U.S. and Italian officials gave clashing versions Thursday of how a U.S. surveillance plane on a training mission near here could have sliced through a ski-lift suspension wire and sent 20 people aboard a cable car plummeting to their deaths.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Guy Vanderlinden, deputy commander of NATO naval strike and support forces in Southern Europe, said the U.S. Marine EA-6B Prowler was following a standard training route Tuesday to practice dipping below enemy radar at prescribed altitudes ranging from 500-2,000 feet when it severed the cable.
He said the pilot, identifed as Capt. Richard J. Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, Calif., was an experienced Marine aviator with more than 750 flight hours who was fully briefed on safety risks in crowded areas. While leaving open the crucial question of why the plane was flying low enough to hit the cable, Vanderlinden told reporters at the U.S. air base here, “I do not believe the pilot diverted from the approved route.”
But that explanation was contradicted by Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta, who told parliament the twin-engine jet had strayed off course by at least six miles and should not have been flying any lower than 2,000 feet. “There would not have been any danger had the aircraft kept to the regulations,” Andreatta said.
Learning afterward of Vanderlinden’s remarks, Andreatta issued a statement reiterating his contention that the plane was off course and, in a pointed rebuke to the U.S. general, added: “It would be appropriate if whoever did not have enough detailed information on the issue remained silent.”
In Washington, Gen. Charles Krulak, the Marine Corps commandant, said it was his understanding that “the established altitude” for flights over the ski area was 2,000 feet but that he was not certain of this. “There are several things that make it very difficult to say that’s exactly it,” he added - among them, a local regulation on noise abatement procedures. In any case, Krulak said, the plane should have been no lower than 1,000 feet above the ground and that it clearly flew below that altitude. Officials said the cable car fell about 300 feet, but it was unclear at what altitude the lift cable was severed.
The varying accounts aggravated the mood of angry mistrust that has spawned a crisis in relations between the United States and Italy. Adding to the atmosphere was a claim by an Italian prosecutor that the jet was equipped with a flight-data recorder and that the Americans were withholding it.
Some leftist politicians, whose support is vital for the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, have demanded all seven U.S. bases in this country be closed.
Seeking to quell the outrage, U.S. military officials announced Thursday that $100,000 will be donated to families of the victims to help defray costs of funerals and other expenses. “We felt it was important to help these families immediately in their time of need,” Vanderlinden said, noting that these payments would not affect any subsequent legal claims.
Brig. Gen. Tim Peppe, commander of the 31st Flight Wing stationed here, said all U.S. military low-level flying missions in Italy have been suspended. For now, Peppe said, “we will continue to fly only medium altitude missions and our normal Bosnia missions.” But he and other commanders stressed the importance of low-altitude training missions, which are deemed critical to maintain the skills of U.S. airmen who must evade radar systems and cope with mountainous terrain in Bosnia.
After touring the site near the ski resort of Cavalese, Prodi accused the American pilot of reckless behavior and conducting an “earth-shaving flight beyond any limit allowed by the rules and laws.”
Some witnesses said the plane was flying as low as 150 feet when its tail clipped the ski-lift cable. A Marine spokesman in Washington, however, has said the plane sustained damage to its underside, with cable burns also along the side of the fuselage, indicating it clipped the cable from above.
“The flight plan of the aircraft did not foresee going above the area where the cable car runs,” Andreatta told members of a joint defense council from both houses of parliament. “The only explanation for the impact on the plane’s tail is that the craft hit the cable lines as it was flying back up from below the lines.”
Vanderlinden insisted it is too early to make any judgment and urged restraint until all facts are gathered.