The Final Seconds of 5371: Part I – 13 Seconds

May 11th changed my life. I saw something profound, something that initially thrilled me, and later greatly saddened me. Here is the story….

I had been photographing military helicopters all week. I shot literally dozens of helicopters and smoke from bombs and rocket explosions. I shot video footage of a close flyover of a CH-47. It was a week of military games on Taiwan.

The jets were another story altogether. My first view of the jets was before I realized that war games were going on. I heard the unmistakable sound of afterburners (an experience that would prove useful later on) and saw flares being dropped by Mirage aircraft. My first words to my wife were “Is China attacking us?” A few days before that fateful Friday, I had managed to capture a few jets on video, although nearly by accident since the sun was shining so brightly that I couldn’t see them in the viewfinder. I settled for the slower moving helicopters which were a lot easier to track with the video camera.

I went up on the roof many times to get still photographs of the jets, unsuccessfully. Each time I heard them and ran up to the roof, it was too late – they were gone. Furthermore, just trying to locate them in the sky was incredibly difficult! They are gray colored, blend in with the sky (which is the whole point) and are, needless to say fast! I finally gave up on getting the jets and settled on the much easier helicopters. After all, it was just me photographing the show and not a professional assignment. Nevertheless I did get some incredible still shots of the helicopters (which I will put back up on Flickr soon).

Friday, May 11th began with a very early exercise featuring lots of jets. The exercise went on for a longer duration than previous ones. Since the games are played out on a repeating schedule, I saw my chance at last – today I would shoot some photos of the jets and I would finally get some!

I prepared my Nikon D80 by fitting it with the 70~300mm lens. The weather was pretty good – it wasn’t all that hazy and the sun wasn’t shining too brightly either. I had high hopes. I placed the camera on a table on the top floor of our home and I went back down to our second floor office to continue working. I kept my eye on the clock.

Sure enough, I heard the helicopters doing their thing and I bolted to the top floor, grabbed the camera and headed up to my roof, the 5th floor. I took the first photo of the day at 09:23.

It was an amazing sight. There were individual helicopters and large groups of helicopters.

Jets were circling from the southwest, doing a run over the nearby military base and continuing on to the northwest. Their movement can be described as a counter-clockwise motion from right to left. I was facing east, towards the base. I took shots of quite a few jets releasing flares. I really liked the helicopters and I took a lot of photos of them, but the jets stole the show for me. They were nothing short of spectacular.

Truth be told, I don’t get the point of the flares. No one has explained their significance to me, but they look cool. So, there I was, happily shooting jets releasing flares, flares on their way down, and so forth.

Suddenly I heard a sound coming from the left. I turned my head and saw a jet flying very close to me! I was thrilled! Wow, it looked so close that it seemed as if I could almost touch it! The jet was flying at a leisurely pace (compared to the others I had seen). It flew past me, climbing. I followed it with the D80, shooting in continuous mode, focusing manually. The jet banked gently to the left and then nosed-down into a dive.

5371 banks slowly towards the left while climbing

I followed the jet with my D80 until my view was blocked by a building in front of me.

Suddenly I realized that this jet was diving at a very low altitude! Seeing only the jet in the viewfinder while shooting the beginning of the dive sequence left me with no reference point. When it suddenly disappeared behind the building I knew it was very low!

I immediately pulled the camera from my face and said out loud “OH MY GOD! IT CRASHED!” I ran around the roof of my home trying to get a better view, but I saw nothing. I heard the engine suddenly cut out just a few seconds after it disappeared behind the building. I heard no explosion and I saw no flash or smoke. “Wow, that was amazing” I thought because they didn’t crash. Such expert flying like I had never seen in my life!

I went back downstairs to my office and viewed the photographs on my computer. I was amazed that I could see the designation “5371” very clearly. I told my wife that I got some really great shots of a jet nearby. I sent a few messages to my friends on Yahoo Messenger, telling of my good fortune.

