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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

U.S. Crew Homecoming: Crew Members Speak Out

Aired April 14, 2001 - 12:44   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DONNA KELLEY, CNN ANCHOR: Let's take you back to Hawaii: a live picture there as we get ready to hear from at least three of the 24 crew members who were held for 11 days in China, as they will do a news conference right now at Hickam Air Force Base. And then they're headed home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station this afternoon.

Our Martin Savidge is there at Hickam -- Marty.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Donna, as you can see, the crew members filing in behind us here. You have the three people that are going to speak, Shane Osborn, the pilot, chief amongst them. And then you have the crew members lining up behind them to show their support.

Let's listen.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... today. Before our crew takes off here from Hickam Air Force Base, it heads to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. We wanted to give you an opportunity to hear a few words from mission commander, Lieutenant Shane Osborn.

And after his very short words, we would then like to open it up to questions to you. What we would like to do then is, I'll go ahead and I'll call on the questioner. And we have these gentlemen with the microphones. They will bring a microphone over to you so you can ask your question. And, again, we will wrap this up at 7:00 to get them on the airplane and get them on home.

Lieutenant Osborn.

LT. SHANE OSBORN, U.S. NAVY: Good morning, everybody.

I just had a couple of comments before we open it up for questioning. First, I want to thank America, the administration and everyone involved in getting us home so quickly. It was surprising. And we're all glad to be back. We can all be proud of this crew. Even though we're two different commands, one in Naval Air Station Misawa, Japan, and one out of NAS Whidbey, we definitely operated as one unit.

And America should be very proud of these 23 airmen. They did a great job. A couple of statements I want to make before we open it up is, one, contrary to some releases, this aircraft was straight, steady, holding altitude heading away from Hainan Island on autopilot when the accident occurred. And I also want to state that the sharp left turn they're talking about is when the aircraft went out of control after the No. 1 prop was impacted in the nose.

And with that, any questions?

QUESTION: Lieutenant, what can you tell us about the crew's attempts to destroy the sensitive data on board? There's been reports that some of the crew were back there with pickaxes physically destroying equipment. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

OSBORN: Sure. The -- at first impact, the aircraft pitched up and then rolled about 130 degrees angle of bank. I lost about 7,500 feet of altitude trying to get it out of that dive. Once I rolled the wings level, I called for the bailout. We were uncontrolled, still, at that point. The prop was fairly damaged, causing lots of vibration. There was a hole in the pressure bulkhead. So we lost pressurization. My nose cone was gone. And the aircraft was hard to control.

I lost my airspeed indication due to the 'pedo tubes getting ripped off. And I wasn't quite sure of the rest of the damage at this point. We shut down the engine and could not hold altitude at 15,000 feet. It took until about 10,000 feet until it started holding altitude. At that time, I started discussing with my flight station: my senior engineer and petty officer Westbrook, who was in the seat, along with my two other co-pilots.

And we decided that we may be able to ditch, but we weren't sure at this point. So, at that point, I called for the emergency destruct plan. I can't go into any more detail than that. And I also called for the ditch. And I called up the navs (ph) to get me to the closest airfield.

QUESTION: Lieutenant, I'm sure you're aware that Washington had complained about Chinese fighters' aggressive harassment of surveillance flights in the past few months. Could you describe what happened before the collision? Was there harassment before? And also, had you experienced this on other missions?

OSBORN: Sure, I can describe that. On other missions, it was no where near this harassing, obviously. Prior to impact, there was two times when the aircraft closed within 3 to 5 feet of my aircraft.

We were definitely concerned at this point, but we were heading away. We were heading about 070, holding altitude, just keeping it steady. And I was in the right seat. My co-pilot, Lieutenant J.G. Vignery was in the left. And so I was looking across, because, at this time, we were heading away. And the aircraft were on the island side of the plane. And they were -- he would come up, close co- altitude within about 3 to 5 feet, was making gestures, pulled back a little bit, came back up again and made some more gestures.

And then, the third time, his closure rate was too far. Instead of under-running, he attempted to kind of turn and pitch up. And that was when his vertical stabilizer, where it meets the fuselage of the aircraft, impacted my No. 1 propeller, basically pretty much tearing his aircraft apart. And the front end came apart. I pitched up. And his nose hit our nose. And his tail went up, punched a hole through my aileron. That caused the -- with the drag and the hole in the aileron, that is what caused the uncontrolled roll.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

OSBORN: Previous times, they would get pretty close to us, but not near that close. And you've -- I mean, you've seen the video also, so that kind of explains a lot of it about the stability at them at those slow airspeeds; 180 knots is what we run about when we're on station. And it's pretty obvious that it's not a steady flight.

QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit about the captivity, the 11 days, and also, on the flip side of things, whether maybe you have anything nice to say about the Chinese, about the captors?

OSBORN: Sure. Captivity was -- they were polite to us and respectful. We were seen by doctors. And if anybody had any type of illness, they did bring a doctor. They obviously fed us -- fed us well. And the only unpleasant part was the interrogations and the lack of sleep.

