Posted: 4/21/2001 8:22:44 AM EDT
AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE CHINA RESCUE MISSION
April 12, 2001
By Captain Guy Greider Continental Airlines
Since the mid-air collision on April 1, 2001 between a U.S. Navy EP-3
surveillance aircraft and a Chinese jet fighter, I had watched the news with
mild interest. This was mostly due to the proximity of Guam to China. I never
dreamed that I would play a role in this intensely watched international drama.
Somewhere in the negotiations between the United States and the Chinese
Governments, it was decided that a civilian aircraft should be sent to retrieve
the 24 crewmembers being detained on Hainan Island, China. A call was made to
Continental Airlines headquarters in Houston, Texas. Continental was chosen
because of its Guam base and its ability to launch this kind of operation at a
moment s notice. From there, the operation took shape through the tireless
efforts of many people working behind the scenes in a coordinated effort between
the airline, the military, and the State Department. On Saturday, April 7,
2001, I received a call at home from Captain Ralph Freeman, Continental
Micronesia Director of Flight Operations. Ralph told me that the military
wanted to charter one of our jets to conduct a rescue mission and asked if I
would be one of the crewmembers. I said yes without hesitation. Later we were
told that we would need to get passport pictures taken in case the Chinese
Government required visas. We got the required photos and were under the
impression that we would leave immediately. However, the negotiations slowed
over the demand from the Chinese that the U.S. issue an apology that the U.S.
was unwilling to give. Meanwhile, the Continental crew remained on call 24
hours a day. Our Uniforms were laid out and our bags were packed and waiting by
On Wednesday evening April 11, 2001, at about 6:30 PM Ralph called again to say
that the two parties were very close to an agreement to release the U.S. crew
and to come to the airport. Upon arrival, we were given a briefing sheet
listing the information that we would need to conduct the flight.
We would carry a Repatriation Team consisting of Navy, Marine Corps, and Air
Force specialists, 14 people in all. Doctors, Psychologists, and communications
people with lots of gear showed up on the ramp near the airplane, ready to
board. They were all dressed in casual civilian clothes.
The 155-seat jet was fitted with 2 full stretcher kits bolted in over rows of
seats complete with Oxygen tanks and I.V. bottles. They did not know the
condition of the 24 detained crewmembers and they were not going to take any
chances. They were prepared.
When our crew was fully assembled, it consisted of 11 people. 2 pilots to fly
the jet and an extra to provide relief because of the extensive flight time
involved. They were Captain Tom Pinardo, Captain Pierre Frenay and I. We also
carried 5 very experienced Flight Attendants. They were Debbie Percell, Susanne
Hendricks, Jean Tang, Cynthia Iverson, and Beverly Haines. Our 2 onboard
mechanics were Peter Lum and Julius Aguilo. Our load planner was Mike Torres.
At about 9:30 PM we received a call asking that we arrive in China no earlier
than 6:00 AM, just about sunrise. It was obvious that the entire exchange would
be photographed and they wanted daylight conditions. We estimated that a 2:15
Once the airplane was serviced and ready to go, we looked anxiously around for
any sign of the buses that carried our 24 detainees. Before that could happen
however, we had a problem to deal with. A U.S. military General who was on the
scene to assist in the transfer came storming up the stairs and demanded to
speak with the Captain. Tom Pinardo responded. The General said that the
entire mission was now in jeopardy. A document called the general declaration,
which is standard on all international flights had listed the destination as
Haikou, China R.O.C. The initials ROC stand for Republic of China which is ..
Taiwan! The Chinese were very upset over this. Tom quickly crossed out ROC and
replaced it with P.R.O.C. the Peoples Republic of China. This seemed to
With the airplane ready to go and the paperwork complete, 2 buses pulled up and
the 24 U.S. service men and women saluted as they bolted up the stairs and
settled into the back of the plane. When the last one was aboard, our passports
were returned to us. The stairs were withdrawn, the cabin door closed, and we
started the engines and departed. It was my turn at the controls.
Once airborne heading straight south we broke through the clouds into the bright
sunshine. Pierre made a PA announcement that we were over international waters
and leaving Chinese airspace. A great cheer rose from the back of the airplane.
A short while later we received a telephone patch over the HF radio from Mr.
Joseph Prueher, U.S Ambassador to China. He wanted to speak with Lt. Shane
Osborne the 26 year old EP-3 Aircraft Commander. Lt. Osborne came to the
cockpit and put on a headset. The Ambassador told him that on behalf of the
President of the United States and the entire country he wanted to say welcome
home . He went on to say how proud he was of everything the crew had done from
their airmanship in saving the lives of the crew and aircraft, to their conduct
on the ground once they had been detained. They had truly done an excellent
After his conversation with the Ambassador, Lt. Osborne stayed in the cockpit
for quite a while and told us his story pilot to pilot of what had happened
during and immediately after the mid-air collision with the F-8 Chinese fighter.
The fighter came up under their left wing. This pilot made 2 very close passes
previously that day. He apparently misjudged the intercept and his vertical
stabilizer struck the outboard left propeller on the EP-3. The U.S. plane was
in straight and level flight on autopilot at the time.
The fighter broke into two pieces and plunged into the sea. The U.S. plane
rolled to the left almost inverted, the pilot lost control and they began to
lose altitude. The Chinese fighter had raked back across the fuselage and
knocked off the nose cone causing the aircraft to buffet wildly. When the nose
cone departed the aircraft it collided with and damaged the number 4 propeller
on the right wing. The collision punctured the pressure vessel and the EP-3
depressurized. The collision also knocked off the pitot tubes eliminating
airspeed and altitude indications in the cockpit. It also knocked off the
forward bracket for the HF radio antenna. The antenna then flew back and
wrapped around the tail.
We were almost upside down and totally out of control Osborne told us. The dive
continued and some crew members donned parachutes. At about 8,000 feet, Osborne
regained straight and level fli