First flight with parts of dismantled Navy spy plane went to Okinawa |

First flight with parts of dismantled Navy spy plane went to Okinawa

WASHINGTON (AP) – Exactly three months after the U.S. Navy EP-3E spy plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island, it began returning in pieces to U.S. custody, officials said Monday.

Parts of the dismantled aircraft were flown aboard a Russian-designed cargo plane to Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa on Sunday. The cargo plane is to make a final flight with the EP-3E’s stripped-down fuselage on Wednesday, U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Maj. Sean Gibson said.

The EP-3E was part of an electronic surveillance group based at Kadena. Its return in pieces will mark an end to an episode that put severe strain on the U.S.-China relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney said ”the jury’s out” on whether the United States and China can forge stronger bonds.

”We’re not enemies at this point, probably not friends either,” Cheney said in a telephone interview with WHAM, an all-news radio station in Rochester, N.Y. He said the two countries share common interests, including maintaining peace in Asia.

”Occasionally our interests come into conflict as they did earlier this year when we had the accident involving our surveillance aircraft, the EP3, and that led to a confrontation but we were able to get it worked out,” he said. ”So, the jury’s out. … But over time, if we keep working at it, hopefully we can build the kind of relationship that’s founded on trust and we’re not adversaries.”

The crated spy plane will be flown from Kadena to Lockheed Martin’s aircraft plant in Marietta, Ga., this week, officials said. The Navy has said it hopes to have the EP-3E put back together and returned to service.

The United States originally wanted to repair the EP-3E at the Lingshui military airfield on Hainan Island, where it had stood since the April emergency landing, but China refused to permit that. As an alternative, the United States sent Lockheed Martin technicians to the island to remove the plane’s wings, all four engines, its landing gear, radome, tail section and other parts.

The Lockheed Martin team arrived on Hainan Island on June 15 to begin the dismantling project.

Gibson, the Pacific Command spokesman, said he did not immediately have full details on the schedule for the final flight carrying the EP-3E’s fuselage from Hainan Island. He said Sunday’s flight carried some plane parts to Kadena aboard a chartered Antonov-124 cargo plane. The flight was not announced.

The Antonov-124 was returning to Hainan to pick up the fuselage, Gibson said.

The propeller-driven EP-3E landed on Hainan on April 1 after colliding in flight with a Chinese fighter jet while on a surveillance mission over the South China Sea. China blamed the crash on the U.S. plane and detained its 24-member crew on Hainan for 11 days. The Chinese pilot was killed.

The plane’s crew destroyed much of the plane’s sensitive eavesdropping devices and data before they left it, but China is believed to have removed some equipment and may have gleaned some useful information.

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