The 'sweetest landing'
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:36 PM
"He saw the cars first. Hundreds of them, parked near the flight line. As the DC-9 made a pass-over of Hangar 6, he saw thousands of people below, fanned out around the hangar, and he wondered how he was going to find his family.The aircraft landed at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Ault Field, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. One by one the crew filed off the plane to a waiting red carpet and a row of dignitaries for a formal welcome home that involved saluting and hand-shaking.At the end of the row of dignitaries, Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class David Cecka turned to face the crowd, not knowing how on earth he'd spot his wife, Nikki, and infant son, Cameron among the flag-waving, cheering masses. So, he simply began to walk.Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Nikki was before him, coming toward him, their baby cradled in her arms.Then everything stopped, the noise of the crowd, everything, David said this week at his Oak Harbor home.The family was reunited in front of 7,000 at Ault Field and a TV audience of millions more. Yet, that didn't matter. He could hug and kiss his wife and take his son into his arms, and the rest of the world, for a moment, went away.The baby, practically a newborn when David left home in March, is now much bigger and able to focus his eyes. On first sight the baby's eyes locked with David's, and for the first time ever, David knew that his son could actually see him.David raised the baby into the air and said, Wow!The previous 11-day ordeal began to melt away. David was home.Being in the military is an unusual job.It is difficult enough for military members and their families to face the varied and extraordinary circumstances that come with military life and responsibility without having some international incident throwing a monkey wrench into their plans.When David left on deployment to Japan, he didn't expect to be home for three months. Nor did he expect to be detained by the Chinese government.America held its breath for 11 days earlier this month, waiting for the return of the U.S. aircrew detained on the island of Hainan. Crew members from VQ-1 squadron based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, were forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan after their EP-3E aircraft was bumped, mid-air, by a Chinese F8 intercept jet over the South China Sea.The Chinese released the crew April 11.Cecka, along with his 23 crewmates, returned to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station on April 14 to a heroes welcome.There was something in Dave's eyes when he got off the plane that he wasn't quite himself, said Nikki. David described why.I just started distancing myself from the whole situation, David said of the China incident. It seemed like I could think clearer if I distanced myself.Additionally, David said, military training and structure took over during the 11-day ordeal.After two weeks at home, Nikki said David is more like his old self again.It was like watching the color go back into something, Nikki said.Looking healthy and appearing relaxed in the living room of the couple's apartment, David told the story, from his perspective, of the 11 day-incident that the rest of the world watched from the outside.When an EP-3E on a routine reconnaissance flight is intercepted, everyone on the plane knows about it, David said. Some of the crew goes to windows of the aircraft to look out at the intercept aircraft.David saw Chinese pilot Wang Wei flying alongside the EP-3E.I saw he was real close, about three feet from the surveillance plane's wing tip, David said.'Scary moment'At that point David went back to his seat, where he operated radar equipment, and strapped himself in. He didn't expect anything to happen. David thought the Chinese pilot was just playing games.Then, in a split second something devastating and irreversible happened - something that would forever change the lives of dozens of people.There was a loud bang and the plane went nose down, David said. He knew the Chinese F-8 fighter jet must have hit the EP-3E.I got a sense of panic right at first. Right after that my training kicked in, he said.Describing everybody on the crew as really calm, David said the crew set about putting on parachutes. As the plane was taking the dive, the crew felt some serious Gs and it got to the point, David said, where he couldn't stand up and he couldn't breath. His parachute was stowed right above where he was sitting, and he managed to reach it and put it on.It was a scary moment, David said.But, he added, the crew performed just like they had practiced many times. They knew what they had to do and did it.We were seconds from opening the door and bailing out, David said. Then Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot, and the flight crew, regained control of the aircraft, and Osborn secured us from bail out, David said, meaning they were told to not parachute from the plane.The crew went through emergency destruct procedures, during which, David said, All kinds of equipment and paperwork needs to be destroyed and disposed of.David heard the pilot was going to ditch the plane into the ocean. He said he knew of successful P3 ditches made in the past, but the EP-3E is different because it has a lot more equipment, making it heavier. In addition, weather conditions were not perfect that day. The sea was choppy.David lost his headphones and microphone, which flew off of him during the collision. This left him unable to communicate with the rest of the crew. He did not hear, then, that the flight crew determined that ditching was not an option, and the aircraft still had sufficient flight controls to make it to land.Then someone called out that the plane was over land.I stopped worrying about water and I started to worry about mountains and trees, David said. Then he heard someone say an airstrip was in sight.Osborn circled the airstrip once and called for the emergency landing, David said. The aircraft was badly damaged, minus