'Whidbey 24' Head for a Hero's Welcome

Flags and banners decorate a hanger on the Whidbey Island air base, and across the city "Welcome Home" signs have gone up among the yellow ribbons.

More than 10,000 people are expected for a grand celebration Saturday afternoon to welcome home the crew of a U.S. spy plane crew held for 11 days in China.

"I think everybody's planning on going," said Lisa Aydelotte, who lives near the base on an island about 50 miles north of Seattle.

"Whether you know them or not, you're there. In this community, you instantly become family when you move here," she said.

On Friday, Aydelotte helped students at her daughter's elementary school prepare giant letters spelling out "WELCOME HOME VQ1" -- a reference to the returning crew's unit, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One.

Military personnel, politicians, civilians and far-flung family members all were invited to the homecoming at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

President Bush decided against attending, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Friday. The president "does not believe that politicians need to always insert themselves into tender moments," he said.

"What's important is that everyone come home without a lot of hoop-de-la," Fleischer told reporters in Crawford, Texas.

After the official welcome, the crew members will begin up to a month of time off, said Capt. Bill Marriott, commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 at Whidbey. Navy officials want to make sure the crew is mentally ready to handle a return to duty, he said.

The crew's ordeal began April 1 when their EP-3E Navy surveillance plane was crippled in a collision with a Chinese fighter jet and made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island. The Chinese fighter and its pilot were lost.

The crew was held for 11 days until the diplomatic stalemate ended with the words "very sorry" from U.S. officials. U.S. officials say it was an expression of regret, not an apology as Chinese officials have characterized it.

Ramon Mercado Sr., his wife, their two grown daughters and their families were heading to Whidbey to welcome 23-year-old Ramon Mercado Jr. home.

"I'm just excited, and I can't wait for when I can hug my son again," Mercado said. "Thank God he's alive."