Air screamed through the cabin, vibrations from a twisted propeller jarred a terrified crew, and a team of pilots struggled to yank control of their plane back from gravity and sure death.
Members of the U.S. spy plane that collided with a mainland Chinese fighter described publicly for the first time Saturday how their plane disintegrated into a harrowing plunge 7,500 feet (2,250 meters) toward the South China Sea.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘This guy just killed us’,” said Lt. Shane Osborn, the plane’s commander. The collision snapped Osborn’s four engine, propeller-driven reconnaissance plane into a left twist so extreme the plane almost turned upside down, Osborn said.
“I remember looking up, seeing water,” Osborn said. He also saw what was left of the fiery mainland Chinese jet. As its pilot gestured animatedly, the mainland Chinese fighter had buzzed Osborn’s EP-3E once, then again — each time closing within 5 feet (1.5 meters). On the fighter’s third pass, impact.
“Mayhem,” is how Nicholas Mellos, senior chief petty officer, described the frantic moments.
The spy plane’s outside left propeller tomahawked the jet in half. The smaller plane’s shattered tail punched a hole in the U.S. plane’s fuselage and its front spun away and whacked off the spy plane’s nose.
The plane went into a free fall, and Osborn told his crew to put on parachutes. He shut down the damaged engine but couldn’t hold steady at 15,000 feet (4,500 meters). Finally, at 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), Osborn regained control.
The options were to bail out, ditch the plane in the water, or make for land.
Osborn chose land. He directed some of the 24-member crew to fire off the first of some 15 mayday calls while others began destroying sensitive equipment and information.
Once the plane landed on Hainan island, where the crew would be held for 11 days, Osborn had to change from fighting the plane’s descent to negotiating with the mainland Chinese military.
“By the time I got the engines shut down, they were already at the door,” Osborn said.”My biggest thing was to shift gears from just bringing this plane in, getting it down — it was a pretty big relief.”