud he was of everything the crew had done from their airmanship in saving
the lives of the crew and aircraft, to their conduct on the ground once they
had been detained.
They had truly done an excellent job.
After his conversation with the Ambassador, Lt. Osborne stayed in the cockpit
for quite a while and told us his story pilot to pilot of what had happened
during and immediately after the mid-air collision with the F-8 Chinese
fighter. The fighter came up under their left wing. This pilot made 2 very
close passes previously that day. He apparently misjudged the intercept and
his vertical stabilizer struck the outboard left propeller on the EP-3. The
U.S. plane was in straight and level flight on auto pilot at the time.
The fighter broke into two pieces and plunged into the sea. The U.S. plane
rolled to the left almost inverted, the pilot lost control and they began to
lose altitude. The Chinese fighter had raked back across the fuselage and
knocked off the nose cone causing the aircraft to buffet wildly. When the
nose cone departed the aircraft it collided with and damaged the number 4
propeller on the right wing. The collision punctured the pressure vessel and
the EP-3 depressurized. The collision also knocked off the pitot tubes
eliminating airspeed and altitude indications in the cockpit. It also
knocked off the forward bracket for the HF radio antenna. The antenna then
flew back and wrapped around the tail.
We were almost upside down and totally out of control Osborne told us.
The dive continued and some crew members donned parachutes. At about 8,000
feet, Osborne regained straight and level flight. They considered ditching
the aircraft in the South China Sea but dismissed that option because it was
certain to result in loss of life. They headed for the nearest land, Hainan
Island. The U.S. crew now faced the most difficult landing of their lives.
They made numerous mayday, mayday, mayday radio calls on internationally
recognized emergency frequencies. The Chinese did not respond. Somehow,
they managed to get the airplane on the ground.
Their next immediate task was to destroy the sensitive electronic
surveillance equipment aboard the EP-3. Meanwhile the Chinese military had
approached the aircraft in vehicles and were yelling at them through
loudspeakers to deplane. The next 11 days would be a very uncertain time for
When we met them, they told us that they had not been abused or mistreated.
Their food was adequate and plentiful. Sort of like eating in a Chinese
restaurant every day one of them said. On the forth day, they got some
coffee. On the fifth day, some cokes were provided. The crew did not know
what kind of transport would be provided for their return home. They were
pleased and surprised to see a chartered airliner from the United States.
The rest of the flight from Haikou to Anderson AFB on Guam was uneventful.
During the 5 hour flight the crew was treated to the movie Men of Honor and
enjoyed a first class meal. We did not know it at the time but our landing
at Anderson AFB was carried live on national television. We taxied to the
parking ramp at Anderson where many people had turned out to welcome all of
us home. Individuals and families with kids, both military and civilian
waved American flags and cheered, showing support for the returning U.S. spy
plane crew. Once the 24 U. S. crewmembers and the military Repatriation Team
had deplaned at Anderson, they immediately boarded waiting buses and were
whisked away.
The Continental crew then became the object of intense media attention. CNN,
MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Reuters and various print media interviewed us. A dizzying
swirl of attention after a very long day. We were happy, tired, and pleased
that the mission was so successful as Tom flew the last segment, a 10-minute
flight back to Guam International Airport. This time our passengers included
Bill Meehan, President of Continental Micronesia, Guam Governor Carl
Gutierrez, Lieutenant Governor Bordallo and others.
We thought the day was just about over but we had one more surprise in
store. After landing, we were given a heros welcome of our own. The airport
fire department was in place to give us the traditional water cannon salute,
a rainbow arch of water for us to taxi under. A reception was held at the
gate with food, balloons, commemorative plaques, and more media interviews
with the local television station.
This was very heady stuff.
As I look back on this one of a kind operation. It could not have happened
without the tremendous effort and skills of many people working behind the
scenes. Bill Meehan, Mitch Dubner at the SOCC in Houston, Tom Rinow at the
CMI SOCC, Captain Ralph Freeman, CMI Director of Flight Operations, and many
others had major rolls in coordinating this flight. It was accomplished
through teamwork. The fact that it came off without a hitch is testimony to
how well all these people did their jobs.
The exposure that Continental Airlines received over this is a marketing
managers dream come true. We will be remembered by millions of people as the
company who conducted the China Rescue Mission. This was a proud day for
Continental Airlines and for America.