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How wayward pilot sliced cable

Published Feb. 18, 1998|Updated Sep. 12, 2005

When a Marine Corps jet hit a ski lift two weeks ago in northern Italy, killing 20 people, the pilot was violating orders to fly 1,000 feet above the ground and had veered into an area that the Italian government says was both off course and off limits for this flight.

It was the crew's first flight through the pristine Alpine valley, framed by mountains and dotted with tiny villages and ski slopes. But the pilot of the EA-6B Prowler did not have Italian military maps provided to his commanders that marked the ski lift, which is also clearly noted on road maps.

Instead the Pentagon, whose policy is not to use maps made by foreign countries, had given the crew a U.S. military map that did not show the ski-lift cable, which was built 31 years ago, on the valley floor, south to the top of Mount Cermis.

These details of the Feb. 3 flight have emerged from interviews with Italian and American military and law-enforcement officials, defense lawyers, the lift operator and others.

A joint American and Italian military investigation is working to determine whether any of the jet's crew or its commanding officers should face a court-martial, possibly on charges of negligent manslaughter; that investigation could take several months.

Italian civilian prosecutors are conducting a separate investigation but it is unlikely that the Marines will allow the four crew members to face criminal proceedings in Italy.

So far, the accounts provided by the officials and others involved draw a vivid picture of what began as a routine training mission laid out with military precision, but to those on the ground it looked like a joy ride by a crew that was scheduled to return to the United States in 10 days.

Roaring through the valley at more than 500 miles an hour, the jet skimmed lakes and roads and frightened some villagers by swooping low over their houses. After the accident, motorists called in to say that they had witnessed the Prowler streaking over automobiles as it crossed a major roadway. At the scene that night, Prime Minister Romano Prodi called it "a terrible act, a flight practically scraping the ground."

After a Prowler jet crashed on a training flight in Yuma, Ariz., in 1996, killing its four crew members, the Pentagon ordered that all Prowler flights must fly at least 1,000 feet above the ground. That altitude would have easily cleared the ski lift at Cavalese.

As it was, a lift cable would not be visible until about an eighth of a mile away and if the pilot, Capt. Richard J. Ashby, was flying near the Prowler's top speed of 550 mph, as it seems, the plane would cover that distance in less than a second.

More than halfway through its flight, the Prowler veered left into a series of valleys, abruptly deviating, Italian government officials insist, from its authorized route.

At 3:10 p.m., exactly 34 minutes into its flight, a bright yellow cable car loaded with skiers began its descent down Mount Cermis. Less than two minutes later, as the car approached the valley floor, Ashby saw a yellow flash on the mountainside ahead and to his right.

It was the cable car.

Ashby banked sharply left and up to avoid it, but in the instant he had to react, it was too late. The right wing of the Prowler sliced through two cables, sending a car on the lift plummeting to the ground, killing all 20 aboard.

Less than 14 minutes later the Marine jet, badly damaged and leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid, landed at the NATO air base here.

Before the order to fly at a minimum of 1,000 feet, flying at half that level was a military aviation art form widely practiced by pilots in planes like the EA-6B Prowler to avoid detection by enemy radar. Prowlers and other radar-jamming planes frequently fly ahead of a raid to clear the way for bombing missions. At such low levels, high speeds are actually safer because they improve maneuverability.

What is unclear is whether the Prowler should have been in the valley in the first place. The Pentagon insists that the Prowler was on the authorized flight path. But Italian officials say the valley was a deviation from the planned route and unnecessary on a day when postcard-perfect weather made the authorized route easily passable.

The Italians banned low-level flights near the ski lift last August because the number of training runs had climbed to 900 a week in an area about the size of New Hampshire with a population level that is twice as dense. Since then, the flights through the valley have been cut to 500 a week and low-altitude flying sharply limited.

But Italian prosecutors are investigating whether this order was properly passed to Ashby and his crew. The commander of the Prowler's squadron, Lt. Col. Richard Muegge, is being investigated for complicity, the prosecutors say, because he failed to inform his crews about the restrictions.

