Since there has been little comment in the media on fighter pilots and how they operate when flying in close proximity to large aircraft, I thought I'd make a few points based on my 25 years of flying fighters (F-84s, F-100s, F-4s and F-15s).
It is often necessary for fighter pilots to intercept and fly close to large aircraft. For instance, when conducting air refueling operations, the lead aircraft in a fighter formation will conduct an air intercept on the large tanker. When the fighters get within about a half mile of the tanker, they will slow their overtake speed to about 20 knots in order to insure that they do not endanger or overshoot the tanker.
Each fighter will take on gas in turn while the other fighters will fly on the wing of the tanker. During refueling, the fighter flies within about 20 feet of the tanker so that his refueling receptacle can be reached by the tanker's air refueling boom.
There are many other opportunities for fighters to fly close to large aircraft. For instance, on a number of occasions, I have been asked to fly close to airliners and military cargo aircraft to check out the exterior of the large plane for engine fire damage or suspected hydraulic or fuel leaks, which the pilot of the large aircraft could not see from his cockpit.
On one occasion, an airliner had lost its airspeed indicator. I flew on its wing, reading off airspeeds every few seconds all the way to the touchdown of the airliner.
The closest that I ever flew to a large aircraft was about five feet when I was flying on the wing of a tanker aircraft on a long flight to Europe. The weather and in-flight visibility were so bad and I had to fly very close in order to keep the tip of the tanker's wing in my sight.
In the case of the Chinese F-8 aircraft, this fighter made three passes at the U.S. Navy E-P3 aircraft. In each case, the Chinese fighter pilot flew much closer than was necessary to gain the information on tail number, speed, flight direction, altitude which he needed for full identification purposes.
His maneuvers were not only unnecessary and dangerous, they were well beyond what the hottest American fighter jock would do. Also, because the EP-3 was flying at 180 knots at 22,000 feet, the Chinese F-8 was operating at a high angle of attack and hence was mushing around the sky. His flight controls were nowhere near as responsive to his commands as they would have been if he had been flying at 300 knots or faster.
Since these harassing missions have been carried out by Chinese fighters for a long time, it cannot be assumed that this was the act of a single, undisciplined, hotdog Chinese fighter pilot. The United States made its first official protest to the Chinese foreign ministry in 1994 and although not every EP-3 has been harassed in this way, the harassment flights have increased in recent months.
Hence, the responsibility for this accident must rest with the Chinese government, its military and, more specifically, the Chinese Air Force.
Just when it needs American support in four major areas, the Chinese government managed in a period of two weeks to make some huge tactical and strategic blunders. The Chinese have put at risk American support for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, for Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization, for renewal of most favored nation trade status, and for American moderation on an upcoming American arms sales agreement with Taiwan.
The Chinese, by allowing themselves to become so dependent on the American market are in a weak negotiating position on all of these issues. If they act prudently, they will release our aircraft promptly and discontinue all harassing flights against our reconnaissance aircraft. The next few weeks are critical.
Major General Perry Smith is retired from the United States Air Force and is the author of A Hero Among Heroes, Rules and Tools for Leaders and Assignment Pentagon.