Investigators Blame Marines for Cable Car Accident
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, March 16, 1998 Investigators say the pilot and crew of a U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B aircraft flew faster and lower than their mission allowed, thereby causing the Feb. 3 cable car accident that killed 20 skiers in northeast Italy.
"Aircrew error" was the cause of the mishap, U.S. and Italian investigators announced at Aviano Air Base, Italy, March 12. The air crew disregarded flight rules concerning airspeed and minimum altitude, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. M. P. DeLong, president of a joint U.S. and Italian investigation board.
The Aviano-based aircraft was on a low-level training mission when it severed a gondola cable at a ski resort in Cavalese. The gondola and passengers from six countries dropped more than 300 feet to the valley below.
The aircraft is one of three EA-6B Prowlers assigned to the 31st Air Expeditionary Wing in support of NATO air operations over Bosnia. They are permanently assigned to Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2, Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, N.C.
The investigation board based its findings on mission record data, AWACS data, Italian eyewitnesses and interviews with other squadron members. On the advice of legal counsel, the pilot and crew members elected not to be interviewed.
"We do not know what they thought or what they were thinking," DeLong said at a press conference in Aviano. "We have no idea what their intention was."
According to the rules for low-level flights, the EA-6B was to fly at 2,000 feet at 450 knots. That day, the crew mistakenly briefed the mission at 1,000 feet, DeLong said. The aircraft was flying well below 1,000 feet when it struck two cables suspended at about 350 feet. The aircraft exceeded the maximum airspeed by as much as 100 knots, DeLong said.
"If the mishap crew had flown this mission at 1,000 feet above ground level, their briefed altitude, let alone the proper altitude of the 2,000 feet above ground level, this incident would never have happened," DeLong said.
Investigators concluded the cable strike was not a one-time altitude miscalculation, he noted. On the contrary, he said, "The aircraft flew lower and faster than authorized wherever the terrain permitted."
DeLong said investigators checked the reliability of the plane's altimeter, concluding it worked before the flight and tested normally after the accident. Military officials ruled out a one-time failure of the radar altimeter as a cause of the accident. Even if the altimeter was not working properly, investigators determined the crew could have judged their altitude visually and based on their experience, DeLong added.
U.S. and Italian officials also looked into allegations that the cable system was not marked on the crew's U.S. map. They found it was marked as an aerial cableway on the crew's U.S. map and as a horizontal obstruction on the Italian map.
"If a detailed map study had been done by the crew using either of these maps, the crew would have been able to determine there were obstructions in the area," DeLong said. "Bottom line: The air crew possessed all the pertinent mapping information needed to fly this mission."
Allegations that the plane's mission data recorder was tampered with following the accident were unfounded, DeLong reported. It was safeguarded until it was provided to the investigation board, which was at first unable to recover the data, he said. Experts brought in from the United States retrieved the information. "This data proved very important to the board in reconstructing the route and character of the flight," DeLong said.
Based on the board's findings and recommendations U.S. Marine Forces Atlantic Commander Lt. Gen. Peter Pace will take disciplinary and administrative action against the crew -- Capt. Richard J. Ashby, pilot, Capt. Joseph P. Schweitzer, Capt. William L Rancy II and Capt. Chandler P. Seagraves -- and others in the unit's chain of command.
In a statement read by Marine Col. Craig Carver, Pace said the military equivalent of a grand jury will determine if the crew will face court-martial on such charges as involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide, damage to private and government property, and dereliction of duty.
Marine officials noted there are obviously different levels of culpability among the four crew members since they have different duties in flight. This will be considered when specific charges, if any, are filed, they said.
Appropriate administrative action will also be taken against the unit commander, operations officer, director of safety and standardization, aviation safety officer and any air crew training officers for failing to identify and disseminate pertinent flight information for local training flights.
The board also recommended that all proper claims for death and property damages should be paid in accordance with the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, Pace said.
Pace said he has initiated actions "to ensure accountability of those responsible, to obtain restitution for those entitled to it, and to prevent similar tragedies. I will monitor all actions now pending to ensure they are vigorously pursued and appropriately resolved," he said.
The four crew members currently are being held at Aviano. The United States has primary jurisdiction under the status of forces agreement, but the Italian government is seeking jurisdiction in the case.