When he was a little boy living in the country in South Dakota, Shane Osborn often wandered out of sight. But his parents knew where they could find him: in a nearby shed on the farm next door where its owner, Lyle Brewer, kept his two-seater Piper J-3 Cub. "Shane was just a little fellow, but he was pretty interested in airplanes even then," says Brewer, now 75, recalling how he took the 4-year-old on his first-ever flight. "He sat on his dad's lap with this big grin on his face and looked everything over," adds Brewer, who often buzzed the grassy landing strip to scare off the sheep before circling to land. "He was pretty sharp, I'll tell ya."

Just how sharp became supremely clear three weeks ago when, after being hit by a Chinese F-8 fighter jet over the South China Sea, Lt. Shane Osborn, 26, managed to pilot his crippled EP-3E Aries II turboprop reconnaissance plane to an emergency landing on an island off the Chinese coast, saving the lives of all 24 military personnel on board. Unaware that an international furor was swirling around them, Osborn and his colleagues were held for 11 days at a Chinese military base before being returned to the U.S. and a heroes' welcome. "We survived because we're a team," says Osborn. "I tell you, this is a group I would handpick to fly anywhere with."

Those who know Osborn best say his coolness under fire is just what they would expect of him. "I'm very proud of him, but I'm not surprised," says his father, Doug "Ozzie" Osborn, 52, who owns a patio-and-deck-furniture business in Loomis, S.Dak. "He's always been a focused, steady kid. Flying is all he's ever wanted to do."

The ordeal of Osborn and his crew began nearly 10 hours after their March 31 departure from their base on Okinawa, Japan, for what was expected to be a routine reconnaissance mission. Near the end of their run two Chinese F-8s began shadowing the plane, one coming within five feet in a dangerous but common maneuver meant to harass American surveillance flights, say U.S. officials. But suddenly one of the Chinese pilots made a fatal mistake, running his jet's tail through Osborn's left outside propeller. "The first thing I thought was, 'This guy just killed us,' " Osborn said at a press conference in Hawaii on April 14.

Breaking in half, the F-8 sliced off the nose cone of the EP-3E, which began a gut-wrenching 8,000-ft. fall. "I saw another plane smoking towards the earth with flames coming out," Osborn said, referring to the jet flown by a Chinese pilot later identified as Wang Wei, whose body has not been found. The burly Osborn, a 6-ft., 190-lb. weightlifter, fought to control his own plane, screaming "Mayday!" into his microphone as crew members strapped on parachutes and scrambled to destroy sensitive classified equipment and information.

Osborn at first considered ditching the plane in the ocean but feared his crew would be killed on impact. Instead, says a Navy senior EP-3E pilot and flight instructor who has flown the same route, "what Osborn did was extraordinary. When they got hit by the fighter, their whole world came apart. They got flipped nearly upside down, they lost an engine, there was a cable wrapped around the flight control. The nose cone was missing, and one of the propellers was spinning so loud it must have been deafening. I'm still bewildered at how he got it on the deck."

Some 20 minutes after the midair collision, deciding that his best chance was to try to land at China's Lingshui air base on nearby Hainan Island, Osborn, unable to slow his plane because its wing flaps had been destroyed, safely touched down. Armed Chinese troops quickly surrounded the plane and demanded that the Americans abandon it. After a tense 15-minute standoff, Osborn climbed out. "I was the mission commander," he said. "I wanted to go first and see what they wanted."

Offered water and cigarettes, the crew were taken to quarters on the Lingshui base—"their best barracks," says Osborn. "But by American standards, they were poor. Lots and lots of bugs and mosquitoes." For most of his captivity Osborn was kept in a separate room from his crew and was awakened at all hours of the night for questioning in an attempt to wear him down. "It was tough, but other than that, they treated us fine," he says.

The crew of 21 men and three women were fed such local delicacies as pickled eggs, chicken feet and fish heads. "Definitely the real Chinese food, none of this Americanized stuff," says Lt. (jg) Jeffery Vignery, 27. In time their captors began to warm to the crew, providing them with decks of cards and English newspapers. One guard even asked them to teach him the lyrics to the Eagles' song "Hotel California." Still, the crew never forgot where they were or how they had gotten there. According to James Coursen, whose son Shawn, a cryptologic technician, was one of those captured, "My son said that every day they were in captivity, they thanked the pilot for getting them down and saving their lives."

Friends and family say that Osborn's leadership, as well as his love of flying, was evident from the beginning. At Norfolk Senior High School in Nebraska, where he moved with his mother, Diana, now 55, a home health-care nurse, and sister Lynnette, now 31, following his parents' 1979 divorce, Osborn was a popular student who played football and bass in a rock band. But flying always came first. At 14, he joined his local Civil Air Patrol, an Air Force auxiliary organization. At the time, "he had a little rat tail [haircut]," says former classmate and C.A.P. member Chad Gillespie. But a few years later Osborn earned his pilot's license and shocked friends by cutting his hair. "He'd say, 'This isn't just an after-school laugh. We've gotta take this seriously,' " recalls Gillespie.

By the time he graduated from Norfolk High in 1992, Osborn had already declared his intention to become an Air Force officer. But when his mother, whose cousin had graduated from Annapolis, convinced him that being in the Navy would still allow him to fly, he accepted a Navy-sponsored scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Osborn majored in math and joined the Navy ROTC. Upon graduation in 1996, he received his commission as an ensign. Two years later, following pilot training in Pensacola, Fla., the newly certified flyer was assigned to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. And it was there that Osborn was heralded at a welcome-home ceremony on April 14 before returning to the yellow-ribbon-bedecked two-bedroom apartment in nearby Anacortes that he shares with his girlfriend of two years, Roxanne Faustino, 26. According to Faustino, a dental hygienist, during his absences Osborn ordinarily sings Lionel Ritchie love songs to her over the phone. But this time on his return, "the only thing he said was, 'I love you.' That was enough."

In the wake of the international standoff that his plane's downing provoked, Osborn's friends are still a little in awe of his feat. "You never think you'll be a hero, but he is," says Osborn's friend and fellow pilot Jim Morse, 26. "He brought that crew home alive." Typically, Osborn himself is taking a more pragmatic approach. "Look, all this will be over soon," he says with a grin, "and I'll be back to flying."

Susan Schindehette
Maureen Harrington in Seattle, Kelly Williams in Chicago, Vickie Bane in Denver and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Kelly Williams,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Macon Morehouse.