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Chinese Fighter Buzzing U.S. Navy Reconnaissance Plane Triggers Flashbacks

P-8A Poseidon
P-8A Poseidon
U.S. Navy

Yesterday, the U.S. Navy announced that on Tuesday another Chinese fighter jet made several "dangerous" and "unprofessional" passes at a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon unarmed reconnaissance plane.

At one point, the Chinese jet came as close as 20 feet to the unarmed reconnaissance plane.

This is very similar behavior, on the part of the Chinese, to an incident that happened in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided in mid-air with a Navy P-3C Orion reconnaissance plane.

The P-3C Orion made an emergency landing, but the Chinese fighter jet crashed at sea and the pilot was killed.

The P-8A Poseidon, a modified Boeing 737, is replacing the obsolete P-3C Orion, a modified Lockheed L-188 Electra. The P-3C entered service in 1969, while the P-8A began entering service in November 2013.

The incident on Tuesday happened in international air space over the South China Sea, about 135 miles east of the Chinese island of Hainan.

This is the exact same area where I used to fly very similar unarmed reconnaissance missions in an EB-66 during the Vietnam War, and the incident is eerily similar to a mission when my EB-66 was attacked by a North Vietnamese jet fighter near Vihn, North Vietnam.

When heard about the incident on Tuesday, it immediately triggered a flashback to that day when I was attacked near Vihn, North Vietnam.

There were two configurations of the Douglas EB-66. The EB-66 B and EB-66E were unarmed electronic jamming aircraft whose job was to blind the enemy radars so they couldn’t see the incoming strike aircraft,

The EB-66C was an unarmed electronic reconnaissance aircraft that performed almost the exact same mission that the P-8A Poseidon was performing on Tuesday.

Both aircraft were stuffed with electronic equipment used to locate the position of enemy radar and anti-aircraft emplacements.

As the reconnaissance aircraft flies along the coast it is painted by the radar station onshore. An electronic warfare office on the plane tracks the radar beams painting the aircraft, and records the relative bearing of the radar beam at a specific time.

Meanwhile, the navigator records the exact position of the reconnaissance aircraft minute by minute.

After the reconnaissance aircraft returns to base, intelligence officers compare the position of the reconnaissance aircraft with the relative bearings of the radar beam at the same time, and use the information to triangulate the exact location of the radar station or anti-aircraft site.

This information is then used for targeting the sites.

Most of our EB-66C electronic reconnaissance missions were along the Ho Chi Minh Trail or along the coast of North Vietnam.

But every once in a while, when the navigator got to flight planning and read the frag from Saigon, he’s realize that the mission went up along the North Vietnamese coast, then turned east across the South China Sea, and then south along the coast of Hainan Island.

When you read that information your cheeks would pucker. We always had F-4 fighters flying MIG support when we flew anywhere near the North Vietnam, but the fighters didn’t stay with us when we turned east toward China. When we flew along Hainan Island, we were on our own, and if the Chinese sent up fighters to intercept us, we were sitting ducks.

I know exactly how that aircrew felt on Tuesday because I’ve been there and done that. I’ve flown almost that exact mission and I’ve been attacked by a MIG.

The instant I learned about the buzzing of the P-8A Poseidon, I was back strapped into my ejection seat in the navigator bombardier’s station of an EB-66E near Vinh, North Vietnam in April 1969, when we were jumped by a North Vietnamese MIG, who fired an air-to air missile up our tail.

All of a sudden the EWO came up on the intercom and said; “Pilot, EWO, we’re being painted by a MIG.”

“He’s got a lock on.”

“We’ve got a launch. Break Right. Break Right.

To this day, I have no absolutely idea how that missile missed or how I survived that moment.

I try to keep those thoughts out of my mind, but the incident on Tuesday brings them up front and center.

When I have a flashback to that moment, my skin crawls and it creeps me out. I’m a mess for the rest of the day and more. I want to forget but my brain won’t let me. It’s called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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