Chinese F-8 interceptor flying underneath U.S. Navy EP-3E
April 5, 2001 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Chinese F-8 interceptor flying underneath U.S. Navy EP-3E seconds before the crash. EP-3E banks a hard left. How can you figure out who's to blame when both pilots are being this reckless?
posted by revbrian (53 comments total)
...started to fly directly below a U.S. surveillance plane ...
Beneath and behind a plane is the true blind spot of any aircraft. It's the obligation of a plane in this position to avoid the collision, not the other way around.

A U.S. defense official said Chinese planes began flying extremely close to U.S. surveillance planes late last fall, prompting the United States to raise the issue with the Chinese in December. Chinese pilots have been coming as close as 50 feet to U.S. planes, one American official said, although the distance between the planes before Sunday’s collision was not known.
Sorry, but a pilot stupid enough to close to within 50 feet of another aircraft deserves to drink salt water for eternity.

You can keep trying, but as of yet I've seen no evidence that anyone besides the hot shot Chinese pilot acted recklessly.
posted by darren at 7:15 AM on April 5, 2001

you'd think that a surveillance aircraft wouldnt have any 'blind spots'
america should swallow what's left of her pride and apologise.
posted by ron nasty at 7:17 AM on April 5, 2001

ron, for what?
posted by darren at 7:25 AM on April 5, 2001

'hot shot' chinese pilot?

why do americans have to reduce everything to movie-speak?

what evidence do you have that this man was a 'hot shot'?

90% of americans dont own a passport.

like, doh..
posted by chairman miaow at 7:26 AM on April 5, 2001

Bullshit. Have you seen a picture of this surveillance plane?

It has four prop engines. That alone should tell you something about the speed of it. It's also about the size of a small airliner. The thing's a slow-assed boat. Imagine playing chicken with a supersonic jet fighter in a 737 that's powered by props. Gee, no wonder the surveillance plane couldn't dodge!

Also, it's an electronic and photo surveillance plane, not an observation plane with 360 degree sight. It's basically a small AWACS plane without the radome... the plane is intended to monitor and record electronic communications, track the movements of aircraft and ships via radar, and photograph anything interesting it can get eyeballs on. To do this, you don't need visibility. They knew the Chinese fighter was there.

The fighter pilot probably thought it was great fun to buzz the big, dumb slow American plane... until he zigged when he should've zagged.

The Chinese had been asked to stop buzzing American planes. They were warned. Now they're holding our men and one of our planes hostage. I want the guys and the plane back. I want the stupid Chinese to apologize. If it's anyone's fault, it's theirs for being stupid in this situation.

I don't want this to escalate to a war, and that's one of the things that I'm afraid of with Dubya in charge, but I also don't want the Chinese to get to thinking they can push us around.

Ron, before you say something like that, think for just about 30 seconds or so. Your first line had no basis in fact, and there's no reason for the
posted by SpecialK at 7:30 AM on April 5, 2001

ron nasty - Are you trolling? This surveillance aircraft is optimized to monitor data transmission from a great distance. I doubt that a window in the floor for avoidance of reckless pilots trying to rub its belly was in the design parameters.

If this new description of the collision scenario is accurate, then the incident was completely avoidable by the Chinese pilot. It's like rear-ending someone on the road - it's your fault, period. No matter how suddenly or how hard they slammed on the brakes, you should have been following at a safe distance.
posted by Tubes at 7:31 AM on April 5, 2001

.... the comment that we should apologize.

(Finish thought, me?)
posted by SpecialK at 7:32 AM on April 5, 2001

it's about as unlike rear-ending someone on the road as you can get.
direct line insurance arent here to sort things out.
this is a major diplomatic incident.
posted by yankwank at 7:45 AM on April 5, 2001

I can not speak about the planes. But if you know sailboats and power boats, who yields when they are close to each other and crossing paths? Why? And those are two friendly boats, not boats from different countries, at odds, often, with each other.
posted by Postroad at 7:46 AM on April 5, 2001

Of course, if all those Americans did have passports they'd run the risk of getting hit by reckless foreign pilots.

