VQ-1 skipper praises crew

"Calling the crew's decision-making flawless, Cmdr. Bernard Lessard, commanding officer of VQ-1, praised the EP-3E surveillance plane that was forced to make an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan April 1. The crew was detained by the Chinese government for 11 days following the crash-landing. The Whidbey 24 were released from custody on Wednesday April 11, and went to Guam and Hawaii before finally returning home to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on Saturday, April 14, to a heroes welcome.The EP-3E was piloted by Lt. Shane Osborn, with Lt. j.g. Regina Kauffman as the navigator, specifically navigator trainee, Lessard said. After the mid-air collision with a Chinese F8 fighter jet, the EP-3E went into a near-inverted dive over the South China Sea. Osborn managed to regain control of the badly-damaged aircraft, while Kauffman located the landing strip at Lingshui, China, on navigational maps, Lessard said. Osborn safely landed the EP-3E at Lingshui about 20 minutes after impact with the Chinese jet, which crashed into the sea, presumably killing its pilot.Asked his opinion, based on his own experience flying EP-3Es, on how difficult it must have been for Osborn to regain control and safely land the aircraft, Lessard said, I firmly believe that God was at the controls.The crew performed above and beyond their duty, Lessard said, crediting the Navy's aircrew training for the crew's automatic response to take care of the emergency.They had their priorities straight, Lessard said. Everybody rose to the situation and did exactly what they were supposed to do.Lessard said in his professional opinion, Osborn could not have ditched the plane into the ocean or ordered the crew to bail out. First the aircraft would have hit the surface like a brick wall, Lessard said, and second, the water temperature would have made it difficult for the crew to survive in the water for an extended period, making the bail out option undesirable.If it weren't for the airstrip at Lingshui, Lessard said the crew would not have survived.None of the aircrew was injured when the EP-3E took the dive, because it maintained positive G's the whole time, Lessard said, meaning that the crewmembers were each pinned in their places, as opposed to being tossed around the plane. Lessard and VQ-1's Command Master Chief David Wallsteadt, recounted some of the experiences, from the VQ-1 command perspective, on the incident and the 11 days the crew was detained.Early on we provided individual points-of-contact from the squadron to the families, of the detained crew, Lessard said. Feedback he has received from the families indicates that they were pleased with the support the squadron provided. VQ-1 officials met two times daily to determine verifiable information to pass along to the families. Then contact was made with the families two times daily to pass along the information or, if no new information was available, to let the families know, we're still here ... we're a lifeline for you, said Lessard.In addition to providing information and support to the affected families, Lessard and Wallsteadt kept open the lines of communication with all members of the VQ-1 command, totaling more than 600 sailors, making it the largest operating squadron in the Navy.You have to treat this as an entire squadron issue, Lessard said. Many under his command were affected because they either knew members of the detained crew personally or had thoughts that 'it could have been me,' Lessard said.Wallsteadt said he would regularly post updated information on the detained crew on a board in the duty office, to keep squadron members from feeling disenfranchised.We tried to keep everyone equally informed, Lessard said.Importantly, VQ-1 also had to maintain business as usual throughout the ordeal and try to maintain a semblance of normalcy, Lessard said.The flights in international airspace off the China coast have not yet resumed, and are still under diplomatic negotiation between the U.S. and China.During the first week of the detainment, spouses of the crewmembers got together on Wednesday. A representative of the American Red Cross was there, putting together care packages for the crew of 24. The idea of including a letter in the packages was considered briefly, until it was decided that written letters might pose a security concern, Lessard said. Then the idea of sending e-mail came up.Wallsteadt called the U.S. embassy in Beijing, to get an e-mail address for the embassy, so messages could be sent to the crew. Details were worked out for the e-mails to get from the embassy, through U.S. diplomats, and eventually into the hands of the crew.We were pretty excited about that ... that they were able to pull that off, Lessard said of the e-mail chain.As the nation woke up to the news on April 11 that the crew would be released, Wallsteadt had already been on the job for several hours.I got the call at 03:40. I got dressed in about five minutes and got down here, Wallsteadt said. He immediately began contacting the squadron's points-of-contacts for the families, so the preliminary information could be relayed to the loved ones, anxiously awaiting word.Lessard was already in Japan, waiting to take his crew home. When the chartered Continental jet landed on Hainan to take the crew home, Lessard was on board. Now that the crew is home, they have been grounded for 30 days, Lessard said, but they are anxious to get back up and flying.They wanted to fly this week, Lessard said.All crewmembers are now on leave, and some have stayed in the area, while others are traveling. Several are expected to grand-marshal Oak Harbor's Holland Happening parade April 28.AT2 David Cecka is staying home.Cecka's wife, Nikki, also active-duty Navy at Whidbey Naval Air Station, said this week that her husband is trying to reacclimate himself to regular life.He's home with the baby, Nikki said, enjoying being daddy to 3-month-old son, Cameron, who was just a month-and-a-half old when Cecka left on the deployment during the first week of March.One of the major outstanding issues that U.S. diplomats are dealing with is the return of the EP-3E surveillance plane which remains grounded at the airstrip on Hainan Island.Asked if he wants his plane back, Lessard said, Absolutely.Then he added, It's gonna need a lot of T.L.C.You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at or call 675-6611 "

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