an engine, and overweight, as its fuel tanks were still rather full. Yet, David, who has more than 2,000 flight hours in EP-3Es said, This was one of the smoothest, sweetest landings he had ever felt.It was amazing. Everyone just cheered, David said.When the plane stopped, the crew gathered their gear and began to talk about how we'd conduct ourselves with the Chinese, he said. When asked if any of the crew could speak Chinese, David said he could not comment on that, but he did say, During our stay there none of us spoke Chinese.Chinese 'display of force'The Chinese military soon approached the U.S. Navy aircraft, telling the flight crew to power down the plane and lower the ladder. The crew then filed out. At the bottom of the ladder stood two Chinese armed guards, and a row of Chinese military personnel formed a corridor leading to a waiting bus. The Chinese were armed with bolt-action-style rifles, Cecka said.They had a display of force but never pointed their weapons at us, David said.The crew boarded the bus and were left on it with a Chinese driver. Some of the Chinese personnel asked if any of them were hurt, and then offered them water and cigarettes.The crew was left on the bus, parked in the same spot, for about two hours, David said. Occasionally, someone would come to check on them and a lot of people came up and took pictures, he said.With the preceding events happening so quickly, David said he hadn't had time to think about what was happening. But there, on the bus, he began to assess the situation.It was definitely a time of considering exactly what was going on, he said. It was then he realized that he could think more clearly if he distanced himself.After the wait on the bus, the crew was taken to a nearby compound to eat, then it was on to another compound where rooms were set up and waiting for them. The 24 U.S. crewmembers were put two to three in each room, where they would remain for two days.From the comfort of the Cecka's cozy, neat and clean Oak Harbor apartment, David told of the condition under which the crew was made to live.It was pretty dirty, David said, describing his room which was furnished with old beds and was infested with bugs. The toilet was simply a hole in the floor that hadn't been cleaned forever, David said. The shower was nothing more than a spigot that drizzled water.The Chinese brought the crew some basic essentials, such as toothpaste and laundry powder. They were given shorts and tank tops to wear so they could change out of their clothes and use laundry soap to wash their undergarments.It seemed to me that they made the effort to at least accommodate our basic needs, David said.Two days later the crew was loaded onto vans for a long cross-country trip to the northern part of Hainan Island. The trip was an eye-opener for David, who said that during the trip they saw people, Chinese civilians, living in ditches, with hardly any clothing, surviving in utter poverty. The vans made no stops during the drive of about two hours.(The Chinese) were real concerned about security, David said. It was David's impression that the Chinese didn't want anyone to know where they were taking the U.S. aircrew.At the new compound, which David said was in Haiku, they were directed to the fourth and fifth floors of a barracks, where they stayed for the remainder of their detention. The crew was put two to a room, and David stayed with a crewmate who was his roommate before he married Nikki. The Chinese officer quarters were below the standards of a cheap American motel, David said. His group was made to stay inside their rooms, except at meal times, with no contact with the other crewmember groups.David and his roommate found ways to pass the time. Acting under the assumption they could have been detained there indefinitely, David and his roommate, who David asked not be identified, exercised daily inside the room and kept their room clean. They collected the caps of water bottles, and made a chess board out of cardboard, he said. They played card games with the deck of cards the Chinese gave them.The Chinese would wake up the crew at all hours of the night, David said, to bring them downstairs to a conference-type room to read them propaganda. He said the propaganda consisted mainly of all the stuff that was our fault, according to the Chinese. On one such nightly meeting, the propaganda was followed by the first visit by defense attache to China, Army Brig. Gen. Sealock, attired in full dress uniform.It was complete relief, David said of seeing Sealock. Prior to Sealock's visit, the 24 crewmembers had no idea how much the U.S. government knew about their situation.Comfort of homeNikki received a phone call in the middle of the night of Saturday, March 31.It happened. They're on deck in China. Don't talk to anyone, Nikki said she was told. All the Navy had to go by was the last transmission received from the EP-3E upon landing on Hainan.The first 60 hours were unbearable, Nikki said. While she was going through the unkown, Nikki said to herself, Oh my God. This is like a bad Tom Clancy novel.Finally, at 11:35 p.m. Chinese time on the third day, the Chinese agreed to Sealock's visit, and Nikki was told by phone that David, and the rest of the crew, were OK.Nikki, a U.S. Navy aviation electrician 3rd class, has flown on EP-3Es and having firsthand military knowledge made the situation a little more scary for her.It made me realize how close we came to losing him in a crash, she said.Nikki works at the base chapel, and said she was given tremendous support.I relied on Chaplain (Jon) Conroe a lot, Nikki said.There were times she didn't even want to go home because the national media were camped at her door. She said she didn't know if photo images of her and the baby could be used in some kind of Chinese interrogation of David. Some nights she would take the baby and stay at the chapel offices.David listened attentively as his wife spoke. In a show of love and support he casually and instinctively would place his hand on her petite shoulder or caress her ankle with his toes.You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 675-6611 "