Seriously, if the Chinese pilots are flying that close to American planes, spy plane or not, then the pilots deserve everything they may get. The American plane was in international airspace. It was a slow plane which attempted to dodge but could not. The Chinese should apologize for holding our men and for letting one of their pilots finally cause an accident.
posted by crushed at 7:48 AM on April 5, 2001

the chinese should apologize?


i knew americans were insular... but this takes the biscuit.

please tell me that the whole country isnt like this....
posted by yankwank at 7:51 AM on April 5, 2001

The pilot that bumped our plane or was bumped by our plane is the same guy who had earlier buzzed our craft!
posted by Postroad at 7:57 AM on April 5, 2001

The Chinese government is holding the US servicepeople against their will. I can live without an apology from the Chinese government, but let those people go home and see their families.

The Chinese jet pilot is gone and it is a tragedy. Turning this accident into a hostage situation is just as tragic.
posted by fuzzynavel at 7:58 AM on April 5, 2001

There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.

This discussion has the potential to turn into a very ugly slur-fest if we're not careful. Let's all take a cue from SpecialK and think for 30 seconds before posting flames on something about which we really don't know the whole, unadulterated truth.
posted by starvingartist at 8:04 AM on April 5, 2001

please tell me that the whole country isnt like this....

The appropriately named yankwank is definately trolling.
posted by darren at 8:11 AM on April 5, 2001

This type of incident has happened numerous times. F-14's routinely "buzzed" Soviet TU-95 Bear's at very close distances. There are photos out there to prove it too. No I don't have any. But I have seen pic's of TU-95 crew members waving to the aircrew of F-14's. During my brothers stint in the US Navy (he worked on subs) he saw more than once returning US Subs with extensive damage that was attributed to "hitting a whale."

So this has happened before. I think in this instance that China feels that the US is in a vulnerable position after the recent losses of F-15's in Scotland, an army C-12 in Germany, the Sub/Japanese fishing boat incident, where we did apologize because we did screw up. They are exploiting this opportunity for their own end on the world stage. This will play out I think, and eventually we will get our crew back. As for an apology? Who knows. Not too likely given the circumstances. If we were to apologize I am sure the next day we would see our last Chinese immigrant for a while as there is usually a tit-for-tat.

So we watch and we wait and we list to really lame comments from people like yankwank. This takes the cake I think you meant to say, not the biscuit. ;-)
posted by a3matrix at 8:14 AM on April 5, 2001

I don't really care if the Chinese apologize or not, yankwank. In fact I don't really think they should. My point was that it would make a lot more sense for that country to apologize than it does for this one to. If anyone is in the wrong in this situation it's, surprisingly, not the Americans. We may not have handled this situation as well as we could have, but the Chinese aren't doing any better.
posted by crushed at 8:14 AM on April 5, 2001

I'm sure to disappoint our latest trolls, ron nasty and yankwank, but you don't need to be a right-wing hawk to see that the US was violating no Chinese territory, the US plane was unarmed, the Chinese were playing aggressive chicken games with our planes over our no doubt strenuous objections, and the Chinese today are brazenly holding our people in a condition that is just short of being hostages. I'm as severe a critic of the White House China policy as anyone, but nobody in America is going to stand for an apology, and the chances that China is going to get out of this without permanently damaging our relationship are getting slimmer every hour.

Baiting commentary like the above just makes it more difficult to engage in realistic criticism of the overall policy and the diplomatic process.

As one analyst noted on a cable show, the US and China have to figure out a way to have a relationship for the next century without blowing each other up. I think the White House is belatedly realizing that this is a more delicate task than they had anticipated. The Chinese are, meanwhile, hardening US domestic opposition to improved relations.

