Heroic pilot becomes a celebrity

Lt. Shane Osborn’s face became internationally known after the April 2001 collision with a Chinese plane. - Ken George
Lt. Shane Osborn’s face became internationally known after the April 2001 collision with a Chinese plane.
— image credit: Ken George

U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborn may have had the worst-case scenario racing through his mind as he struggled to regain control of his crippled aircraft. His immediate mission was to save his crew of 23 and the large reconnaissance plane.

Landing safely on the Chinese island of Hainan, Osborn may then have envisioned a future of imprisonment and interrogation. There was a bit of that, but Osborn likely never considered the positive side of things — he was to became a celebrity in the United States, a condition that would continue into 2002.

It all began as a routine reconnaissance mission off the coast of China on April 1, 2001, and ended as an 11-day ordeal and a life-changing event for Osborn. The ending was happy, with the safe return of all crew members and the eventual return of the aircraft to the U.S. government.

Osborn was the pilot of the EP-3E airplane that collided with a Chinese F8 fighter jet and made an emergency landing on Hainan. The Chinese pilot died. The Chinese government detained the U.S. crew of 24 for a week-and-a-half before U.S. diplomats negotiated their release.

The crew and the plane were home-stationed with VQ-1 at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. They returned to Whidbey Island on April 14 to a warm welcoming ceremony attended by thousands. It was then that Osborn’s life began to change.

He received the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, a medal awarded for heroism and extraordinary achievement in flight. Gen. Harry Shelton, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pinned the medal onto Osborn’s uniform in a formal ceremony in Washington, D.C. While there, Osborn met President George W. Bush.

But that’s not all.

Osborn became an instant celebrity, and he appeared on major network news programs and in print media. His name became a household word in America. People Magazine named Osborn one of its “50 Most Beautiful People.”

And he seized the opportunity offered by sudden fame.

On Nov. 13, 2001 Random House released two books authored by Osborn, co-written by Malcolm McConnell. Both are titled “Born to Fly,”but with different subtitles. One is a children’s book with a nine to 12-year-old reading level, and the other is for adults. Osborn has a publicist who is not connected to the U.S. government or the U.S. Navy.

Osborn’s name, it seems, is appearing everywhere, even in the form of a domain name on the World Wide Web. Fans can log on to to read a brief biography of the 27-year-old Navy pilot, learn about the books he is selling, and view a picture gallery, including a shot of Osborn on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Somehow, Osborn is managing to blend the responsibilities of being a U.S. Navy officer with the pursuit of personal fame and success. He still flies an EP-3E, and is currently on deployment with VQ-1. But he’s a lot better known than he was on that fateful day in 2001 when the Chinese jet changed his life.

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