Awhile later my wife called up to me and told me that a jet had just crashed and the authorities were looking for it in Hukou (she saw it on the TV news). It was then that I realized what I had photographed. This had to be the jet that crashed. I asked my wife if the news had released the number and she said she hadn’t seen it yet. No one wishes for a jet to crash of course, and I was still hopeful that the jet I photographed was not involved.

An hour later my wife told me the sad news – the designation of the jet that crashed was 5371. My blood ran cold. My hands started to shake. I wanted to vomit. I felt absolutely horrible. In some ways I felt guilty because I was so happy they had flown past my home so closely and seemingly deliberately slow. I was too stupid to realize that they were in trouble and about to perish. I sent more instant messages telling those friends that the jet had crashed and those pilots were killed.

My first reaction was to call the news media. Getting the photographs out to the public was of paramount importance, since the television news were saying that the cause of the crash was unknown. I called our friend Linda Arrigo, an long-time Taiwan resident and well known to the media. Within 2 hours I got a call from someone in the Taiwan Air Force, and shortly thereafter a junior officer came to our home to get a CD with all the jet photos I had taken that day. This officer asked us not to give the photos to the press until the investigation was over. We took him to the roof of our home and I showed him where the photos were shot. I had printed out 3 photos so I could point out the importance of the points of reference that were in some of the shots. He got the point. There were 23 photos of 5371; 13 seconds total.

Saturday May 12, 2007

Hui-chen and I went up to Taipei to attend a meeting hosted by Dr. Jerome Keeting and very well presented by Franc X Shelton. During the meeting I received several calls from the Air Force, wanting more information on where the photographs were taken, and why I chose to photograph this particular aircraft (my apologizes to those in attendance for the interruptions). Apparently they didn’t realize that it flew right past my home. The Air Force officer told my wife that he wanted to send a team to our home to do an investigation. We had to apologize because we weren’t going home until tomorrow. We asked if we should come home right then but the officer said that we could meet on Sunday at 14:00.

Later that evening we went to the Taiwan Beer Bar and met other bloggers and friends. But just before we arrived I got the last call from the Air Force that evening at 18:00. They wanted to know what kind of camera I used to photograph 5371 because the were surprised at the clarity. I consider this to be just one of the many coincidences in this case (which I will outline later).

It was a great time at the Taiwan Beer Bar. I had printed out small copies of the famous 23 photos and showed them around. Everyone was drinking and talking. I felt bad about 5371 and a few times my eyes watered. One of the immediate things that I realized about this case was the fact that the pilots did not eject. Even though they were in trouble, they managed to crash on military property and to spare civilian lives. I kept thinking about how easy it would have been for them to eject and save themselves. Everyone in our group agreed and we toasted to the Heroes of 5371.

Next: The Final Seconds of 5371: Part 2 – The Air Force Investigation

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  1. Those flares you describe, aren’t they to mess with the targetting system of heat-seeking missiles?

  2. the flares look like countermeasures to me, but on one has actually explained that to me. there were a lot of them dropped during the exercises.

  3. NPR ran a story about town in England that is honoring an American WW II pilot, who crashed his plane instead of bailing out (to make sure it didn’t crash into homes and schools). This account reminds me of what you were saying about this Taiwanese pilot at breakfast. You think he purposely crashed the jet:

  4. Patrick, Taiwanese fighter pilots, like fighter pilots around the world, are trained to take the aircraft down away from civilian populations, and to their death if necessary. i believe that the pilots of 5371 lost control of their aircraft due to a malfunction, but still having aileron control they had some measure of flyability and they did their best to crash on the base. they made it over the base wall by 5 meters.

    funny you should mention this to me now because i was on my roof this afternoon enjoying the cool breeze. i can’t go up there and look at the surrounding buildings without reflecting on 5371. just today i was thinking how horrific it must have been for the pilots. they hit the ground upside down at a steep angle with a high degree of certainty that it would be fatal to them, and yet they rode it to the end.

    thanks for commenting.

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