WASHINGTON – U.S. technicians who inspected a damaged Navy spy plane on China's Hainan island reported that it could be repaired and flown off the island, officials said Friday. The Pentagon, however, has not decided how to proceed.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said privately that he prefers that it be flown to U.S. territory, but China has indicated to American officials in Beijing that it would not permit that, according to two defense officials who discussed the matter on condition they not be identified.
An alternative would be to partially disassemble the four-engine turboprop plane and transport it by barge or aircraft.
It was unclear Friday whether the Bush administration would press Beijing for permission to fly it home.
Rumsfeld was expected to consult with Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, on Saturday before deciding how to proceed. The Lockheed Martin team that inspected the plane was heading to Blair's headquarters in Hawaii on Saturday to submit its findings, officials said.
"All required inspections are complete," said spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Terry Sutherland. "They got what they needed."
The inspection took a day longer than originally planned because on Thursday the Chinese military hampered the technicians' efforts by refusing to provide power to check the plane's electrical systems.
The work went smoothly on Friday, Sutherland said. They spent about six hours with the plane and finished their work at 4:30 p.m. local time (4:30 a.m. EDT), the spokesman said. In addition to checking the electrical system aboard the plane they checked the fuel, hydraulics and other systems.
The damaged reconnaissance plane has been on the tarmac of a military airfield on Hainan since April 1. It made an emergency landing after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. Its American crew was held on Hainan for 11 days before being released, resulting in weeks of touchy relations between Washington and Beijing.
The Bush administration has insisted it will resume normal surveillance flights off China's coast -- over China's strong objections -- but there apparently have been no flights since the April 1 collision.
On Thursday, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley was asked about reports that the Chinese on Hainan had confiscated items from the American technical team. Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said the team was not allowed to bring into China their own satellite telephone system. That left the team with phone communications that could be monitored by the Chinese.
The technicians from Lockheed Martin Corp., maker of the EP-3E, spent about four hours inspecting the plane Wednesday.
The plane lost its nose cone and at least one of its four propeller engines was damaged. The impact pushed the plane into an 8,000-foot dive before the pilot regained control.
The Chinese fighter apparently broke in half, killing pilot Wang Wei.
It wasn't clear whether the problems encountered by the Lockheed team were related to Rumsfeld's order to require advance approval of any Defense Department contact with the Chinese military. On Wednesday the Pentagon released, and then withdrew, a memo saying it was suspending such ties.
The Pentagon had previously said it was going to reconsider how to proceed with contacts.