U.S. Team to Travel to Italy to Review Aviation Safety
By Paul Stone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 18, 1999 The Pentagon announced March 16 that a U.S. team will travel to Italy next week to review aviation safety procedures.
The team is headed by Adm. Joseph Prueher, former commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Command, and will include aviation and legal experts from all the services. While in Italy, the team will examine aviation safety measures implemented since a Feb. 3, 1998, accident that killed 20 civilians in Cavalese, Italy.
The accident occurred when a Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler on a low-level training mission through the Italian Alps sliced a gondola cable and sent a cable car plunging 370 feet to the slope below. Seven Germans, five Belgians, three Italians, two Austrians, two Poles and one Dutch skier died in the accident.
President Clinton asked the Pentagon to conduct the review March 5, and Prueher was appointed by Defense Secretary William Cohen on March 10. The review comes in the wake the March 4 acquittal of Marine Corps Capt. Richard Ashby on charges he recklessly caused the skiers' deaths. Ashby was the pilot of the Prowler.
Similar charges have since been dropped against the navigator, Marine Capt. Joseph Schweitzer. Both aviators still face obstruction of justice charges.
During a March 16 Pentagon briefing, Prueher expressed "profound sorrow and regret" over the accident and said the United States and Italy are committed to working through the assessment and investigation together.
He said the team will assess a wide range of factors, including people, equipment, training, tactics and infrastructure. "We'll be looking at all those things for possible improvement," he said. He declined to comment on procedures instituted since the accident and emphasized his team is there to assess, not to determine accountability.
While in Italy, the team will work with an Italian delegation headed by Lt. Gen. Leonardo Tricarico, commander of the 5th Allied Task Force of the Italian air force. They will visit Rome, Aviano Air Base, Naples, the accident site at Cavalese and NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, before returning to the United States. A final report to Cohen is due April 15.
Despite the strong reaction from the Italian civilian population at large over both the accident and Ashby's acquittal, Prueher said he is confident Italian officials involved in the current assessment understand and appreciate U.S. efforts to improve training operations.
He said U.S. forces will continue low-level flights in Italy and defended them as necessary for pilot proficiency. "It's a level of proficiency (we need) not only for our country and for the Italians, but for NATO nations," Prueher said. "We need to do it in a safe and an operationally careful way."