The Army thought it expedient not so very long ago to order 1.3 million berets from a Chinese manufacturer. I can only imagine what the American soldiers who will be ordered to wear them in about two months are going to think. Hell, I'm a liberal and the idea turns my stomach.
posted by dhartung at 8:18 AM on April 5, 2001

Bravo, dhartung. Bravo!

On another note,
In Beijing Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi raised the possibility U.S. diplomats would not be allowed to see the crew again until the American government apologizes for the incident. Only one brief visit has been allowed. "If the U.S. side takes a cooperative approach, we will consider another visit," Sun said.

Iran, meet China. China, Iran.
posted by darren at 8:20 AM on April 5, 2001

'take the cake' ?

the saying 'take the biscuit' is in common currency and is perfectly valid.

you are not the font of all knowledge.

and yeah, the japanese fishing boat incident is a case in point.
he without sin, and all that
posted by insular at 8:21 AM on April 5, 2001

Whatever happens in the coming days/weeks/months, this is going to be a sore spot for both sides for a long time to come. The issue of fault is in a gray area, so each superpower will refuse to recognize their own role in the situation.

posted by jragon at 8:25 AM on April 5, 2001

The pilot that bumped our plane or was bumped by our plane is the same guy who had earlier buzzed our craft!

The Chinese can save face: give ticket to pilot for failure to make turn signal and fine him a hundred bucks.
posted by Postroad at 8:31 AM on April 5, 2001

I see the Army is having second thoughts. Good for them.

That's the thing, though, darren -- here it is, a generation later, and people are still burned about Iran. China is risking developing the same reputation, at a moment when they had better relations with us than they have had since World War II. Very, very foolish. What I fear is that this marks the hand of a conservative leadership that desperately fears losing power.

Meanwhile, and I see that our lower-case-typing troll has created YET ANOTHER userid -- probably our 'rightwinger' pal, treating us as his playthings again, with protests that he's just trying to make things more 'interesting' -- holding the crew is wrong, wrong, wrong. We have had things to apologize to China for -- a little embassy incident springs to mind -- but that should not be linked to holding the crew. This is a very bad choice, appallingly bad choice, for China to make. If they don't act quickly, they are going to lose American support for entry to the WTO, and with that we, the US and the world, are going to lose leverage to keep China behaving. They have not been engaged with the international community, and it's showing. That they don't understand the value of their actions disturbs me greatly.
posted by dhartung at 8:32 AM on April 5, 2001

I don't think YankWank was trolling. We're throwing that word out a bit freely, I think. I'm American, and kind of dismayed at the America-Can-Do-NO-Wrong attitude we've been displaying over the last few days. With very little information at all the general concensus is that the American pilots were corn-fed, good home town boys who never got so much as a speeding ticket in their lives, and the chinese pilot was a hotshot former rickshaw driver.
This whole thing is like watching children on a playground. It's shocking to see how childish and selfish governments can be.
posted by Doug at 8:37 AM on April 5, 2001

I haven't really seen much 'america can do no wrong' attitude, here at least I see a lot of people trying to get to the facts so they CAN decide what their opinion is.

As I read headlines, it sometimes seems to me that Bush is trying to find SOME new "enemy" for us to get united about, but that it's not really working because that's rather the OLD way of doing things. Doesn't it seem odd too, that just after Bush gets into office, the military suddenly has all of these accidents? I have no idea what that 'means', but I think it's interesting. (Not trolling for anti-Bush support here, BTW, just trying to get a handle on the bigger picture - thinking out loud.)
posted by thunder at 9:13 AM on April 5, 2001

Postroad: Chinese pilots have been buzzing American spyplanes for a while now. Do you seriously imagine they do it on their own initiative? Stop banging on about hotshot pilots! Or at least wait until the movie version comes out.

While we're at it, do you really think the downed airmen are all being turned into Manchurian candidates or something? The Chinese know perfectly well that Washington would give them serious shit if they harmed a hair on their little heads.

