Homecoming greets U.S. surveillance plane crew
WHIDBEY ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION, Washington (CNN) -- The crew of a Navy surveillance plane arrived at the aircraft's base Saturday for the first time since colliding with a Chinese fighter jet and being detained by Chinese authorities.
Crew members were to attend a welcome ceremony at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state.
The 24 servicemen and women arrived at Whidbey on a C-9 transport from Hawaii, where they had been undergoing debriefs on their 12-day ordeal for two days.
The C-9 landed after making a triumphant fly-by of the airfield, signifying the end of a successful mission.
With a crowd of family members and Navy sailors and brass just a short distance away, the crew members exited the aircraft to loud and emotional cheers.
The EP-3E's pilot, Navy Lt. Shane Osborn, was the first off the plane, walking across a red carpet and shaking hands with dignitaries standing on the tarmac.
Emotional hugs and kisses prompted more cheering from the crowd as crew members were reunited with their spouses and children.
Many of the crew's loved ones greeted crew members wearing yellow ribbons and waving American flags.
Before their departure, the pilot of the surveillance plane -- which collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter and successfully performed an emergency landing in Chinese territory on April 1 -- held a news conference.
"I want to thank America, the administration and everyone involved in getting us home so quickly," Osborn said. "It was a surprise and we're all glad to be back. We can all be proud of this crew."
Osborn also said the U.S. crew "did it right" and owed the Chinese no apologies.
Answering questions from reporters with a plane dubbed "The City of Seattle" waiting behind him, Osborn described what happened when his Navy reconnaissance plane and the Chinese F-8 collided over the South China Sea on April 1. (read full story)
"The first thing I thought was, 'This guy just killed us,'" Osborn said.
As his aircraft fell into a steep, nose-down dive, Osborn and his crew struggled to regain control -- and saw the Chinese pilot parachute away from his jet as it broke apart.
"I remember looking up and seeing water," he said. "I also saw another plane smoking toward the Earth with flames coming out of it."
China dropped its search for the missing pilot, Wang Wei, earlier on Saturday.
Search for Chinese pilot ends
Intense diplomatic negotiations secured the release of the 24-member crew on Wednesday, 11 days after the April 1 collision forced the Navy EP-3E Aries II aircraft to make an emergency landing in China and sent the Chinese jet into the South China Sea.
Chinese officials gave up the search for their pilot, Wang Wei, on Saturday, but lionized him as a hero of national defense.
U.S. officials, however, blame the crash on Wang, saying he buzzed too close to the lumbering EP-3, clipping a propeller with his jet's tail. The Chinese F-8 broke apart and crashed into the sea, and the U.S. plane limped to Lingshui military base on Hainan, about 60 miles away.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld released videotapes on Friday of what he said were earlier close encounters between Chinese fighters and EP-3s. Rumsfeld said the tactics have been on the increase in recent months. (click here to watch)
"The F-8 pilot clearly put at risk the lives of 24 Americans," Rumsfeld said. "It was clear the pilot's intent was to harass the crew."
China rejects U.S. version
But Chinese officials said the videotapes proved nothing and accused the U.S. of trying to avoid responsibility for their own actions.
"The U.S. side should take a cooperative attitude and not seek excuses to evade responsibility," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said.
The state-run Xinhua news agency cited Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue as saying that U.S. officials "confuse right and wrong and even falsely accuse the Chinese side."
"We have enough evidence to prove that it was the U.S. plane that violated flight rules by suddenly veering in a wide angle at the Chinese plane in normal flight, rammed into and damaged it, resulting in the loss of the Chinese pilot," Zhang said.
"After the collision, the U.S. spy plane intruded into China's airspace and landed at a Chinese airport without permission from the Chinese side," she said. "These facts are manifest, and we have irrefutable evidence that the U.S. side cannot deny."
In a letter that secured the EP-3 crew's release, the United States said that it was "very sorry" for both the loss of life and that the pilot of the Navy plane had been unable to secure clearance to land in China as he brought his crippled plane to safety.
Both sides kept up a steady flow of rhetoric as a prelude to a meeting, probably in Beijing on Wednesday, to discuss the incident and the possible return of the American plane, still on the ground on China's Hainan Island.
High on China's agenda for the meeting is a demand that the United States stop reconnaissance flights near its coasts like the one that ended with the collision. The United States, which has temporarily suspended the flights, has said ending them altogether is out of the question.
The EP-3, the U.S. said, was on a level and steady flight plan over international waters at the time of the accident.
The United States wants the $100 million plane returned, in part to determine what, if any, secrets the Chinese may have gotten from it. The plane's crew destroyed much -- but not all -- of the sensitive equipment and data aboard before they were taken into custody.
CNN Correspondents Martin Savidge and Mike Boettcher contributed to this report.
Navy plane crew colleagues prepare homecoming celebration
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