U.S. Team En Route to China to Inspect Plane

A group of technicians from an American aerospace company headed for China on Monday to determine whether the damaged Navy spy plane can be flown back to the United States or will have to be disassembled.

The five or so technicians from Lockheed Martin, main contractor for the EP-3E aircraft, left Hawaii after they were briefed by military officials for several hours.

They will inspect the plane on Hainan Island, where it landed after a collision with a Chinese fighter jet April 1.

"It's like taking your car to the mechanic to take a look at it after it crashed," said Lt. Col. Stephen Barger, U.S. Pacific Command spokesman.

Another team will probably be sent to repair or remove the plane, depending on the assessment team's recommendations, he said.

"The less you have to tear it apart the better," Barger said. "Like your car, you'd rather have it in one piece than several."

Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday the plane cannot be flown now and will probably have to be taken out on a barge. Barger said U.S. officials also will consider using a C-5 or C-17 aircraft to carry it out.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier that the Chinese apparently had ruled out allowing the plane to be repaired and flown out on its own.

The 24-member crew was held on Hainan Island for 11 days by the Chinese before being allowed to return to the United States.

The technical team from Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Md., is expected to remain on Hainan at least two days, then return to Hawaii to be debriefed.