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U.S. Spy Plane Returns to Home Soil

Aired July 5, 2001 - 07:17   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to bring live coverage right now of the Russian jet landing at Dobbins Air Force Base, if we can get a picture of that. We're expecting, at any moment now, in the skies, landing at Dobbins Air Force Base with the fuselage of the EP-3 on board.

Marty Savidge standing by there -- Marty, what do you see?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, what we are looking at is, in the distance the Antonov-124. This is the Russian aircraft that was determined to be the sort of post-aircraft that would deliver the EP-3, which is inside the cargo bay, and bring it back to the Lockheed Martin facility. Lockheed Martin is the original constructor of that airplane.

And so the arrival of this aircraft here brings to an end what had been a very sometimes mysterious and frustrating saga for this surveillance aircraft, ever since it had the run-in with the Chinese fighter plane off of the Chinese coast back on April 1.

Now, you may be wondering why a Russian cargo plane was used for all of this. The U.S. has the C-5. That's a very large cargo plane. It was very capable of handling the EP-3, the fuselage -- at least when it came to size. However, you have to remember, there's a great deal of sensitivity involved here between the United States and China. The Chinese were quite clear that they did not want the EP-3 flying off on its own power. That's why the plane was broken into pieces.

They also made it clear that they did not need another U.S. military aircraft on Hainan Island. And so it was determined that the Russian cargo plane, the Antonov-124, was very suitable for the task. The C-5 is very close in size to the Antonov-124. The Antonov is said to be the largest aircraft in the world.

So it's now getting into its landing position, as it moves over Dobbins Air Reserve Base here and gets into a position where it will be landing. Now, once it does, it will touch down, use just about all of the runway, and then taxi into position at a hanger where there is another EP-3, where the parts are going to be used, very much like you might look at a human transplant. The EP-3 is standing by to the donor aircraft.

LIN: That's right, Marty. I understand they're planning on trying to put this -- at least the part of this fuselage back in service.

Let's bring in Major Garrett now, who's standing by at the White House and watching these pictures along with us.

Major, President Bush and the administration has been relatively calm about this fuselage and plane parts coming back to the United States. Why is that?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Carol, the White House had always been very quietly confident that it could work out with the Chinese government the eventual return of the plane. Yes, there were several hitches.

At first, you'll recall, the Chinese government said the United States had to pay and would have to take the plane off on a barge. Then the United States said: There's going to be no payment. We're not going to bring a barge in there. There's got to be another way.

Well, they were able to work it out. And the White House has always believed that that would eventually occur, and occur more or less on terms amenable to both sides.

The White House has not wanted to be triumphant about the return of this plane. What they want to do, as Martin accurately pointed out, is have it repaired, put it back into service. And what the White House really wants to focus on is the larger issue of just how much this entire EP-3 episode has damaged U.S./Chinese relations.

On the one hand, surveillance flights along the south China coast have resumed and the United States proceeded with weapons sales to Taiwan, which the Chinese government objected to. Those sales were approved right after the EP-3 crisis was resolved. On trade, another huge issue between the two countries, the United States has been a little bit more conciliatory, still backing China's ascension to the World Trade Organization. And again this summer, this White House will ask Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations for China.

But there are other issues. Of course, human rights remain the dominant concern. The United States is quietly pressing the case of four U.S.-based scholars held in China on espionage charges. But that has not obscured it or prevented the United States from at least allowing or not objecting to China's request to host the Summer Olympics in 2008 -- so the United States still reviewing all issues between the United States and China -- and on this day, the White House not trying to be triumphant at all about the return of this plane, just considering it part of ordinary business, something they expected would happen all along -- Carol.

Major, very quickly, President Bush still plans on traveling to Beijing in the fall?

GARRETT: Yes, he is scheduled to attend the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Shanghai. And then he has also accepted an invitation to travel from there on to Beijing.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Major Garrett, standing by at the White House.

Marty Savidge out at Dobbins Air Force Base, where right now we are looking at a live picture of this Russian cargo jet about to land there with the -- holding the fuselage of the EP-3 plane.

So, Marty, you were saying they plan on actually rebuilding this plane and putting it back into service?

SAVIDGE: Yes, it's a project that is expected to take several months. They hope to have the plane back in service by the end of the year. And it's also going to take several million dollars -- the budget coming in just under about $10 million to get it all back together.

But there you see as the huge cargo plane now just a few feet away from touching down at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Now, that's where the rubber hits the pavement.

LIN: Marty, how big is this Russian cargo jet?

SAVIDGE: Well -- we'll pause just for the jets to go by.

