China hailed a missing fighter pilot as a hero Thursday but seemed to be preparing an anxious public for the likelihood that he is dead after a collision with a U.S. Navy spy plane. 

The fate of Wang Wei could be key to solving the crisis over the collision. Analysts believe China won't release the U.S. spy plane's 24 crew members until it finds the missing pilot or declares him dead.

Reports in China lionized Wang as an "outstanding squadron leader'' whose excellent grades won him a place in flight school.

"Our valiant and heroic fighter pilot,'' the China Women's News said Thursday in a caption alongside a photo of Wang standing in the cockpit of a plane.

But in Washington, senators said Wang was known to U.S. surveillance plane crews and regularly tried to toss them around in the wake of his jet.

"This pilot ... even flew next to our pilots and showed them his e-mail address, to show you what kind of a hot-dog pilot he was," said Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee 

"The pilot involved is apparently the same pilot who's been observed by our reconnaissance aircraft in the past," said a senior committee member, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. "It appears to me on this occasion he simply exceeded his grasp.''

Four days after Wang parachuted out of his crippled F-8, China said Thursday that planes and boats were still searching the South China Sea. State-run newspapers carried photos of sailors peering through binoculars.

But Xinhua, the state news agency, also suggested chances of finding Wang alive were slim.
Waves, winds and currents most likely washed him away from the crash site, complicating the search, Xinhua said. With 6-foot-high waves and tropical sunshine in the area, it said, rescuers were "worrying whether the pilot could survive.''

"With the passage of time, the threat posed by the sea's harsh environment to the life of Comrade Wang Wei becomes greater and greater,'' Xinhua quoted China's navy commander, Adm. Shi Yunsheng, as saying.

One state newspaper, the Guangzhou Daily, carried a front-page photo of Wang bordered in black. "The U.S. side must apologize,'' the headline said.

The photos of Wang showed a fresh-faced 33-year-old in uniform. State media said he was from Zhejiang province in the southeast, had been married for nine years and had a 6-year-old son.

Xinhua also released a photo Thursday of Wang's mother lying in a hospital bed. A photo editor at the agency said she was sick with grief.

China says the U.S. Navy EP-3E veered suddenly, bumping Wang's F-8 jet, sent up to track the surveillance flight. But U.S. military officials say it was more likely that Wang's nimble jet bumped the lumbering, propeller-driven American plane.

U.S. officials say they will have to talk to their crew to know for certain. China has allowed only one meeting with U.S. diplomats since the crew made an emergency landing on the southern island of Hainan.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman defended Wang's actions, saying China was entitled to track and monitor U.S. surveillance flights.

"If there are people constantly harassing you in front of your courtyard and you go out to see what is happening, it's entirely normal,'' said spokesman Sun Yuxi.

China's consul general in New York, Zhang Hongxi, also laid blame on the U.S. surveillance flight. "This time your big plane hit our small fighter jet,'' Zhang said.

U.S. officials said China has turned down offers to help search for Wang.

"We don't need any outside help,'' Sun said.