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Navy's Backup Plan

A Ukrainian airline said Wednesday it had received an indirect inquiry from the U.S. government about the possibility of chartering a huge freight plane to remove an American spy plane grounded in China.

Mike Johnson, spokesman for Antonov Airlines, did not identify the person who made the inquiry about whether an Antonov 124 would be available in "the latter part of May," but said the call was on behalf of the U.S. government.

"They have had a call … to look at availability, should they go down the road of using an An-124," he said. "All they have done is respond to this very loose inquiry."

"There is no contract, and not one in the offering as yet," he said.

In Washington, the Pentagon reiterated that the United States is in talks with China and still hopes to fly the spy plane off Hainan island under its own power. China has refused to allow the plane to fly home.

Another alternative would be to take the aircraft apart for shipment by boat.

The U.S. Navy surveillance plane made an emergency landing on Hainan after an April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter. The Chinese pilot was killed, and China detained the 24 Americans aboard the Navy EP3E Aries II for 11 days.

Chinese officials released the crew only when Washington said it was "very sorry" that the Chinese fighter pilot had died in the collision and for landing at Hainan without permission. It still holds the four-engine plane.

Click on these links more information:
On the spy plane incident
On U.S.-Chinese relations
On the Aries EP-3E spy plane

The collision damaged two of the engines and one propeller, and caused the plane's nose cone to break off. Pieces of metal punctured parts of the fuselage.

However, a team of U.S. experts inspected the plane last month and determined it could fly out under its own power.

The U.S. plane, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, is about the size of a Boeing 737 commercial airliner. It was packed with sensitive electronic eavesdropping equipment.

The Antonov 124 can carry up to 120 tons, Johnson said.

"The practicalities they would probably be looking at are what would have to be removed to get it in — whether they would have to dismantle parts," he said.

The spy plane incident strained U.S.-China relations, and the United States' subsequent approval of arms sales to Taiwan and proposal of a national missile defense only increased tension.

A U.S. envoy was in Beijing for talks with Chinese officials Wednesday.

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