On 1 April 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft collided in mid-air with a Chinese Navy J-8II interceptor fighter jet. The collision occurred over the South China Sea approximately 70 miles from the Chinese island province of Hainan. Aboard the EP-3 were 24 crewmembers from two separate commands – Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA) Misawa and Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE (VQ-1).
The EP-3 crew was five hours into a signals intelligence mission, which involved overflights of the South China Sea, when they were intercepted by two Chinese Navy J-8 fighter jets. While making a series of aggressive close passes of the EP-3, one of the J-8 fighter jets collided with the aircraft. The collision resulted in the death of the Chinese Navy pilot, Wang Wei. The EP-3 suffered significant damage. Initially, the crew of the EP-3 lost control of the aircraft. After several minutes, the flight crew was able to stabilize the aircraft through emergency controls. After considering the options, one of the pilots made the decision to make an unauthorized emergency landing at Lingshui airfield on the Chinese island of Hainan.
Diplomatic efforts to negotiate the release of the crew and the aircraft took 11 days. While the release of the crew was unconditional, the Chinese government would only return the aircraft if it was disassembled first. On 12 April 2001, the EP-3 crew departed China on a plane bound for Guam. Their eventual destination was Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island, the home base of VQ-1. After debriefings occurred in Hawaii, the crew returned to NAS Whidbey Island. On 14 April 2001, NAS Whidbey Island hosted a large homecoming ceremony at which the crew’s return was celebrated. The repatriation and homecoming of the crew became known as Operation VALIANT RETURN. The EP-3 aircraft was dismantled on Hainan by technicians from Lockheed Martin and returned in pieces via cargo plane to an air base in Georgia. After the aircraft’s parts arrived in Georgia in July 2001, the aircraft was reassembled and repaired. The aircraft was then returned to service.
1 April 2022 at 11:45
EP-3E did not collide in mid-air with a PRC interceptor fighter jet. EP-3E was maintaining constant heading and altitude (on Auto-Pilot) while being buzzed numerous times by a PRC interceptor jet fighter pilot. On the last buzz by the PRC piloted jet, the Chinese pilot flew so close to the underside of the EP that the EP’s propeller arc severed the fighter, fortunately resulting in the loss of only one life i.e. that of the offending Chinese fighter pilot. Fortuitously, Lt Osborn, piloting the EP-3E was a physical strong young man able to over come in a short period the forces of a crippled, out of control aircraft in a rapid almost inverted steep descent. A pilot of lesser physical strength and stature behind the controls would have resulted in the loss of all 24 souls on board.
2 April 2022 at 00:11
I recall the event well; stationed at the Agency at the time.
2 April 2022 at 05:27
I had been retired 15 years when this incident occurred but the first thought I had was ‘I hope they have a good emergency destruction plan’. I flew a couple times on VQ2 birds out of Rota in the early 80s for comm eval air/ground KW7 comms and they not only had minimum ‘support packages’ but also how to get rid of what they had if an emergency occurred.
2 April 2022 at 14:15
Miraculous outcome. I made many VQ flights with small Secgru teams out of Atsugi to Sea of Japan and north up to Petro area and am happy to say none met with excitement like this.