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Hainan Island incident
File:EP-3 Hainan Island 2001.jpg
The damaged EP-3 on the ground on Hainan Island
DateApril 1, 2001
LocationHainan Island, People's Republic of China and the South China Sea
Result American crew detained, later released.
One Chinese J-8 pilot MIA.
 People's Republic of China United States
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, 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, called the Hainan Island incident.

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 United States government regarding the incident. The exact phrasing of this document was intentionally ambiguous and allowed both countries to save face while simultaneously defusing a potentially volatile situation between militarily strong regional states.[1][2]


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. The PRC is a signatory to this Convention and while the United States is not, according to naval officials it "operate[s]...within the provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention in every area related to navigation".[3] Part V, Article 58 of the Convention states in relation to exclusive economic zones that: "all States...enjoy...the freedoms...of navigation and overflight", but notes that "States...shall comply with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal so far as they are not incompatible with this Part."[4] The PRC interprets the Convention as allowing it to preclude other nations' military operations within this area, while the United States 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 Su-27 force is based at Hainan.[5] The island also houses a large signals intelligence facility which tracks U.S. activity in the area and monitors traffic from commercial communications satellites.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

In the air

An EP-3E of VQ-1

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,[9][10] 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, while 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. plane to roll to the left at 3-4 times its normal maximum rate.[8]

Area of the collision in the South China Sea

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.[11] In a September 2003 article in Naval Aviation News, Osborn said that once he regained control of the plane he "called for the crew to prepare to bail out."[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

Shenyang J-8 81192, the aircraft that collided with the EP-3E

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. Meanwhile, the surviving Chinese interceptor had landed there 10 minutes earlier.[14]

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.[15][16] 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.[17] 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 plane "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 black boxes of either plane, both of which are in its possession.[18][19][20][21][22]

On the ground

For 15 minutes after landing, the U.S. aircraft crew continued to destroy sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, as per Department of Defense protocol. They disembarked from the plane 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.[23]

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.[24]

The 24 crew members (21 men and three women)[25] 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 plane 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.[26]

Letter of the two sorries

The "Letter of the two sorries"[27] 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 plane.[18]

The letter stated that the United States was "very sorry" for the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei, and "We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance..."[28]

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".[2] While China had originally asked for an apology, the U.S. explained, "We did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize."[29]

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."[30]


EP-3 crew arrives at Hickam AFB in Hawaii. (Pictured saluting is U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Curtis Towne.)

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 hero's welcome.[18] The pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for "heroism and extraordinary achievement" in flight, while the J-8 pilot, Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, was posthumously honored in China as a "Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters".[18] His widow received a personal letter of condolence from President George W. Bush.[31]

By April 15, 2001 an online memorial database was created at <> and offered visitors options to send flowers, light a candle, dedicate a song, burn an incense stick, or propose a toast virtually by leaving a comment on the database (in Chinese or English). By April 21, 24,1888 posts had been made.[32]

U.S. Navy engineers said the EP-3 could be repaired in 8–12 months,[33] 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-124-100.[34]

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 $34,000. 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. Republican congressman Tom DeLay described the episode as "communist piracy" and Chinese demands for compensation as "the deluded daydreams of a despotic regime".[35][36]

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.[37]

Following the collision, China's monitoring of reconnaissance flights became less aggressive.[38] As of 2011, flights of US spy planes near the Chinese coastline continue as before the incident.[39][40]

Hainan is currently the home of the PLAN Hainan Submarine Base, an underground facility capable of supporting nuclear ballistic missile submarines.[41] 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."[42][43]

See also



  1. "War of words - George W. Bush". Retrieved September 28, 2010. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Culture and apology: The Hainan Island incident". Digital object identifier:10.1111/1467-971X.00222. 
  3. Citizens for Global Solutions, retrieved April 4, 2009
  4. "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea". United Nations. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  5. "Wuhu Airbase". Retrieved March 21, 2009. 
  6. "Lingshui Air Base". Retrieved March 21, 2009. 
  7. Peebles, Curtis, Shadow Flights: America's Secret Air War Against the Soviet Union: Presidio Press, 2001. pp. 16-18 ISBN 0-89141-768-0
  8. 8.0 8.1 Brookes 2002, p. 102
  9. "Air Forces Monthly". Stamford, Lincolnshire: Key Publishing. May 2001. p. 4. 
  10. "Air Forces Monthly". Stamford, Lincolnshire: Key Publishing. June 2001. p. 79. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 Turnbull, Jim (September–October 2003). "Lt. Shane Osborn: looking at a miracle". Naval Aviation News. Retrieved September 27, 2011. 
  12. Brookes 2002, p. 103
  13. Brookes 2002, p. 104
  14. Brookes 2002, p. 109
  15. Richter, Paul (April 6, 2001). "Chinese Plane Flew Too Close". Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  16. Brookes 2002, p. 108
  17. Frontline interview with Shane Osborn, retrieved August 28, 2009.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 Brookes 2002, p. 107
  19. "Chinese jet 'snapped in two'". BBC Online. April 13, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  20. "U.S. aircraft collides with Chinese fighter, forced to land". CNN. April 1, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  21. Richter, Paul (April 6, 2001). "Chinese Plane Flew Too Close". Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  22. Eckert, Paul (April 19, 2001). "China says video shows US plane caused crash". Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  23. Brookes 2002, p. 105
  24. "US diplomats meet with spy plane crew". London: The Independent. April 3, 2001. Retrieved March 24, 2009. 
  25. Brookes 2002, p. 101
  26. Brookes 2002, p. 110
  27. "". CNN. February 7, 2001. 
  28. Lindsey, Daryl et al. "War of words"., April 12, 2001, retrieved on March 21, 2009
  29. "Bush pleased by release of U.S. crew from China". Retrieved October 3, 2010. 
  30. "China, US agree on freeing plane crew". Taipei Times. April 12, 2001. Retrieved March 21, 2009. 
  31. "US spy crew 'in excellent health'". BBC Online. April 9, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  32. Sun, Wei; Starosta, William J. (2001). ""As heavy as Mount Taishan": A thematic analysis of Wang Wei's memorial website". p. 63. 
  33. "Spy plane might not fly home". BBC Online. May 20, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  34. "Russians to fly out spy plane". BBC Online. June 10, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  35. "China paid $34,000 over spy plane". BBC Online. August 9, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  36. "International Law and Justice Working Papers" (RTF). ILJ Working Paper. December 2006. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  37. "Chinese poker". The Economist. April 17, 2001. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  38. Ellison, Michael (July 30, 2001). "China eases spy plane surveillance". The Guardian. London. Retrieved March 13, 2009. 
  39. Martin, Dan (July 27, 2011). "China tells US to halt spy plane flights". Yahoo! News. Retrieved August 21, 2011. 
  40. Blanchard, Ben (July 27, 2011). "China protests U.S. spy flights near its coast". Reuters. Retrieved August 21, 2011. 
  41. "New Chinese SSBN Deploys to Hainan Island". Federation of American Scientists. April 24, 2008. Retrieved March 21, 2009. 
  42. "Officials: Ship in China spat was hunting subs". MSNBC. March 10, 2009. Retrieved March 28, 2009. 
  43. "Pentagon says Chinese vessels harassed U.S. ship". CNN. March 9, 2009. Retrieved August 2010. 


Further reading

  • Osborn, Shane (2001). Born to Fly: The Untold Story of the Downed American Reconnaissance Plane. Broadway. ISBN 0-7679-1111-3. 

External links

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