It will take approximately eight months to rebuild the U.S. Navy’s
EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft that was reclaimed from China’s
Lingshui Air Force Base in July, according to the airplane manufacturer,
At press time, the company was in contract negotiations with the
Naval Air Systems Command, the Navy’s aircraft acquisition
branch, for the rebuilding of the PR-32, as that aircraft is known.
Many of the original components of the PR-32 would be reused, said
Mark Norris, a Lockheed Martin engineer who was a member of the
group that dismantled the aircraft and retrieved it from the Lingshui
air base, located on the island of Hainan, People’s Republic
of China. The U.S. Navy paid Lockheed $5.8 million for the recovery
“We are negotiating with the Navy on a contract to rebuild
the PR-32,” Norris said during a briefing in Orlando, Fla.,
at the annual National Defense Industrial Association Testing and
He shared some previously undisclosed details about the recovery
of the EP-3, albeit under Navy-imposed restrictions on what he could
discuss in a public forum.
Among the topics he could not discuss was the status of the computers
and surveillance equipment on the E-P3, used to intercept voice
communications and radio signals.
Based on the conditions of the airframe, Norris estimated it would
take eight months to rebuild the plane, once the contract was signed.
Some of the PR-32’s major components, such as the wings, “are
in perfect shape.” But other items, such as the nose, were
not recovered, because they had been badly damaged in an April 1
collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter. That collision resulted in
the death of the fighter pilot and the near-loss of the EP-3E and
its crew. The U.S. Navy pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, according to service
reports, managed to pull the plane out of an inverted dive and executed
an emergency landing on Lingshui, where the 24-member crew was detained
for 11 days.
Lockheed Martin officials were notified on April 29 that they should
prepare to send a team to recover the airplane. The U.S. Navy instructed
the company to make sure that it salvaged the aircraft’s fuselage,
the nacelles, the landing gear, the quick-engine change (QEC) capabilities
and other P-3 unique components. The QEC facilitates the removal
of the whole engine assembly.
The entire airplane, along with all the equipment used by the recovery
crew, was airlifted away in a giant Russian cargo plane, the Antonov
AN-124. It took 10 sorties—five in and five out of Hainan—to
complete the process.
The recovery of the EP-3—by a team of about a dozen Lockheed
Martin employees and representatives from the U.S. Navy and the
U.S. Pacific Command—took place between June 15 and July 5,
2001. Under an agreement with the United States, the Chinese government
allowed a maximum of 30 days for the recovery work. That was a fairly
tight deadline, given the complexity of the task, but not unreasonable,
said Norris. However, the fact that the recovery team had to bring
in every conceivable piece of equipment and personal supplies to
survive for 30 days,
“Even our own Gatorade,” said Norris, made it more
difficult. “In a friendlier nation, we wouldn’t have
had to bring so much equipment in,” he said. Temporary living
quarters for the crew had to be built from scratch, with 14,000
pounds of lumber that were flown into the island. “In a friendlier
nation, we would have subcontracted more services,” said Norris.
A U.S. physician was among the crew. Every single item that flew
into or out of Hainan had to be logged and approved by Customs authorities.
A big source of discomfort, meanwhile, was the unpleasant climate,
typically experienced in July in that part of the world, Norris
Temperatures at Lingshui averaged more than 100 degrees, with humidity
above 90 percent. There also were monsoon rains and winds, said
Norris. The first day on the job, the crew drank 160 bottles of
water, and “was having a tough time staying hydrated,”
In addition to the grueling weather, there was another source of
vexation for the crew: constant monitoring by the Chinese. The host
country mostly was concerned about the potential damage that the
huge AN-124 could inflict on the runway, Norris said. For each sortie,
the gigantic plane was loaded with 678,400 pounds of cargo. That
was the maximum weight that had been estimated as permissible, to
avoid runway damage.
Norris had nothing but avid praise for the AN-124. “The AN-124
was chosen because of airfield compatibility and because the cube
fits the bill,” said Norris. “It turned out to be a
great choice for us.”
Not only did the AN-124 transport 162 tons of equipment without
major glitches, but it also moved about swiftly on a small runway,
he said. “It turns on a dime.” That was an important
feature, Norris explained, “because there were restrictions
to maneuvering the aircraft.”
The AN-124 is slightly taller and wider than a U.S. Air Force C-5
Galaxy. “We needed that, in order to preserve the fuselage,”
Norris said. A military cargo plane was not an option for this project,
because the Chinese government only had authorized the United States
to use commercial airlift. Only three companies in the world operate
the AN-124 commercially. Lockheed selected Polet Cargo Services.
Fire protection services were subcontracted from Hainan Airlines.
Lockheed gave away the EP-3’s fuel to the airlines. The fuel
was about the only item that the crew did not have to pick up and
remove. The Chinese government’s marching orders were that
“everything that came in had to go,” said Norris.
The staging area for the EP-3 recovery operation was 1,600 miles
away, at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base, in Japan, home to the Fifth
Air Force’s 18th wing. Kadena’s runways are compatible
with the AN-124.
The disassembly of PR-32 began on June 19, when a “key piece
of equipment arrived,” said Norris. That was the so-called
“fuselage recovery trailer,” which would make it possible
to load the fuselage of the EP-3 into the 124’s cargo bay,
and unload it, without bending the metal. It was a customized trailer
that Lockheed engineers designed on computers at the company’s
plant in Marietta, Ga., a few weeks before the trip to China. Norris
explained that when Lockheed engineers designed the trailer, they
already knew that it would have to fit the specifications of the
By June 22, they began to cut off pieces of the aircraft. They
jacked the nose and removed the tail. The next day, the engines
were stripped off. The PR-32’s four engines were returned
to the Navy logistics pipeline for reuse. Norris was particularly
pleased that they had been able to salvage all four engine nacelles.
The nacelles, he said, “are worth their weight in gold to
the P-3 community. They are very hard to come by.”
The wings were removed with 12 chord-wise cuts. By June 27, the
trailer had been installed and the main gear removed. With a heavy
crane, the fuselage was loaded into the cargo plane on July 3.
The disassembled aircraft, including the fuselage, arrived at Dobbins
Air Force Base, in Marietta, on July 5. It currently is stored in
The United States recently sent a $34,000 payment to China for
expenses related to the incident, including feeding the U.S. Navy
crew for 11 days. It is not clear how much of that amount covered
any recovery-related expenses. China originally had asked for $1
The Chinese “are unhappy [and] didn’t accept the check,”
said Peter W. Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international
security affairs. “I am not sure what happens next,”
he told reporters last month. “It would be good to put this
episode behind us.”