Above & Beyond: Relief Flight
- By Tom Pinardo, as told to Vincent Czaplyski
- Air & Space magazine, November 2001
(Page 2 of 3)
Haikou airport came into view in the dim light of an overcast dawn. Pierre flew an Instrument Landing System approach to what proved to be a modern carrier airport, and after landing we were directed to a remote part of the ramp. We shut down the engines and were quickly surrounded by military personnel and vehicles. A ground handler plugged in a communications headset and informed us that only one person would be allowed off the aircraft at a time.
An Air China representative soon came aboard, gave us transit documentation to complete, and requested the passports of everyone on board. Our mechanic, Peter Lum, went below to monitor refueling. When that was complete, Guy left to perform a walkaround aircraft inspection.
We then waited while our repatriation team members met with their Chinese counterparts. After about an hour, one of the U.S. officers came back aboard, clearly agitated. To our embarrassment, the general declaration documents we had prepared back on Guam mistakenly listed our arrival point as Haikou, R.O.C. (Republic of China)—i.e., Taiwan. The Chinese were livid. He asked if I had the authority to amend this, which I did, quickly penning the change to “P.R.O.C.,” for People’s Republic of China.
That apparently solved the problem, for shortly afterward two vans containing the detained Americans pulled up. One by one they bounded up the stairs, and each in turn was greeted by his unit’s commanding officers.
With all personnel aboard and accounted for, we waited five more minutes for the return of our passports. When they were brought aboard, we immediately started engines and called for taxi clearance. In a short while we were airborne, headed for Andersen Air Force Base on Guam. This time Guy was at the controls in the right seat. We had been on the ground less than two hours.
Soon we crossed the 12-mile limit marking the end of Chinese airspace, and received a text data-link message to contact our dispatch office by high-frequency radio. The U.S. ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, was patched through by telephone, and he asked to speak with Shane Osborne, commander of the EP-3. After receiving congratulations from the ambassador and hanging up, Osborne remained in the cockpit for 25 minutes, relating what had transpired since the mid-air collision nearly two weeks before. We had the impression he was relieved to finally be able to tell the story to fellow Americans, pilot to pilot. The conversation soon turned to the state-of-the-art glass cockpit of our airplane, and whether our airline was hiring pilots. I told him I’d send him an application, prompting his commanding officer, also in the cockpit, to remind him that he still owed the Navy a couple of years.
Meanwhile, back in the passenger cabin the mood was surprisingly subdued. I learned later that the returning crew members had quietly taken seats together at the back of the relatively empty airplane. The air of celebration I had expected was missing. But about an hour and a half into the flight, that changed. While Men of Honor played on the video screens and the flight attendants dished up trout and chicken entrees, the group began to loosen up. It was all finally sinking in. They were going home. Because the military team needed continuous access to our HF radios, we kept the cockpit door open for the entire flight. Most of the EP-3 crew, by now mingling in the aisle, dropped in one or two at a time to thank us for the ride.
Several hours later we touched down at Andersen Air Force Base. Our passengers were back on U.S. soil and were mobbed by the press. After our own press interviews, it was my turn to fly the 10-minute trip to Guam International.