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.