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Wednesday, February 10, 1999 Published at 03:49 GMT

World: Americas

Death jet pilot 'took risks'

Jurors boarded a helicopter on their way to view a Prowler jet

The former commander of a US Marine pilot whose jet cut the wires of an Italian cable car, killing 20 people, has told his trial the pilot took risks during the flight.

Prosecutors say Captain Richard Ashby, 31, took a video camera on the flight and performed a 360-degree "flaperon" roll shortly before the accident on 3 February 1998.

[ image: Lt Col Muegge:
Lt Col Muegge: "The pilot took risks"
Asked about the manoeuvre, his former commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Muegge, said: "It's not very safe. It doesn't take much to lose altitude. It can be disorienting. It's not commonplace, and it's never been condoned."

Capt Ashby's lawyers say the roll was often used to cross mountain ridges.

Removed from command

Lt Col Muegge, who was removed from command after the accident, said Capt Ashby also put the flight at risk by taking a video camera on board the EA-6B Prowler.

He said: "It's not illegal, but it's an air crew co-ordination didn't seem to be a real smart thing to do."

Capt Ashby's lawyers have said the ski lift was not shown on the maps he was using.

But Lt Col Muegge said it was common knowledge that there were ski areas in the Alps and he said it was understood 1,000 feet (300m) was the lowest safe altitude.

Capt Ashby's jet struck the cable at around 360 feet (110m).

Special air display

Earlier the jury watched an identical US Marine jet being put through its paces.

The eight-man jury - which includes three pilots with experience in jets and helicopters - watched as the Prowler jet roared overhead at the Cherry Point air station in North Carolina.

[ image: Captain Ashby arrives at court with his stepfather]
Captain Ashby arrives at court with his stepfather
Captain Richard Ashby, 31, from California, denies 20 charges of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the incident on 3 February 1998 when his Prowler plane clipped cable car wires above the Italian ski resort of Cavalese.

With its wires cut a gondola plummeted more than 100 metres, killing all 20 people inside.

The accident sparked uproar in Italy and demands for the closure of the US air force base at Aviano.

Capt Ashby is also accused of dereliction of duty and destruction of property, the latter charge relates to a missing on-board video tape.

'Flew too low'

Prosecutors allege the pilot, on his final Prowler mission before transferring to fighter pilot school, was intentionally flying too low and too fast on the day of the accident.

Capt Ashby, who faces up to 200 years in prison if convicted, is on trial at a court-martial in nearby Camp Lejeune.

[ image: The Prowler is known as the 'sky pig' by pilots]
The Prowler is known as the 'sky pig' by pilots
Before witnessing the fly-by, the jurors were given the chance to sit in the cramped cockpit of the Prowler, a Vietnam-era combat jet used to jam enemy radar.

With a military judge, lawyers and reporters looking on, a Prowler pilot showed the jurors one-by-one the jet's instrument panel, including the location of its radar altimeter and air-speed gauge.

Capt Ashby's lawyers have claimed the jet's altimeter was unreliable. They also say the cable car wires on Mount Cermis, near Cavalese, were not shown on his map.

The Prowler, known as the "sky pig", is equipped with a wall of electronic instrumentation which separates twin cockpits where aviators sit in pairs, side by side.

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