Last April 1, a Chinese F-8 fighter attempted to intercept a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance airplane over the South China Sea. The mission ended in a mid-air collision, resulting in the death of the F-8 pilot and the detainment of the EP-3 crew. As a former Naval Reserve P-3 pilot, I watched with interest as the United States and China exchanged verbal jabs in the first few days of the crisis. I was living on Guam—no longer flying for the Navy—as the chief pilot for Continental Micronesia, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines.
On Saturday, April 7, one week into the standoff, I got a call that would transform me from interested spectator to active participant in the effort to bring the Americans home. The call came from Ralph Freeman, Continental Micronesia’s director of flight operations and my boss. He said the U.S. Department of State wanted to charter one of our 155-seat Boeing 737-800s to retrieve the 24 detained Americans. The Chinese were averse to a U.S. military transport landing on Hainan Island—they would accept only a civilian aircraft. Freeman was designating me captain. There was no definite departure date set for the mission, dubbed Operation Valiant Return by the military, but I was to consider myself on call until further notice.
We decided on two other pilots to complete the flight deck crew, captains Guy Greider and Pierre Frenay. We would also take two aircraft mechanics and a load planner. Finally, because we were also bringing a 14-member military repatriation team, we would take along five flight attendants. We were all released from normal duties while we awaited the green light to leave for Hainan.
A call to launch came the next day, followed quickly by a retraction. On Monday, another alarm came in and was withdrawn just as abruptly. The war of semantics between the two countries was dragging on, and the crafting of a solution satisfactory to both remained elusive.
On Wednesday, April 11, I had finished dinner with my family at a steakhouse when I got a call from our operations center. The two sides were close to agreement. I went straight to the airport, where other crew members were assembling, and we immediately began preparations to depart. At 8 p.m., Mitch Dubner, Continental Airline’s director of systems operations planning, called to advise that Air China had agreed to supply refueling services. Up to this point we weren’t certain if we could get fuel when we got to Hainan. Our backup plan had been to depart Guam International with full tanks and stop in Manila on the way home to refuel.
We were growing increasingly anxious to leave, but still there was no definite word that tonight would be the night. Around 9:30, Dubner called again. The mission was a go, but the Chinese were insisting that we arrive no earlier than first light: 6 a.m. Further, as a matter of national pride, they did not want us to fly through Taiwanese airspace on the way. Accounting for these restrictions, we decided on a 2:15 a.m. departure.
As the hour drew near, our crew gathered for a final briefing with the repatriation team. We were told that there was a slight chance we would be intercepted by fighters as we approached Chinese airspace. But, explained the briefing officer, Chinese fighter pilots, with the exception of instructors, are not qualified to fly at night, so an intercept was not likely. I took this to be a joke at first, but was assured it was the case. In any event, we would have a U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft trailing us at long range. Using encrypting radios and satellite phones, we would at least be made aware of any intercept efforts ahead of time.
We departed over a black Pacific and headed west toward the Philippines. Due south of Hong Kong, we turned north as planned. Pierre was at the controls in the right seat when Hong Kong control unexpectedly cleared us via a shorter routing. We changed course, but before we even completed the turn, we received a concerned call on the phone in the cabin inquiring into the change in routing. The AWACS really was keeping a close watch on things. Since taking the shortcut would result in an early arrival in China, we immediately reduced speed to arrive at the designated time.
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.
The media frenzy surrounding the whole story eventually subsided. Soon after we returned, the Navy thanked us by inviting our entire crew and our families for a tour of the carrier Kitty Hawk, which was making a liberty stop at Guam in celebration of its 40th birthday. Guy and Pierre even got a second visit a few days later, including a catapult shot off the ship, which by then was headed back to sea, in the carrier’s twin engine Grumman transport. But that was icing on the cake. The best thanks was having played a part in the happy conclusion to an unfortunate situation.
—Tom Pinardo, as told to Vincent Czaplyski