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Fighter pilots classed as 'aggressive'

Wang Wei
Portrait of missing Chinese pilot Wang Wei  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. military officials who have overseen surveillance flights near China say the United States is familiar with the flying tactics of all Chinese fighter pilots like the kind that intercepted a U.S. Navy plane Sunday, and have made prior complaints about their "aggressive" maneuvers.

Retired Lt. General Tom McInerney, who commanded the Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, where the U.S. flight originated, said the United States was aware of the tactics of every Chinese squadron, including the one involved in Sunday's incident.

"This particular squadron down in that part of Hainan even years ago was a fairly aggressive squadron," McInerney said, "but what I suspect is either they were given guidance from above or you had some very aggressive fight pilots who were not playing by the rules."

But Pentagon officials would neither confirm nor deny they had photos of Wang Wei, the pilot of the Chinese F-8 fighter missing after the accident, saying, "We can't help you with that."

Sunday night, Pentagon officials had reported the United States had made complaints at a "working level" to the Chinese about the increasingly aggressive and dangerous tactics used during these intercepts by their pilots.

"A very strong protest was launched back in January, with these fighter aircraft coming within a matter of feet of the reconnaissance aircraft, and thereby posing a danger to all concerned," former Defense Secretary William Cohen told CNN.

"That apparently is what happened here."

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN, "The Chinese pilots have become more aggressive in recent weeks."

A Pentagon official said one pilot of a past mission reported a Chinese F-8 came within 50 feet of his plane, and he expressed concerns about the safety of such maneuvers.

Pentagon officials said it appears the F-8 was flying more directly beneath the U.S. surveillance craft than is normal in such intercepts, based on the assessment of the damage to the underside of the EP3.

Normally, in flying formation, the F-8 would fly slightly below and off to one side, in a "wing" formation.

One Pentagon official denied Chinese reports the EP3 was to blame, saying, "We don't give credence to Chinese reports that the EP3 made a sudden move."

But the official added, "We won't know what really happened until we speak to the crew more extensively."

Secretary of State Colin Powell has requested U.S. officials be given more access to the crew.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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