Ashby and his crew arrived in Aviano last August from the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C., for a routine six-month tour.

At 31, with 783 hours of flight experience, more than half of them in a Prowler, Ashby was somewhere between a novice and an old hand. He had served at Aviano for six months in 1996, when he and his crew received the Air Medal First Strike Flight Award for flights to support NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The medal is awarded for flying missions in potentially hostile situations. Most of the pilots flew 40 to 50 Bosnia missions during the six months.

The captain had no reputation as a cowboy, a stereotype often attached to Marine pilots who are fond of fast planes, fast living and daredevil maneuvers.

A search of his records for psychological or disciplinary problems yielded "zero results," a Marine official said. A retired aviator who helped train Ashby several years ago at the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island, Wash., said, "He was never known to be a risk-taker, and I never had any problem with him breaking rules."

The day before the fatal flight, the captain and his crew submitted details to the Italian Air Force traffic control center at Martina Franca, in southern Italy.

At 2:36 p.m., Ashby and his crew took off from Aviano for Cortina. The sky was crystal clear, with little wind.

The Prowler has a single set of flight controls, at the pilot's seat on the front left, but the man in the right front seat, on this flight, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 30, can serve as a co-pilot, assisting with communications and navigation. Schweitzer has 1,000 hours in Prowlers, more than Ashby, but under Marine rules, the pilot is responsible for the safety of the plane.

Behind Ashby sat the two other crew members, Capt. William L. Raney II, 26, and Capt. Chandler P. Seagraves, 28.

As Ashby passed over Riva del Garda and headed toward Marmolada, he took a turn that Italians officials say was not permitted. His exact altitude is not known, but it was far below the 2,000-foot level that the Italian government said was authorized. After passing Trento, the plane veered to the north and swooped into the steep Val di Cembra, a mile-wide Alpine valley that leads into the Val di Fiemme, which is bisected by the Cavalese ski lift.

At 3:06, deep below the peaks that frame the valleys, the control tower at Aviano lost radio contact with the Prowler.

Four minutes later, the cable car set out from atop Mount Cermis for the six-minute trip down to Cavalese. On board were the Italian operator and 19 passengers, including eight vacationers from the eastern German town of Chemnitz.

At precisely 3:12:42 _ noted by a seismographic station on Mount Cermis _ Captain Ashby's Prowler sliced into the ski lift cables at about 540 mph, virtually its top speed, according to Italian investigators.

The right wing cut a two-inch thick cable that holds the cable cars up and a three-quarter-inch cable that tugs them along. The Marines will not say how high the Prowler was when it hit the ski lift. But engineers at the ski-lift company estimate that the pair of cables hung between 260 and 330 feet off the ground.

At 3:21, the Prowler emerged from the shadow of the mountains and resumed radio contact. An Italian air traffic controller at Aviano heard the crew radio that it had hit something, probably a cable. At the airport, a level of emergency known as a bird strike was declared, so called because it is used when aircraft suffer light damage after they collide with a bird in flight or suck one into their engines.

At 3:26 the flight, code-named Easy 01, limped in leaking fuel and hydraulic fluid. The crew evacuated the plane so quickly that one crew member twisted an ankle leaping to the tarmac.

Aviation mechanics said the jet was seriously damaged in four places. On the front edge of the right wing, which had evidently sliced through the cables, were two gashes several feet apart, each about 6 inches deep. Electronic equipment under the wing was sheared off. And serious damage was evident on the tail, caused, investigators believe, when the heavier of the two cables snapped across the tail like a whip.

Defense Department officials in Washington said that at least two American military maps of the region do not include the ski lift because its towers are too low. But the Pentagon maps are generally used by planes passing over the area at much greater altitudes. For low-level flying, a document called the Aeronautical Publication 2 tells pilots that the minimum safe altitude over the Cavalese ski lift is 750 feet above the ground.

If Ashby veered to the left to avoid the cable car and sheared the cables with the right wing, it would appear that the fuselage of the plane was below the level of the cables when the collision occurred. Investigators say a reconstruction of how the plane cut the cables will have to await the conclusion of their work.

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