Lt. Shane Osborn was the pilot of the U.S. EP-3 spy plane that collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet on April 1, 2001. Describing the incident and its aftermath, he tells FRONTLINE, “I thought 24 people were going to die in the middle of the ocean, and I wondered if anyone would know why.” Interview conducted early autumn 2001.
问：Was April 1st just a normal day for you?
答：I’m sure. It was a Sunday. We had a 3:45 mission, so it was an early day, but we’d been flying for about a month with this crew out there in the Western Pacific. It was just a normal mission.
问：What was the day like?
答：Actually, we’d been having thunderstorms. We’d cancelled a few times earlier in the week, so we were pretty excited, because the weather was clear all over the Pacific Ocean. So we had good weather and it was an early mission, but we were ready to fly.
问：Where was your mission taking you?
答：South China Sea was the area that we were flying. …
问：Had you flown that area before?
答：Sure, sure. … I’d been flying in that part of the world for a couple of years.
问：Do you get used to seeing Chinese fighters?
答：It’s pretty amazing what you can get used to. A lot of people have asked that. Yes, we’ve been getting intercepted for years and years … so as much as you can get used to something like that, having two or three armored fighters flying off your wing, well, we were used to it.
问：When you say “intercepted,” what do they do?
答：They just come out to take a look at us. We’re in international airspace. We would do the same thing if we had an aircraft flying up and down our coast. [They] just look at us and see what we’re doing, let us know their presence.
问：Do they get close?
答：Not usually that close. They had become more aggressive over the recent months. They’d been closer and closer, but they’d never been that close, on the side of our wing. It’s usually a pretty good distance off. …
问：Did you know that particular pilot?
答：They are out there flying. They’ve got a helmet on with an oxygen mask and an eye guard, so we don’t know which one’s which. They fly different planes, just like we do.
问：Whereabouts were you when the incident happened?
答：We were about 70 miles southeast of Hainan Island. It had been a slow day and we were getting ready to go home. We had about ten minutes left before it was time to head home, and that’s when we got intercepted. It was the first activity we’d had.
问：What did you see?
答：I was sitting in the right seat and saw two fighters. They actually overshot us by quite a bit, by about half a mile off our wing, off the right side. They always stayed on the island or land side of us. They kind of overshot us, pulled up, and then just kind of hung out there.
It was time to go home so we started a very gradual turn with the autopilot away from Hainan Island, heading to the northeast basically, and were heading home. We figured they’d peel off and head back to base, but they didn’t.
问：What happened then?
答：Obviously, we have people man the windows for something like that, and we received a call from the back. They said, “Hey, they are joining up on us.” That was nothing new, so at that point we weren’t nervous. But you could hear the tension in the voices rising steadily as they got closer and closer. There were just calls from the back, “Hey, he’s right off our wing, he’s tight, that’s the closest I’ve seen,” you know, all types of comments. …