In normal circumstances it's impossible to feel much sympathy for the ageing mass-murderers in Bejing. But seeing as the new US administration has recently managed to alienate the entire world with its hawkish and high-handed stance on just about everything, you shouldn't be too surprised to see a bit of schadenfreude going down.
posted by Mocata at 9:14 AM on April 5, 2001

Not sure if the newsflash URL being posted here has the same info or not, but this link was interesting this morning.

At work so didn't have time to read through all the posts, so if this was posted, my apologies. :)
posted by the_0ne at 9:20 AM on April 5, 2001


ron nasty
chairman miaow

All have joined MeFi today or yesterday. All have posted 1 comment or less, and all aimed that the Chinese-American Discussions. Possibly even the same person.

Ignore them. All they want to do is get a rise out of you.
posted by da5id at 9:23 AM on April 5, 2001

people... read the first paragraph of that article again:

"The midair collision that touched off a crisis between China and the United States occurred after a Chinese F-8 interceptor started to fly directly below a U.S. surveillance plane and the U.S. aircraft executed a banking maneuver off to the left, Western sources said today."

in the next paragraph:

THE NEW DETAILS of Sunday’s accident, provided by sources briefed by U.S. officials [...]

western sources and u.s. officials supplied this information - how did they get it? the plane's black box is still in china. so is the flight crew. truth or propaganda?
posted by dutchbint at 9:30 AM on April 5, 2001

they would have had to have gotten that info from the pilot or crew when they met with them.

i think the question of fault is going to come down to this: Did the US pilot bank intentionally to scare the fighter pilot? Knowing he was that close? Just because someone is tailgating you shouldn't slam on the breaks to teach them a lesson. Especially when the lives of 20 people are in your hands.

Obviously the crew needs to be returned...but lets be realistic about the big game this is, there is still a lot more propaganda and posturing to be done.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:43 AM on April 5, 2001

Some interesting outside reading:
The appropriate international law is laid out in Chapter 2 of the Navy's Commander's Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations (sections, 2.2,, 2.4.2, 2.5.2, and are the most applicable to this situation), and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Part V, Articles 55, 56, and 58). The US claims that China has violated international law by illegal boarding and searching a sovereign aircraft, and by detaining its crew. China is claiming that the US has violated international law by misusing freedom of overflight and by intruding into national airspace. Who's right? You be the judge.

(Yeah, I know, shame on me for bringing facts into the argument.)
posted by iceberg273 at 9:55 AM on April 5, 2001

Also of interest may be the American procedure for interception (Section 5-6-2; diagram) and a recent case of scrambling fighters in response to foreign military aircraft in international airspace that didn't evoke quite as much furor.
posted by iceberg273 at 10:03 AM on April 5, 2001

Thanks, iceberg. Perhaps a more important section in asserting that the U.S. plane was not only in international airspace, but entitled to be there, is Section II.
posted by darren at 10:09 AM on April 5, 2001

The United States would have better footing if we were not such a bully at times and if we practiced what we preached. We want this plane back without the sensitive components being examined by the Chinese military, yet in 1976, when we ended up in the possession of a Soviet plane when that defector landed in Japan, we ended up dismantling the entire thing, I believe. So much for giving the other guy his technology back without taking a peep at it first. Yeah, do as we say, not as we do...

And I doubt China will be giving our people back anytime soon, they have too much to gain by holding onto them and trying to vilify the US. Welcome to the lovely world of politics.
posted by bargle at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2001

Darren: I'm not sure if UNLOS Section II applies since the area in question isn't a strait. And, at any rate, Article 40 would then apply and the US would be guilty of violating the law (because they were conducting survey activities, which are prohibited in transit passage). I think that the US wants to stay far away from transit passage and stick to the EEZ, which can be taken to allow for surveillance activities. Article 58 makes it pretty clear that the US plane had a right to be in the EEZ.

At least I don't think the area in question is a strait. *iceberg273 looks at map again* Is there a map anywhere of exactly where this all took place?
posted by iceberg273 at 10:41 AM on April 5, 2001

There is quite a difference between a plane being flown willingly to an ally by a defector and turned over...

