Navy Admiral Describes Aircraft Incident In South China Sea
Admiral Dennis C. Blair
Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command
U.S. and Chinese aircraft incident
Sunday, April 1, 2001
Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii
Adm. Blair: Good morning, let me tell you what I know about this
incident involving our aircraft in Hainan and I have a chart here that
I'll be referring to. About 18 hours ago, when it was the middle of
the morning China time, one of our surveillance aircraft was on a
routine operation in the South China Sea. It was about 70 miles off
the Chinese Island of Hainan in international airspace, and I'll show
you the positions in a minute.
Chinese fighters intercepted the aircraft, and one of them bumped into
the wing of the EP-3 aircraft. At that time the pilot of the aircraft,
declared a mayday. A mayday is an in-flight emergency when the pilot
figures that there is enough danger to his aircraft that he needs to
go to the nearest airfield and land it in order to be safe for his
crew and his airplane. He declared that mayday emergency and then
turned to the airfield at Lingshui, which was the closest airfield to
land. Now let me show you here what I'm talking about.
The point where the collision occurred is here, about 70 nautical
miles off of the island of Hainan. The aircraft declared an emergency
and turned and landed at the airfield called Lingshui here. This red
line is the approximate 12-nautical mile limit, which defines the
territorial water and above it the airspace of a country. The air and
water space outside is international air and water space open for
everybody to use.
The last message that we had from the crew of the airplane was when
they landed safely at Lingshui, and the crew informed us that all 24
military personnel on board were safe and the plane had landed safely.
That's what I know. Now, let me tell you what should have happened in
a situation like this. If a Chinese aircraft had been 70 miles off of
Kaneohe here in Hawaii, had had some sort of collision or damage, and
declared an in-flight emergency and said that it was coming into
Kaneohe, we would have assisted. We would have talked it in, had a
crash crew out on the ramp in case it had trouble, and then would have
provided assistance to the crew of that aircraft to get in touch with
their homebase or their government.
The airplane itself, military aircraft of all countries in situations
like this, have sovereign immunity. That is no other country can go
aboard them or keep them. They are in sovereign-immune territory. So,
we would have assisted any members of the crew who were hurt. We would
have respected the immunity of the aircraft. We would have gotten the
crew in touch with its homebase, and we would have made arrangements
with that country to come in, fix the aircraft and get it back on its
way. That's what the international obligations of all of us are in
situations like this.
It's been 18 hours now, and that has not happened. And, that's what we
are waiting for. We have heard from the representatives of the
government of China that the crew is safe, and that's good. And in
fact, we have notified all of the families of the crew members
onboard. I think we still have one to go, but we have notified
virtually all of them that their family members are safe.
We are waiting, right now, for the Chinese government to give us the
kind of cooperation that's expected of countries in situations like
this, so that we can repair the plane, our people can return, and we
can go on about our business. So let me stop there and take any
questions that you may have.
QUESTION: What do you know about the Chinese pilot? Is the pilot still
missing? What do you know about that?
Adm. Blair: I don't have any additional information on that. The
Chinese have announced that they've been looking and that's all we
QUESTION: The interception or the bumping of the U.S. plane, was that
intentional or accidental? And why were they intercepting the plane in
the first place if they were in international airspace?
Adm. Blair: Let me talk a little bit about that. The routine
operations that the United States conducts with military aircraft off
the China coast are routinely intercepted by Chinese aircraft. They
come up, take a look, report what they see and fly back. This is
pretty routine activity. I must tell you though that the intercepts by
Chinese fighters over the past couple months have become more
aggressive to the point we felt they were endangering the safety of
Chinese and American aircraft. And we launched a protest at the
working level. This is not a big deal, but we went to the Chinese and
said, "Your aircraft are not intercepting in a professional manner.
There is a safety issue here." So, this was a pattern of what we
considered to be increasingly unsafe behavior.
Let me also paint the picture for you, since I've seen the Chinese
news reports that somehow our airplane turned into theirs and caused
this collision. An EP3 is about the size of say a 737. It flies
generally about 300 knots. The Chinese aircraft involved is about like
an F16. It's a fighter aircraft. It flies at about twice that speed.
Big airplanes like this fly straight and level on their path. Little
airplanes zip around them. I don't think there's much question as to
who has the impact under international airspace rules. The faster more
maneuverable aircraft has the obligation to stay out of the way of the
slower aircraft. Our aircraft fly routinely straight and level. It's
pretty obvious as to who bumped into whom. I'm going on common sense
now. As I say, we have not even talked to our crew since they have
been in Lingshui. That's the most important thing to us now - getting
in touch with our crew.
