Chinese Down US Intelligence Aircraft

FTLComm - Tisdale - April 5, 2001

The incident that took place this past weekend has been in the news constantly and though the basic facts of the story are known, we need to discuss this situation because it tells us a lot about the way things are going in this rather odd little world of ours.

The incident described by US and Chinese authorities sounds like someone discussing a car accident with each telling us the story so that their part in it looks the most favourable. But this was not a car accident, and no amount of posturing is going to really have much effect on world opinion. The Chinese are decidedly upset because this aircraft was checking them out and the Chinese people, a sizable proportion of all people on the planet, will agree with their government and military, urging them to chastise the evil Americans.

For the Americans, keeping tabs on possible threats is the role of their armed forces and having been the greatest victim of a surprise attack from Asia, this is not only understandable but the proper thing to be doing, to protect themselves and their interests in the Pacific. China is demanding that it regain control of the island of Taiwan which was the refuge of the Nationalist government when the civil war ended in 1948. The US has provided Taiwan with support and military assistance and that too is understandable, when you consider that the Chinese hammered away at Nationalist held islands of Quimoy and Matsu for decades with heavy artillery.

The American aircraft used for this work is the same basic airframe used by Canada for our ocean patrol aircraft, the Aurora. This 1960s four engine Lougheed Electra is an outstanding and durable machine. The US navy patrol version is called the Orion and this electronics surveillance version is given the name EP4. Though remarkably easy to handle in the air, because its massive 4,900 horse power turbo-pro engines blades push air over most of its wings giving it amazing flight characteristics, it still is no fighter aircraft.

Large aircraft of this type almost fly themselves, but they do so with a kind of predetermined certainty, and snappy quick movement is well beyond their capability.

The Chinese have been upset for some time about these flights by information gathering aircraft and have been routinely shadowing, that is to say, having their fighters intercept and make close passes to harass these lumbering machines and their crews. Their planes are Russian designed and made mid 70s style aircraft. The Russian aircraft are designed to go fast and be pilot controlled, they are almost always slightly overpowered and have the flying characteristics of an acrobatic performance machine. Power, speed, agile, that is the way most pilots describe and plane of this type.

Though Russian pilots were on hand during the Vietnam war and after to train Chinese fliers they are no longer around but the traditions of Russian combat flying are bound to be still carried on and taught. The Russians learned military flying in the world's most brutal aviation environment, flying crude aircraft against German machines in World War II. Russian pilots were trained to do what had to be done for the fatherland and if bullets would not do the job use your plane. Ramming was a standard technique practiced by Russian wartime pilots and traditions like that linger with every hanger story of just amazing unselfish combat bravado.

The US Admiral of the Pacific fleet described the incident as an "accident", and the reason I am telling you this story is to make it clear that accidents of this sort would be extraordinarily rare. The Chinese pilot lost in this incident was no kid, he is married and has two children. He would not be assigned an intercept with a mach I type fighter aircraft if he was not competent and clipping the US aircraft deliberately would send a powerful message to Washington.

The accident part of this incident is that the Chinese pilot executed his clip a little less successfully than he or his CO had expected. After all, doing a midair is not something a pilot gets to practice and it looks like this guy put to much tail or not enough, into the EP4's wing and his aircraft came apart on him perhaps preventing him from ejecting. What was also not in the planning of this little air escapade was that the US pilot would keep the aircraft in the sky long enough to land it safely. This incident would have been meant to kill the American air crew and it failed.

By holding a midair, the Chinese could let Washington know that they would not stand by while the US checked out coastal radar and established strategic jamming frequencies. They would just claim it was the fault of US aircraft running into a peaceful Chinese fighter aircraft. Even as you read this you realise how silly this whole plot was from the very beginning and how dangerous is the government of China.

The US and most other countries in the world are well aware of the economic advantage of having positive relations with China and the new administration of President Bush is tuned into business interests even more than security ones. They are unwilling to take decisive military action even though it is clear to anyone who has ever sat in a pilot's seat that this was an act of war carried out by the Chinese in an effort to kill the twenty-four crew members aboard that aircraft.

The Chinese demands for an American apology and holding the crew hostage is a clear indication of the arrogance and uncivilised behaviour that seems to be a part of this country's present and past means of dealing with other countries. You will have heard others claim that if the reverse were the case and that a Chinese spy plane had hit a US fighter and had to make an emergency landing we would see it differently, that is simply not the case. A ship or aircraft caught in an emergency is always, always, always granted safe haven and treated as survivors. The action taken by the Chinese is unprecedented and violates the principles of travel and safe conduct in International waters and airspace.

Timothy W. Shire
(logged over 1,200 hours in solo flight time most of which over the hostile territory of Western Canada)