A Talk With U.S. Navy Lt. Shane Osborn
By Jody Ewing
August 7, 2003
It began as something simple: a son of America’s Heartland, a ride as a toddler in a war-surplus Piper Cub plane — a boy with a dream. It became an extraordinary story of courage, perseverance, overcoming impossible odds and the making of a hero.
On April 1, 2001, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Shane Osborn was piloting an EP-3 ARIES II reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea when two Chinese F-8II fighters intercepted the slow-flying plane. One Chinese pilot — Wang Wei — began to harass the American plane, coming dangerously close twice before finally colliding with the EP-3’s outer propeller.
The collision split the Chinese plane in half and inflicted catastrophic damage on the U.S. EP-3, blowing debris from its nose, chewing up propeller blades, damaging the fuselage, and throwing it into a steep, near-inverted dive plummeting toward the ocean. By the time the plane has fallen nearly 8,000 feet, the superbly trained Osborn somehow regained control, landing the crippled plane on the Chinese Island of Hainan, where he and his 23 crewmembers immediately were taken into detention.
For the next 11 days, Osborn endured nearly round-the-clock interrogation while shielding his crew from the ordeal. Though he refused to meet Chinese demands, the Norfolk, Neb. native and his crew were freed when the US and Chinese governments reached an agreement for their release.
In Born to Fly: The Untold Story of the Downed American Reconnaissance Plane — published in both adult and young adult editions — Osborn recounts his life-long love of flying and the fateful events that led him to receive the Navy’s highest airmanship honor. Throughout both books, the University of Nebraska naval ROTC graduate speaks of faith, courage, and dedication to one’s country. Osborn will sign copies of the books at Southern Hills Mall’s Waldenbooks on Sunday as part of a Red Cross fundraiser.
In a telephone interview from Seattle, the newly married Osborn spoke about his commitment to country, service, and why he was ‘Born to Fly.’
What did you most hope to accomplish by writing this book?
The thing that was most significant to me was the opportunity to maybe open up some eyes, to not only adults but some younger people with the young adult version, and let them know the importance of having goals and working towards them and more importantly, serving your country. I looked at it as an opportunity to maybe plant a seed in a young person’s head about serving when they graduate high school. I believe it’s very important that we have good men and women serving to maintain this country’s freedom. We’re going to need more of them in the future, and, especially today, I think people realize it and appreciate it.
Can you describe for the Weekender the events leading up to the collision, and what thoughts were going through your mind after it happened?
It was pretty much a standard reconnaissance mission. It wasn’t rare for us to be intercepted, however; in recent weeks they’d become more aggressive in their intercepts. That day we knew right away that it was going to be a very aggressive intercept when they joined up on us the first time and they were inside of my wingspan. We’d never seen nor heard of that happening, where they are only inches away from my propellers.
That happened twice, and so we had a pretty bad feeling that third time when the jet came to rejoin up on us. There were a lot of people in the back looking out; I couldn’t even see him coming because he was coming from the left side and I was in the right seat. I could hear it in their voices that this was not going to be good. When he hit us, we kind of all had a feeling that this might happen at that point. We didn’t know what was going on, why he was being so aggressive and dangerous that day. You just kind of had a feeling in the back of your head that something was going to go wrong because he had already almost hit us twice. When he came back the third time, that’s when we had the collision.
How would you describe those 11 days where you were interrogated and held against your will, and how did you hold up despite the constant sleep deprivation?
All my life I’d wanted to serve and talked to everyone about the importance of serving our country and how proud I was to do it. Now, all the sudden I was put in a position where I was responsible not only for myself, but for 23 other lives. It’s a very intimidating situation, so you’re either going to step up and take it or not. There’s no real choice there but to do what you need to do to get those 23 people home to their families. So it was very intimidating; you don’t want to show them that you’re scared, but inside you’re scared the whole time. Long interrogations, no sleeping and things like that start to get to you but you just kind of have to re-cage yourself. It tests all your beliefs, and you just keep praying and hoping that it will be over soon.
What kind of impact did this have on your family?
(Laughing) A pretty heavy impact, I would say. I aged my parents significantly along with myself during that time. But we’ve always been a very close family, so you could say it brought us closer but we were already close. It wasn’t a change there, but they didn’t regret it at all, either. They knew that since I was a little boy that this is what I was going to do and that there were risks involved. My mom wasn’t too happy seven months later when I left to go to the war in Afghanistan. She understood, though, but wasn’t too happy with me heading off to war that same year. She asked me if I had got enough, and I told her, ‘well, I’ll let you know when I get enough.’
What type of response have you received from young readers?
Excellent. It’s been great. I love going out and talking to kids of all ages. I tell them my story and tie it in, hopefully with something they can relate to. I get e-mails, letters, all types of stuff and I answer them all. I already know of a few that are now in the naval academy and going to college in ROTC programs, and it’s good to hear because they kind of update me with what they’re doing. It’s pretty cool to have the opportunity to help someone out in that way.
How do you define a hero?
To me it’s a word that was used so much I didn’t even want to be associated with it just because of some of the other areas in our culture that we associate with the word hero. Nowadays, I think we’ve been reeducated as to what a hero is. To me, a hero is anyone who serves, not just in the military, but anyone that does a selfless act is a hero in my book.
Did you have a hero as a child?
My mother. I didn’t look up to sports, athletes. I enjoyed sports, but I never looked toward movie stars or athletes or singers as heroes. I was lucky enough that my mom worked at the veteran’s home as I was growing up, so I got to spend a lot of afternoons after school and weekends talking to veterans. So those are the people I looked up to most.
What was the best piece of advice your father or mother ever gave you?
(Laughing) It was pretty much my mom, and there was a lot of it. She just had a steady sense about her, and she taught me by example by how she worked and lived more so than anything. But it would probably be, ‘Do whatever your heart tells you.’