QUESTION: So at this point it looks like an accident, the bumping.
Even though they shouldn't have been that close, it looks like an
Adm. Blair: If I had to guess right now, I would say it's an accident.
It's not a normal practice to play bumper cars in the air. It's too
dangerous for everybody, and clearly, it was dangerous in this Chinese
case, as well.
QUESTION: This comes at a particularly touchy time for the U.S.
military and the Pacific but also the relations since the Bush
administration has taken over, the dismissal of the two scholars, etc.
Have there been discussions about how this might affect
Adm. Blair: You know it's interesting; you hear a lot of talk
especially from the Chinese side about this cold war mentality. This
is an example to me of how the Chinese can show this is not a cold war
mentality anymore. That we do the things countries are supposed to do
when there are in-flight emergencies, so I very much hope the Chinese
will do what I described to you, and this can be a positive event in
terms of U.S./Chinese relations. I hope it will turn out to be an
accident happened; everybody acted properly; and we got on with other
things. We all know about what's going on in terms of U.S./Chinese
relations these days, but this could be a positive. And that's what
I'd like it to be, but as time goes on, it's increasingly worrisome.
It's been 18 hours, and we don't have a phone call yet from our crew
there. We're talking about a place that has telephones.
QUESTION: The Chinese government, you said, did contact the Navy. What
transpired from that conversation besides your men were okay?
Adm. Blair: The Chinese did not contact us. Our representatives
contacted Chinese officials in Beijing, and it was during that
conversation that we received the word our 24 crew members were
QUESTION: Is that all they said?
Adm. Blair: I just have a summary of the conversation, and it's about
as I told you. I don't have real details on it.
QUESTION: What's the extent of damage to the U.S. plane?
Adm. Blair: Well, it could fly 70 nautical miles, and that's about all
we know. Question: How sophisticated of an airplane is an EP-3?
Someone had described it as a treasure trove of intelligence
Adm. Blair: I'm not going to go into details of the capability of it.
It's a surveillance aircraft. It was operating on a routine mission in
QUESTION: Where is the aircraft based, and what were they doing in the
Adm. Blair: The airplane was flying out of Kadena Air Base, which is
located on the island of Okinawa. They were on a routine mission. This
is not the first time we've conducted missions like this in this part
of the world, and they were just chugging along in broad daylight.
QUESTION: When was the last time they had contact with the base in
Adm. Blair: The last message we had from the plane was after it had
landed in Lingshui. We had this radio message that I told you about
that said, "We've landed, and we're okay." That's the last we've heard
from the plane.
QUESTION: You mentioned that if it had been a Chinese plane off
Kaneohe Bay, we would have treated the situation differently. Are you
saying that certainly within 18 hours, we would have had the crew
members calling their own government? How differently would we have
handled the situation?
Adm. Blair: You have it exactly. We would have gotten the pilot right
to a telephone, said here's a phone, call home, tell them you're okay
and we would have been in contact with the Chinese government saying,
"What do you need to help?" And we would have stayed out of the
aircraft and away from it, because we recognize that is what the
international rules say. That is what we would have been doing, and it
would not have taken us 18 hours to do this. Question: What is the
feeling around the Navy right now. Are you worried that something
inappropriate may be happening with these crew members?
Adm. Blair: We just don't know. We just don't know.
QUESTION: When you launched your complaint about the Chinese getting
too close, too reckless with their interceptions, what kind of
response did the Chinese government give you in response to your
Adm. Blair: We did not get a satisfactory response. Let me just put it
that way. We also have talks once a year with the Chinese to discuss
the subject of conducting operations in the air and at sea safely. So,
this has been a subject between us and the Chinese before, but we felt
that as I said, starting several months ago their flying
professionalism was on the point of being dangerous to them and to our
planes. And clearly, with the events of yesterday it has not improved.
QUESTION: What wheels are in motion to get the men and aircraft home
Adm. Blair: We are talking with the Chinese both in Beijing and in
Washington. And in China, personnel from the embassy have made
arrangements to, and our Consul General who is closest to Hainan has
made arrangements to, travel to Hainan in order to link up with our
people. So, that's what's happening on the ground. Thanks very much
everybody; we'll keep you informed as we get more information.
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