The Spy Who Came Out of the Closet

Gay activist spent 1,000 often harrowing hours aboard 'spy plane' at center of U.S.-China crisis

Jeff Ofstedahl has followed the Sino-American "spy plane" crisis with fascination, anxiety and a tinge of nostalgia. The Phoenix man spent more than 1,000 hours on the very plane -- a star-crossed EP-3 -- that Chinese intelligence specialists scrutinize today on the island of Hainan.

Ofstedahl, 37, is best known as an advocate, the decorated journalist and essayist who turned Echo magazine into a credible voice for Arizona's homosexuals.

First and foremost, however, Ofstedahl is a patriot, a true believer in American ideals.

Jeff Ofstedahl (left) and a fellow crewmate in front of an EP-3. The face of his colleague is obscured because he remains in the Navy.
courtesy of Jeff Ofstedahl
Jeff Ofstedahl (left) and a fellow crewmate in front of an EP-3. The face of his colleague is obscured because he remains in the Navy.
Ivan calling: This MiG-23 "Flogger" was too close for comfort during one of Ofstedahl's surveillance missions.
courtesy of Jeff Ofstedahl
Ivan calling: This MiG-23 "Flogger" was too close for comfort during one of Ofstedahl's surveillance missions.

We are chatting at a coffee shop, and as Ofstedahl waxes wholesome, I half expect Kate Smith to burst onto the patio and belt out "God Bless America."

Yet Ofstedahl's principles are genuine. He wears a leather bomber jacket bearing the insignia "Bering Sea Bandits." He looks and speaks like any former military man -- a seeming incongruity in someone who has railed convincingly against narrow Yankee mores.

In fact, he explains, his bedrock faith in God and country kindled his gay activism.

"The Navy trained me to be a gay activist," he says.

And before he ever spoke out for gay rights or funding to fight AIDS, those principles inspired him to risk his life as a military intelligence officer.

During the 1980s -- at the height of Cold War frigidity -- Ofstedahl was a Russian-language specialist. He was assigned to an airborne surveillance route 100 kilometers off the northeast coast of the Soviet Union. He listened to Soviet military radio traffic, scribbled notes and interpreted them for Navy intelligence.

The term "spy plane" is an unfortunate misnomer, he explains. He and his Navy colleagues were not spying. Espionage implies unlawful acts, he says, and there was nothing illegal about their missions. Such flights remain in international airspace. The airwaves belong to everyone.

His eavesdropping sorties, made every other day, were grueling 12- to 14-hour affairs.

"Hours of absolute boredom," he says, "interspersed with moments of sheer panic."

His experiences mirror those of the 24 Navy crew members whose damaged plane landed on Hainan after it collided with a Chinese fighter jet. The fighter pilot apparently was killed.

The lumbering EP-3s on which Ofstedahl flew -- they're known affectionately as "sky pigs" -- were constantly shadowed, and frequently menaced, by Soviet fighter jets.

"We were in the Cold War with the Soviets," he says. "Up there, it wasn't very cold. It was heated daily."

The MiG pilots made sport of playing "tag," touching their wingtips to the propeller-powered EP-3s.

They banked within feet of the U.S. craft, giving everyone aboard a chilling view of the missiles mounted on their bellies.

"They were so close you could see the color of the pilot's eyes," he says. "You could tell whether he shaved that morning."

They crept up beneath the surveillance craft, then popped up just yards ahead of the EP-3's nose cone and thrust on their afterburners.

"We called it 'thumping,'" he says. "The turbulence would just shake and buckle the plane, and it felt like it was coming apart at the seams.

"There were many times that I honestly didn't think we would make it back."

"Thumpings" frequently left crew members with broken bones, sprains and concussions, he says.

Although the EP-3s being flown today are older than Ofstedahl, he says they are immaculately maintained. And they tote such sophisticated equipment, there's no chance that one would inadvertently stray into forbidden airspace.

"We knew exactly where we were 1,000 percent of the time," he says. "The question was, where did they think we were at? There were some incidents where the Soviets thought we had entered their airspace. We'd head home. We'd get the hell out of Dodge."

He pauses to leaf through an album of photos he took during reconnaissance flights, startling shots in which rivets on the fuselages of MiGs are discernible. There also are pictures of Soviet aircraft carriers and other warships.

Like the Chinese and the Soviets, the U.S. also sends fighters up to escort reconnaissance craft near our shores.

Fighter pilots are the glamour fliers. Ofstedahl chuckles and suggests that a movie about an EP-3 would have to be dubbed "Top Prop."

Yet he is convinced it takes more fortitude to board an electronic data sponge -- an unarmed "giant antenna, a flying tape recorder" -- and withstand the taunts of rogue fighter jockeys, all the while under radar lock from surface-to-air missile batteries. Few fighter pilots ever make aerial eye contact with a potential rival. Ofstedahl has done it hundreds of times.

While U.S. fighter jets fly in dramatic formation over bowl games, Ofstedahl and his crewmates -- the EP-3 carried 32 at that time -- couldn't tell anyone about their jobs or even confirm that they flew anywhere.

Such perilous obscurity required a dedication and camaraderie that made an indelible impression on Ofstedahl.

"These people are highly trained professionals," he says. "They do this job because they believe in something larger than themselves. They believe in God and country. They believe the ideals of democracy are worth fighting for.

"It's their faith in these ideals and faith in each other that are getting them through this ordeal," he says of the 24-member crew being held by Chinese authorities.

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