Plane Leaves Hainan With Spy Plane Crew

After being held for 11 days in China, the 24 crew members of a U.S. spy plane are on their way home.

A chartered Continental Airlines Boeing 737 picked up the crew from Hainan, an island in the South China Sea, and is taking them to Guam. The plane is set to land at midnight, ET, said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley.

From Guam, the 21 men and three women will transfer to a military aircraft after a four-to-five hour layover and will fly to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Quigley said at a Pentagon briefing. The crew is expected to land at 6:30 a.m. local time or 12:30 p.m. ET and should remain in Hawaii for two or three days before returning to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state.

Flying with the crew is a 13-member repatriation team that includes psycologists, medical doctors and military intelligence officers who intend to question the crew about the accident that led to their detainment in China, Quigley said.

China decided to release the crew on "humanitarian grounds," after receiving a letter from U.S. Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher that said America is "very sorry" for the death of the Chinese pilot and for landing on Chinese soil without permission.

A White House official told ABCNEWS the wording of the letter delivered by Prueher today was the same as the one delivered to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing two days ago.

Working Out the Details

The Chinese decision to release the U.S. crew came after more than a week of wrangling between diplomats on both sides that resulted in a carefully worded letter, which gave room for both sides to claim victory after an 11-day diplomatic standoff.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said China and the United States were working out details for the release of the crippled EP-3E Aries II, a highly sophisticated surveillance aircraft that is currently grounded at the Lingshui air base on Hainan.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi today said China would first conduct an investigation of the incident. "The Chinese side has all rights to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the foreign reconnaissance plane," he said. "We will handle the plane according to the results of the investigation."

The 24 crew members are coming home 11 days after landing on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet which Pentagon sources say had repeatedly "buzzed" the U.S. plane. The American aircraft was damaged in the collision.

The Chinese pilot of the F-8 that collided with the EP-3E Aries II is missing, presumed dead.

The details of the release of the U.S. reconnaissance plane are expected to be worked out at a meeting between the two sides which has been scheduled for April 18, according to Prueher's letter.

The agenda for the meeting would include the causes of the incident, possible recommendations to avoid such incidents in the future as well as the development of a plan for the prompt return of the aircraft, the letter said.

But some U.S. officials consider the EP-3E Aries II to be junk as the Chinese are believed to have unloaded sensitive equipment from the plane. However, they believe the United States would nevertheless like to have the aircraft back as a matter of principle.

Lost in Translation

Although China's decision to release the crew came after a linguistic compromise was arrived at by both sides, both sides have different takes on the translation of the letter.

Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that Sun said the letter expressed "deep regret," or shenbiao qianyi, but Chinese translation of the letter used the term feichang wanxi or "extreme sympathy" to the family of the missing pilot.

Former Department of Defense official Kurt Campbell said that although the letter did not amount to a full apology, the Chinese media was expected to use the wiggle room provided by the wording of the letter to serve their interests and save face before the Chinese people.

"What the Chinese will focus on in public is the effort that the United States has put into this, the numerous back and forth and all the things that have gone on behind the scenes that suggests that the United States is really trying to reach out to China," he said.

The Chinese media hailed the government's handling of the diplomatic standoff. According to the official Xinhua news agency, an editorial in the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily praised Chinese leaders for bringing an end to the impasse.

"The firm struggle by the Chinese government and people against U.S. hegemony has forced the U.S. government to change from its initial rude and unreasonable attitude to saying 'very sorry' to the Chinese people," the editorial reads.

While the Bush administration appeared satisfied with the outcome of the standoff, some experts wondered if U. S. officials made any compromises regarding arms sales to China or modifications of surveillance flights.

But a senior U.S. defense official told ABCNEWS the United States had no intention of stopping reconnaissance flights near China, which would resume in the weeks ahead. The United States would, however, give China a chance to complain about the flights in upcoming talks on April 18, he added.

The Chinese are bitterly opposed to U.S. reconnaissance flights, even in international airspace.

ABCNEWS' Barbara Starr, Terry Moran and Martha Raddatz in Washington and David Wright in Haikou contributed to this report.