PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – The 11-day journey of the crew of the downed U.S. Navy surveillance plane isn't quite over yet.
From trained fliers on a reconnaissance mission to "guests" and then captives of China, the 24 crew members face more questioning Friday -- this time from U.S. authorities -- as they prepare for the final leg of their 6,000-mile trip home.
The 21 men and three women are scheduled to leave Hawaii at 7:30 a.m. Saturday for their home base, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state.
Quartered at a restricted naval base in Hawaii for a second day, they were being debriefed by dozens of military investigators about their aircraft's collision with a Chinese fighter jet April 1, their harrowing emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan, the treatment they received and intelligence matters.
But the prospect of more paperwork was lightened by the cheering crowd and the brass band playing "God Bless America" that welcomed them as they stepped out of a military transport plane at Hickam Air Force Base Thursday morning.
Donning flower leis, they began the same day in freedom that they had begun in captivity 16 hours earlier on the other side of the International Date Line.
"We're all healthy and ready to go home," said Lt. Shane Osborn, the pilot of the EP-3E Aries II electronic surveillance plane.
About 300 well-wishers, some clutching small American flags, joined military officials and Hawaii's members of Congress at Thursday's welcoming ceremony.
"It's a great morning here in Hawaii and a great day for America," Adm. Thomas Fargo, Pacific Fleet commander, told the crew. "May your reunion with family and loved ones be a joyous one indeed."
Before the crew was whisked away to Pearl Harbor Naval Base to begin 12 hours of debriefings, President Bush spoke by telephone to Osborn as the rest of the crew listened on speakerphone.
"Welcome home. We appreciate you. You did your duty. You represent the best of America,'' the president said. "As an old F-102 pilot, let me tell you, Shane, you did a heckuva job bringing that aircraft down. You made your country proud."
In a telephone call to his mother, Osborn said the crew struggled to land the crippled surveillance plane after the collision.
"He said it took every bit of strength that he had. All the crew helped," Diane Osborn of Norfolk, Neb., told MSNBC. "He was well-trained by the Navy, and I thank God he gave him the strength to get it down."
Pierre Frenay, a pilot on the chartered jet that flew the crew from Hainan to a stopover in Guam, told NBC that Osborn reported that the crew had considered bailing out of the stricken plane.
On base, the crew members were housed in hotel-like officers' quarters. Each was given a cellular phone, Internet access, news clippings about their ordeal and meals of their choosing, the Navy said.
There was little time for rest between debriefing sessions, but a Navy official who spent half an hour with the crew said they were "a little tired, but in very good spirits."
"A couple of them put their heads down on the desk during breaks," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He described the sessions as "friendly."
All 24 crew members passed a preliminary medical check and "everyone's saying they have great appetites," the official said.
He said many of the crew were eager to tell their side of the story after getting their only reports about the collision from China's state-run news media, but "foremost in their mind is going home."
A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said crew members told debriefers their plane had been flying level on autopilot and on a fixed course and altitude when the Chinese plane hit it, coming from underneath.
MSNBC reported that officials said the Chinese plane came to close to the U.S. plane on a pass, suddenly slowed down and was struck by the larger plane's propeller, getting cut in two. The Navy plane then went into a nearly fatal "screaming dive," one crew member reportedly said.
"From all the evidence we have seen, the United States aircraft was operating in international airspace, in full accordance with all laws, procedures and regulations and did nothing to cause the accident," Bush said Thursday.
Bush held the crew blameless for the incident and said U.S. officials would have some "tough questions" for the Chinese when they meet on Wednesday to discuss the incident and the return of the plane.
China has refused to release the aircraft. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said Beijing holds the United States entirely responsible for the collision and is keeping the plane, which used high-tech listening devices to monitor the Chinese military, for investigation.
The Pentagon has said the U.S. crew destroyed as much of the top-secret codes and intelligence as they could before the Chinese came aboard.
The Chinese fighter jet crashed after the collision, and the pilot is presumed dead.
America secured the release of the crew only after the U.S. government changed its official position from expressions of "regret" to the word "sorry" to "very sorry" for the Chinese pilot's death and for the U.S. plane's landing in China without permission.