US: Dangerous Chinese Fighter Pilot Buzzed Air Force Spy Plane

December 30, 2022Carl Prine
US Indo-Pacific Command officials blasted a Chinese fighter pilot for buzzing the nose of a US Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea on Dec. 21, 2022. US Indo-Pacific Command photo.

US Indo-Pacific Command officials blasted a Chinese fighter pilot for buzzing the nose of a US Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea on Dec. 21, 2022. US Indo-Pacific Command photo.

A Chinese fighter pilot dangerously buzzed the nose of a US Air Force spy plane, military leaders say.

A 15-second video captured by the Air Force’s RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft appears to show a People’s Liberation Army Navy J-11 Shenyang fighter flying parallel with the US plane before it zoomed in front of the American crew’s cockpit.

The camera captured the Shenyang’s underbelly, exposing what appeared to be two PL-8 and a pair of PL-12 air-to-air missiles, a standard loadout for a fourth-generation fighter NATO calls the Flanker-L.

In a prepared statement issued Thursday, Dec. 29, Indo-Pacific Command said the Shenyang interception occurred eight days earlier over the South China Sea, adding that the US crew took evasive actions to prevent a collision when the Chinese jet came within 20 feet of the plane’s nose. 

Chinese fighter pilot

US Indo-Pacific Command officials blasted a Chinese fighter pilot for buzzing the nose of a US Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea on Dec. 21, 2022. US Indo-Pacific Command photo.

The Indo-Pacom statement claimed that the US plane was operating “in international airspace,” but officials did not respond to Coffee or Die Magazine’s questions about where the incident occurred, the time of the day it happened, or which US Air Force squadron was involved in the near miss.

But it most likely was flown by a crew from the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron, originating from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

On Dec. 21, the Chinese nonprofit South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative revealed on its official social media accounts the afternoon flight of a US Air Force RC-135V Rivet Joint, heading in a northeast path from China’s Hainan Island toward Okinawa.

The nonprofit’s map showed the US plane roughly 24 nautical miles equidistant from both the southern tip of Taiwan and the northern shore of Itbat Island, which is part of the Philippines. 

Chinese fighter pilot

Airman 1st Class Trevor Bell, 57th Wing Public Affairs specialist, records an RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft before a Weapons School Integration mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on Nov. 28, 2022. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Josey Blades.

US officials vowed to “fly, sail and operate at sea and in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law,” and they called on “all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law.”

Chinese state-controlled media, including Beijing’s military press, have yet to respond to the US allegations, but it’s not the first time a naval Shenyang has buzzed a US military plane over the South China Sea.

On Aug. 19, 2014, a J-11B intercepted a US Navy P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine jet roughly 117 nautical miles east of Hainan Island.

That's about 83 nautical miles inside China’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Pentagon officials labeled that incident an example of Beijing’s unprofessional and unsafe interceptions in international airspace.

Chinese fighter pilot

Curtis Towne, a US Department of Defense civilian employee, stands next to an RC-135W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft on April 29, 2016, at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The RC-135W was assigned to the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron, but conducted missions for the 390th Intelligence Squadron. Towne was assigned to the 390th Intelligence Squadron in 2001 when he was detained for 12 days by the People’s Republic of China following a mid-air collision involving his EP-3 Aries II plane and a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Lynette M. Rolen.

But the Chinese Ministry of National Defense castigated the American complaints as "groundless,” adding that the US military’s “large scale and frequent and close reconnaissance is the real source of air safety concerns and possible accidents.”

Within China's Exclusive Economic Zone, Beijing retains the right to explore and exploit the sea, but it can’t bar overflights, including those from US warplanes, Pentagon officials say.

That’s why China routinely scrambles fighters to intercept the US spy planes and escort them until they depart the area, but sometimes the rendezvous gets messy.

On April 1, 2001, a Chinese naval J-8II interceptor collided with a US Navy EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence plane approximately 61 nautical miles east of Hainan Island.

The Chinese fighter pilot died. The US crew made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, triggering the detention of 24 US service members.

Chinese security forces released them after a dozen days of interrogations.

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Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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