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Pilot in cable-car crash expects acquittal

Marine Corps Capt. Richard Ashby remembers the two cables just suddenly appearing in midair.

Strapped into the cockpit of his EA-6B Prowler jet, he banked the wing, rolled hard to the left and dropped the nose, but even those maneuvers were not enough to avoid the collision. He heard a light thud and then, pulling the plane up, he again saw blue sky.

Uncertain of what he had hit, concerned about damage to his plane, fearful for the safety of his crew, he hurried home to Aviano Air Base in Italy.

He thought he was returning a hero, his crew safe, his plane intact. Instead, he quickly heard the news that forever changed the destiny of this decorated pilot who as a young boy rode his bicycle to the strawberry fields of Orange County, Calif., and dreamed of flying the military jets roaring into and out of nearby El Toro Naval Air Station.

The wires were part of an aerial gondola system at a popular ski resort in the northern Italian mountains, his supervisors told him. The collision three months ago sent 20 civilians in a cable car hurtling to their deaths, strained the relations of NATO allies and bolstered demands that the U.S. military get out of Europe.

The Marine Corps, reacting quickly to public outcry, preliminarily determined the mishap was due to "air crew error" _ that Ashby was flying too low, too fast and too recklessly during a routine NATO training mission.

But in his first interview since the Feb. 3 crash, the 31-year-old pilot maintained he was cleared to fly low and at high speeds, and that his military-approved flight maps never indicated ski resorts or other populated areas along the routine training run dubbed "Easy 01."

Facing court-martial and potentially the rest of his life in prison, Ashby believes he will be vindicated.

"I have a lot of faith and I have it in my heart and I have it in my head," he said.

With these words, he touched his chest. He patted his forehead. And then his turquoise eyes filled with tears as he recalled those who died and the families that have suffered.

During the day, while on the job, he replays in his mind those frantic seconds, he said. Then he comes home at night, a single man alone with his unforgiving thoughts, the pounding Atlantic surf just outside. Italy is an ocean away, and he falls asleep exhausted.

"I have faith in God and I have faith in the Marine Corps," he said. "If it was not for that faith, then I could not get through this. Faith is what keeps me going."

In the collision's aftermath, he and his three crew members were sent home to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. At work, he handles inconsequential duties at the nearby Marine bases at Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune and prepares for the start of military legal proceedings on multiple counts of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment.

According to investigators, Ashby's plane hit one cable at 370 feet, the other at 364 feet _ both well below where the jet should have been.

"The entire low-level portion of the mishap flight was planned and briefed at an altitude of 1,000 feet," the investigation report said. "However, most of the low-level portion of the flight should have been planned, briefed and flown at 2,000 feet."

Ashby, however, said it was common to fly even lower than those altitudes on Prowler training missions, particularly those where flight maps show no populated areas nearby. He said the aircraft is used to provide cover for bombers and is most efficient when hugging the ground.

"We briefed on what we believed to be the proper altitude and we never intentionally went under 500 feet," he said.

He said he was never told about the ski area. He keeps a copy of the flight map, which, although it highlights aerial ski trams in sections of nearby Switzerland, makes no mention of similar resorts in Italy's Dolomite Mountains.

But the report noted that three separate copies of low-level military warning cards were found in the cockpit. One warned that "Minimum altitude over snow-covered mountainous terrain is 1,000 feet." Another advised "the flight should be flown at 2,000 feet."

Ashby assumes the other crew members must have brought the cards aboard. "As the pilot, I don't bring anything with me," he said. "But other people may bring things in their bags they don't even know are there."

The report also concluded that Ashby "exceeded the maximum airspeed by 100 nautical miles per hour."

On this point, he declined to detail what his defense will be when his legal proceedings begin next month.

"They're trying to portray me as a cowboy, and that's hogwash," he said. "They were starting to call me Rambo, and saying that we were trying to fly under the wire. They said we were even betting beers.

"But to me, flying is an art form. It's not just, hey, move left or move right. It's an art form, and if you don't practice it, you're going to lose it. You're not going to be that good."

He said he knows that, at least for the Marines and likely for any commercial airliner as well, he will never fly again. "For the military, probably not," he said. "There's too much political pressure now, even if I'm acquitted. They're saying I could get something like 400-plus years, and I can't even imagine me ever being in prison."

The tragedy touched off a firestorm in international relations. Italian officials cried out for swift and harsh punishment, at one point demanding that the four crew members be turned over to their country's courts. Some Italian leaders renewed their clamor for the United States to remove its military bases from Italy.

But U.S. officials invoked NATO rules stating that whenever a mishap occurs, the responsible NATO member _ in this case, the United States _ should deal with the problem internally.

And the United States did act fast. Clinton administration officials immediately apologized to the Italians and those families who lost loved ones, pledging to pay reparations. And within a month, the Marines had completed their investigative findings and sent the case well on its way to a court-martial.

Capt. William L. Raney II, 26, of Englewood, Colo., and Capt. Chandler P. Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Ind., who sat in the back of the plane and operated its electronic jamming gear, have been ordered to a hearing Tuesday. The session is similar to a preliminary hearing in civilian courts to determine whether the charges of negligent homicide and reckless endangerment should go to trial.

Ashby and his co-pilot, Capt. Joseph P. Schweitzer, 30, of Westbury, N.Y., are scheduled for a similar session June 15.

In recalling how his own father died in a traffic accident, Ashby's eyes watered up again.

Ashby was 20 years old then, and it was around the time he had decided to join the Marine Corps.

"I know what it's like to lose someone without any notice," he said. "I know how (the Italian families) feel."

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