QUESTION: What did they ask (OFF-MIKE)

OSBORN: I don't really want to get into the specific questions. Obviously, they were interested in the accident first and foremost.

QUESTION: Lieutenant, can you talk about trying to navigate this plane, trying to bring it down when you had very few navigational systems? Maybe you can bring in Nicholas Mellos to talk about that as well.

OSBORN: Sure. Sure.

QUESTION: What kind of problems were you facing and how difficult was it to get this plane on the ground?

OSBORN: Senior.

SR. CPO NICHOLAS MELLOS, U.S. NAVY: Mayhem. After the accident, and Lieutenant Osborn was trying to get the airplane under control and we were losing altitude. We pretty much, well, had our hands full trying to analyze what systems we had intact, what systems we'd lost so I could provide Lieutenant Osborn with some information.

While we were yelling cross-cockpit Petty Officer Westbrook was in his seat and I was kind of, like, in the back as a technical adviser to this whole thing watching Lieutenant Osborn, Vignery, Westbrook, Lieutenant Honeck orchestrate this thing like we've trained and trained and trained. And thank God for the training that we do every day because I'm here to tell you without it it would have been a different press conference today.

QUESTION: Lieutenant Osborn, with regard to the emergency destruct plan, were you able to destroy everything that needed to be destroyed.

OSBORN: Can't get into that. We activated the emergency destruct plan well out -- well off-shore.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

OSBORN: I don't want to talk about what happened on the ground. We were more interested in what they were going to do.

QUESTION: You mentioned the lack of sleep; how long would the Chinese question you for any period of time, and did they deprive you of sleep to question you?

OSBORN: The first night was about 4 1/2, five hours -- started in the middle of the night, hadn't been to bed in about 30 hours at that point. And then from then on it was definite lack of sleep; different wake up calls at all times. So I'd try and steal some sleep when I could.

QUESTION: In your opinion, is there anything that the U.S. has to apologize for in this incident? Or is it the other way around -- does China owe us an apology?

OSBORN: I -- my opinion on what China does or doesn't do isn't important, but I'm here to tell you we did it right. No apology is necessary on our part.

QUESTION: Sir, there's been mention that this is still considered an accident. Is there any indication among the crew that this was intentional -- to try to get the aircraft on the ground in China?

OSBORN: No. They weren't intending for this to happen. No pilot's going to put himself intentionally in an out-of-control flight and have his plane ripped apart and have to eject, obviously. Was it harassing? Yes.

QUESTION: Did you have any previous experience with this pilot? And what are the gestures you're referring to?

OSBORN: Can't really get into that. They've -- you know, we've had a past history of some aggressive intercepts, obviously, that you've seen the footage. And we can't get into specific pilot-to- pilot.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) about the pilot that is missing and presumed dead -- any thoughts about him or to his family?

OSBORN: We say a chute. His wingman RTBed -- returned to base before we even got there. And that's all I know. And then we were -- we had our hands full.

QUESTION: The Chinese say that they heard no mayday calls from you. Can you tell me: Did you make the mayday calls? How many did you make? And do you have any indication at all that they may have heard them? OSBORN: We had holes in our pressure bulkhead -- lots of wind noise due to that, and I was keeping the speed up pretty good because I had no airspeed indication. I spun up my inertia to get groundspeed indication to kind of give me a rough guess. We made at least 15 mayday calls over 243.0 guard frequency and I know we were transmitting. So I can't tell you what they heard and what they didn't because I wasn't in their tower.

QUESTION: Once you all were able to land the aircraft, what happened next? Were there any words from you and your crew there to everyone else? What was happening on the ground?

OSBORN: It was a lot of people in shock at that point. My biggest thing was to shift gears from just bringing this plane in, getting it down -- it's a pretty big relief to get it landed -- and then getting it shut down; there was someone out there ready to taxi us off and park us. And it was basically -- by the time I got the engines shut down they were already at the door wanting to talk to someone, and I wanted to be the first one to talk to them. So I didn't get a real chance to talk to the crew. I just had to go back and address them.

QUESTION: Could you tell us, first, what went through your mind when the plane struck your propeller; and second, could you and perhaps the chief give us a kind of physical picture of what was going on as you tried to get the plane stabilized and take it in?

OSBORN: OK. First thing I thought was, this guy just killed us. The plane snap-rolled to an about 130 degrees angle bank, which is getting near the inverted side. I remember looking up, seeing water when I lifted the head up. And then I also saw another plane smoking toward the earth with flames coming out of it.

And senior yelled at me, get control of it; and I had full rudder, full aileron and I wasn't getting any response, but I had about 30 degrees nose-down, so the plane was in an almost inverted dive. And as the airspeed came on the plane slowly, slowly rolled out with heavy -- serious vibration problems because that prop was still spinning with parts of it missing. Obviously out of balance. So once I got wings level, I was still very concerned and still didn't, at that point, think we were going to be able to get the plane down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK folks, that's all we're going to have time for. We want to get these good people on an airplane and on their way home. Thank you very much, and we'll have some additional opportunities when they get back home for you to talk to them.

Thank you, and thank you Lieutenant Osborn and the entire crew.

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