What was the Hainan Island Incident (2001)?

Introduction

The Hainan Island incident occurred on 01 April 2001, when a United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet collided in mid-air, resulting in an international dispute between the United States of America (USA) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

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 a PRC pilot to go missing (later presumed dead), 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 the United States government regarding the incident. The exact phrasing of this document was intentionally ambiguous and allowed both countries to save face while defusing a potentially volatile situation between militarily strong regional states.

Hainan Island, China – The EP-3 awaits fuel removal and disassembly at the prepared worksite at Lingshui Airfield 18 June. US Pacific Command began operations 13 June to return the damaged US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane to the United States. (Photos courtesy of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.) (06/19/01).

Background

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. The United States and the People’s Republic of China disagree on the legality of the overflights by US 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 (UNCLOS) and the Chinese claim that the Paracel Islands belong to China. This claim has been persistently contested by Vietnam. The United States remains neutral in this dispute, but patrols the sea regularly with military ships and planes, under what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations. The PRC interprets the convention as allowing it to preclude other nations’ military operations within this area, but the United States does not recognise China’s claim over the Paracel Islands and 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. Although the United States is not party to UNCLOS, it has accepted and complies with nearly all of the treaty’s provisions.

A PRC Sukhoi Su-27 force is based at Hainan. The island also houses a large signals intelligence facility that tracks civil and military activity in the area and monitors traffic from commercial communications satellites. The United States has long kept the island under surveillance; on 22 May 1951, for example, RAF Spitfire PR Mk 19s out of Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport flew photo-reconnaissance missions at the behest of US naval intelligence.

In The Air

On 01 April 2001, 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 9:15 am local time, toward the end of the EP-3’s six-hour ELINT mission, it was flying 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. Two Chinese J-8s from Hainan’s Lingshui airfield approached. One of the J-8s (81192), piloted by Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei, 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; 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 depressurised, 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 US aircraft to roll to the left at three to four times its normal maximum rate.

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, Lieutenant Shane Osborn, got the EP-3’s wings level and the nose up. In a September 2003 article in Naval Aviation News, Osborn said that once he regained control of the aircraft, he “called for the crew to prepare to bail out.” He then managed to control the aircraft’s descent by using emergency power on the working engines, allowing him to plan an emergency landing on Hainan.

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 coffee into disk drives and motherboards. The crew had not been formally trained on how to destroy sensitive documents and equipment, and so improvised.

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. The surviving Chinese interceptor had landed there 10 minutes earlier.

Lieutenant Commander 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. Wang’s body was never recovered, and he was presumed dead.

Cause of Collision

Both the cause of the collision and the assignment of blame were disputed. The US government stated that the Chinese jet bumped the wing of the larger, slower, and less maneuverable EP-3. After returning to US soil, the pilot of the EP-3, Lieutenant 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. The US released video footage from previous missions which revealed that American reconnaissance crews had previously been intercepted by the same aircraft.

Based on the account of Wang Wei’s wingman, the Chinese government stated that the American aircraft “veered at a wide angle towards the Chinese”, in the process ramming the J-8. This claim cannot be verified since the Chinese government did not release data from the flight recorders of either aircraft, both of which are in its possession.

On the Ground

For 15 minutes after landing, the EP-3 crew continued to destroy sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, as per protocol. They disembarked from the aircraft 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 generally treated well, 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, Lieutenants 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.

Three US 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. US officials complained at the slow pace of the Chinese decision.

The 24 crew members (21 men and 3 women) were detained in total 10 days, shortly after the US issued the “letter of the two sorries” to the Chinese. The Chinese military boarded the EP-3 and thoroughly stripped and examined the aircraft’s equipment. The crew was only partially successful in their destruction of classified material, and some of the material they failed to destroy included cryptographic keys, signals intelligence manuals, and the names of National Security Agency employees. Some of the captured computers contained detailed information for processing PROFORMA communications from North Korea, Russia, Vietnam, China and other countries. The plane also carried information on the emitter parameters for US-allied radar systems worldwide. The fact that the United States could track PLAN submarines via signal transmission was also revealed to China.

Letter of the Two Sorries

The “Letter of the two sorries” 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 US crew from Chinese custody, as well as the eventual return of the disassembled aircraft.

The letter stated that the United States was “very sorry” for the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei (王伟), and was “very sorry” the aircraft entered China’s airspace and that its landing did not have “verbal clearance”.

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”. China had originally asked for an apology, but the US explained, “We did not do anything wrong, and therefore it was not possible to apologize.”

There was further debate over the exact meaning of the Chinese translation issued by the US Embassy. A senior administration official was quoted as saying “What the Chinese will choose to characterise as an apology, we would probably choose to characterize as an expression of regret or sorrow.”

Aftermath and Legacy

The crew of the EP-3 was released on 11 April 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 heroes’ welcome. The pilot, Lieutenant Shane Osborn, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” in flight. The J-8 pilot, Lieutenant Commander Wang Wei, was posthumously honoured in China as a “Guardian of Territorial Airspace and Waters”. His widow received a personal letter of condolence from President George W. Bush.

US Navy engineers said the EP-3 could be repaired in 8-12 months, but China refused to allow it to be flown off Hainan island. The disassembled aircraft was released on 03 July 2001, and was returned to the United States by the Russian airline Polet in two Antonov An-124 Ruslans. The repairs took place at Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Georgia for reassembly and to make it flightworthy again. The aircraft was then flown to L3 in Waco, Texas for missionisation as they were the main provider of EP-3 maintenance and modernisation at the time. The aircraft returned to duty prior to 2013.

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 $34,567.89. The Chinese had demanded one million dollars compensation from the US for the lost J-8 and their pilot, but this was declined and no further negotiations were held.

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 criticised 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 US first for being insensitive immediately after the event and later for issuing the letter rather than taking a harder line.

Following the collision, China’s monitoring of reconnaissance flights became less aggressive for a period of time. As of 2011, flights of US surveillance aircraft near the Chinese coastline continued as before the incident.

The JAG episodes “Dog Robber” (Part 01 and Part 02) that aired in late 2001 was loosely based on this event.

Hainan is currently the home of the PLAN Hainan Submarine Base, an underground facility capable of supporting nuclear ballistic missile submarines. In March 2009, the USNS Impeccable, an ocean surveillance ship of the US Navy, was on several occasions approached by Chinese ships and aircraft while operating 75 miles (121 km) south of Hainan; in actions Pentagon officials characterised as “aggressive” and “harassment.” In August 2014, the US protested when a Chinese Shenyang J-11BH came within 10 metres (30 ft) of a patrolling Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft and performed aerobatic maneuvers including a barrel roll. In May 2016, the US protested when two Chinese Shenyang J-11BH aircraft reportedly came within 15 metres (50 ft) of a US EP-3 on “a routine” patrol approximately 50 miles (80 km) east of Hainan Island; China responded by demanding an end to US surveillance near China.

Wang Wei in English can sound very much like Wrong Way; humorous to some considering the PRC pilot killed himself by crashing his jet fighter into the slow-moving propeller plane. Talk show comics, such as Bill Maher, played on this joke at the time. Some Chinese took offense to this poking fun at his name; also fearing it was part of a larger backlash.

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