...and one that is involved in an air-to-air collision under "cloudy" (meaning facts are uncertain) circumstances, and having to make an EMERGENCY landing on foreign soil.
posted by da5id at 10:42 AM on April 5, 2001

In the "wow" category, this gem from Feb 12:

I'd like to start with a fearless prediction. By April at the latest, the Bush administration's foreign policy team will be in a convulsive debate, both internally and with key Republican legislators, over U.S.-China policy.

posted by norm at 10:52 AM on April 5, 2001

I see no difference at all. In either case, the government owns the plane - not the person flying it, and in neither case did the other government say it was okay to rummage through the plane and see what you can discover. All is fair in the spy game, whether or not we want to pretend otherwise.
posted by bargle at 10:54 AM on April 5, 2001

I'm as severe a critic of the White House China policy as anyone, but nobody in America is going to stand for an apology...

Sorry, dhartung. But I for one would prefer to apologize and get our men back then play a game of military standoff. It seems to me that a quick, if insincere, apology is the faster, easier, and cheaper solution. Escalating this already precarious situation to involve military action seems entirely ridiculous in the grand scheme of things. And unfortunately, unless an apology is released, that is how this situation will probably be resolved.

You have to wonder about a country that "values principles" of who's at fault more than the lives of its citizens. Even if they are being unfairly held as political prisoners.
posted by dogmatic at 10:55 AM on April 5, 2001

Doesn't it seem odd too, that just after Bush gets into office, the military suddenly has all of these accidents? -Thunder

It might be more appropriate to note that after 8 years of systematic dismantling at the hands of the Clinton administration, the military suddenly has all of these accidents. Perhaps we've been seeing the fruit of increased demands on overextended personnel and equipment.
posted by Tubes at 11:03 AM on April 5, 2001

dogmatic, do you honestly think that will solve the problem. So you see Bush getting on TV, giving a very sincere apology and then China will just say, ok, you guys can go, no harm done. This is just a ploy to make the US look bad and give enough time to go over the plane with a fine-tooth comb.

I know a lot of servicemen/women and there isn't a one, that I know, that would give in to these threats. They'd gladly go through this for their country.

I'm hopeful (*only hopeful*) that they will be returned someday, but backing down and looking even worse than the whole situation is seems to be the wrong answer in my opion.
posted by the_0ne at 11:32 AM on April 5, 2001

We want this plane back without the sensitive components being examined by the Chinese

Since the plane has already been picked apart, it seems to me that issue is pretty moot.
posted by darren at 11:53 AM on April 5, 2001

The US will not apologize. If it does, Bush will not get re-elected, even if they put Krusty the Clown in as democratic candidate three years from now.

What may happen is an escalation - China says, "You have not apologized for three weeks, so we're going to start putting restrictions on commerce."

This also has the chance of escalating into a shooting war three months down. Bush needs to handle this one carefully, and I don't know that he's up to it.
posted by SpecialK at 2:10 PM on April 5, 2001

a couple things make me laugh. i can't find the darn article from a couple days ago about the US lodging a complaint about the chinese pilots shadowing the spyplanes "too closely". the quote said something to the effect "we've told them they're being unprofessional about [the pursuit] and that they should knock it off."

in essence: "hey! we're trying to spy on you here! stop bothering us! knock it off!"

does no one else find that odd?

granted, the collision was an accident. the chinese pilot is very likely dead by now, and it's probably his own damn fault. BUT that doesn't change the fact that the PE-3 was spying on the chinese, international airspace or not.

and special K -- bush doesn't have to handle it alone. i personally find it very comforting that powell is secretary of state. in many ways i think we're better off with bush. he knows he needs help, so he surrounds himself with competent and knowlegable advisors. i'd argue that he does not think he has the answers, and is willing to listen to people whose business is their particular field of expertise.

i'd rather have a man with good advisors that is willing to listen to them in the Office, rather than someone who thinks he knows it all.