The aircraft itself -- and you'll actually get a very interesting picture eventually -- is only slightly bigger than the Galaxy C-5, which is the American's largest cargo plane. And, in fact, there has been some joking that's been made about this particular aircraft. The An-124 is referred to by NATO as the Condor. It is also likely referred to as the C-5ski, implying that it was very much a copy of the C-5 that was made by the Ukrainian company Antonov.

And the 124 will march -- or actually line up right next to the C-5. And you'll get a very good idea of the perspective. Volume wise in the interior, the C-5 is actually bigger. Overall lengthwise, and if you measured the plane from the outside, the AN-124 is the larger of the aircraft. It also has a very unique feature in that it has the ability to open not only at the front with the nose, but also the tail lifts in the rear and that allows for easy access to load on and load off material.

You will see, though, the EP-3 here being unloaded. As we've talked about already, there has been a great deal of sensitivity on this whole subject. And the U.S. Navy has determined that enough has been shown about the EP-3 in pieces. And they don't want to fuel those fires anymore. So what we will be allowed to show you is the landing, the taxiing of the AN-124. And then once it's in position, we are told after that we politely will be shown the door and the aircraft will be unloaded without the cameras watching.

LIN: Well, Marty, have the American investigators ever really been able to access how much information the Mainland Chinese were able to decipher from the parts of the EP-3?

SAVIDGE: Well, that's one of the things we talked to Lockheed Martin about: As they glue this plane back together, will they also be trying to decipher exactly how much information, whether any equipment was actually retained by the Chinese? Lockheed Martin says that's not their primary task. Their job is to put this plane back into service. However, you can bet that there will be some people going over this aircraft while that is done, exactly trying to ascertain how much information may have been gleamed from this aircraft. So that is something they're going to be looking at. They just don't talk about that publicly at this point.

LIN: All right, Martin Savidge, standing by there at Dobbins Air Force Base while we watch the plane taxi down the runway.

Marty, we want to try to get back to you before you do get kicked out of there and they unload the fuselage -- but back to the White House right now -- Major Garrett standing by there.

Major, President Bush actually benefited politically from this controversy in his poll numbers.

GARRETT: Well, it's -- that's really true, Carol.

You know, this was the first test. The White House took care never to call it a crisis, but it was clearly this White House's first test on the international stage. And many in the White House -- and, of course, many in the country -- applauded how the president handled it, successfully bringing the crew home after a relatively short episode of captivity on Hainan Island.

And right after that, the president of the United States received a boost in his popularity -- his popularity numbers in some polls rising up to about 62 or 63 percent. That's the upside of resolving the EP-3 episode.

The downside, of course, in politics, when you have a marker that high, sometimes if you slip a little bit from that people say: Oh, your poll numbers are falling. And the White House is trapped in that sort of situation right now. What the White House said at the time was: Look, we've handled this situation well. We did the right thing. This increase in our popularity is probably going to be short- lived. We're probably still at around 55 or 56 percent, but we'll take that rise up to 62 percent.

But now, as the numbers have dipped much closer to 50, some people are saying: Well look, you've fallen almost 10 or 12 points.

What the White House says is: Well, now wait a minute. Wait a minute. We told you that was a false high. And we have really only fallen maybe three or four points.

So it all depends, in politics, on your perspective. Right now the White House is not in a panic mode about where the president's popularity is. They're glad this episode was resolved, glad the president got a little bit of a temporary boost out of it and are marshalling on -- marching on trying to keep the poll numbers and the policy the way they want it -- Carol.

LIN: Sure, well they've got 3 1/2 more years in office, so why not. All right, we want to get back to Marty Savidge there before the plane finishes its taxiing.

Marty, what do you expect to see next there?

SAVIDGE: Well, actually one of the interesting things that is going to take place is that this aircraft and the EP-3 inside has to actually clear customs. The plane did touch down in Hawaii. There was some preliminary customs work that was done there, but there are other documents that have to be signed here. And there are U.S. customs agents that are standing by to do a cursory check and look over the aircraft, make sure everything that they say is there is there. And then the plane will be formally cleared to be unloaded.

Something else that should be pointed out, despite the fact -- and the irony, maybe -- that the Navy's most sensitive aircraft is being flown on board a Russian plane, something you never would have figured about 15 years ago, it has always been accompanied by U.S. Navy personnel. In fact, there is someone who is seated in the cargo plane or in the cargo area of this huge plane for the entire flight, basically babysitting and making sure that no one tampers with that aircraft while it's being transported.

So now you see it moving in a position where it will eventually be unloaded and repaired.

LIN: Oh, and certainly in that shot, you get a real perspective on its size.

Thank you very much, Martin Savidge, for carrying our coverage out of Dobbins Air Force Base.



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