but that's a different thread ;)
posted by fuzzygeek at 3:24 PM on April 5, 2001

he knows he needs help, so he surrounds himself with competent and knowlegable advisors

fuzzygeek, that's the same argument I used to make myself feel better about voting for Bush, and I still feel bad.
posted by SpecialK at 4:12 PM on April 5, 2001

You guys are getting a little zealous aren't you? Anyone who says that America might be at fault and they should appologize is instantly a troll?
posted by Neb at 5:11 PM on April 5, 2001

[Anyone who says that America might be at fault and they should appologize is instantly a troll?]

No, not at all. A communist sympathizer troll!
posted by revbrian at 5:56 PM on April 5, 2001

Damned commies. They ruin everything.

No, only when them damned commies make outrageous statements with improbable screennames that were created today and only have one post on them.

posted by SpecialK at 8:33 PM on April 5, 2001

fuzzygeek - you're using needlessly aggressive language. The plane wasn't "spying" in an overflight espionage mode. It was running a regular and well-known surveillance route over international waters. Interception and shadowing by Chinese fighter was also routine and expected. That wasn't the problem. We didn't say "hey! we're trying to spy on you here! stop bothering us! knock it off!", we said "hey, do your job but do it safely!"
posted by Tubes at 9:14 PM on April 5, 2001

tubes - i'm sorry you see it as "needlessly aggressive language".

but: the PE-3 is a spyplane. i don't think anyone disputes that. it sure as hell isn't a luxury tourist puddle jumper.

explain to me how "routine surveillance" differs from "spying", please.
posted by fuzzygeek at 11:05 PM on April 5, 2001

As iceberg's post about US reaction to Russian planes coming "too close to Alaska" (though still in international airspace) shows, double standards seem to be a pillar of US international policy. I imagine that if the Chinese were flying spy planes over international waters off the coast of, say, California and in the process of interception an American pilot was killed (his fault or not), the US would certainly demand an apology from the Chinese and (I fear) a lot of US citizens would demand immediate action against the Chinese. If, furthermore, the Chinese plane had to make an emergency landing after the incident, does anyone want to speculate whether or not there would be a huge outcry for them to be tried as spies and serve 150 years+ breaking rocks in a rather inconvenient federal prison?
It's called putting one's self in the other's shoes...
posted by talos at 1:56 AM on April 6, 2001

For casual speech purposes, I think "spying" is a catch-all term that can include "surveillance". But there is an enormous difference between surveillance from international waters, and performing those activities from within the jurisdiction of your adversary. The point that is being made here is that they were not crossing into Chinese territory. If you want to continue using, uh, fuzzy language and logic when the situation demands much more precision, that's fine, but don't expect to escape criticism.

When you back off from the facts of the case, you see that China is simply trying to psychologically milk this situation for whatever purposes it can glean. It increases their prestige on the world stage to be seen as America's adversary. The arguments being used to detain the plane and crew are of the possession-90% variety. There was a great quote yesterday on C-SPAN by a former embassy attaché: he said we've been banging on the Chinese for years to recognize and adhere to international laws. Here they saw an opportunity to use those same laws, however broadly interpreted, against us -- and they're possibly a bit hurt that we come back and say their argument is illegitimate. But even that fact is a step forward in our relationship with them.

Thinking strategically instead of tactically is important here.
posted by dhartung at 8:12 AM on April 6, 2001

fuzzygeek - spying involves sneaking.
"Routine surveillance" is when I walk by my neighbor's house, see him pull in the driveway, and notice which girlfriend he's bringing home.
"Spying" is when I sneak into his attic, drill a hole in his bedroom ceiling, and watch.

We may indeed have secret "spyplane" missions flying over China or other areas, but they would be cruising at high altitude, in restricted airspace, virtually undetectable.

A 4-prop truck full of antennas lumbering along a known flight path over international waters isn't very sneaky.
posted by Tubes at 8:15 AM on April 6, 2001

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