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Jet Said To Be OK Before Accident

February 10, 1999

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ The radar altimeter on a Marine jet that sliced through an Italian ski gondola cable, killing 20 people, malfunctioned on two earlier flights but was fixed, two witnesses testified Wednesday.

Testifying at the court-martial of Capt. Richard Ashby, maintenance officer Lt. Col. Gary Eugene Slyman said that when the pilot signed out the EA-6B Prowler on Feb. 3, 1998, the jet had a missing screw and an erratic air-conditioner, but nothing serious enough to ground it.

``This airplane was a solid player for us,″ Slyman said. ``This plane had flown the most sorties and most hours of any airplane we had.″

Slyman said that when he flew the plane on an earlier mission, the altimeter alarm _ which is supposed to go off when the plane dips below a preset altitude _ sounded at 25,000 feet instead of at the lower elevation it was set for. He said he reset the alarm and it corrected itself.

Later Wednesday, Capt. Scott Roys testified the radar altimeter stuck when he was in the same jet another time, but he and the pilot fixed it.

After the jet hit the gondola cable, Ashby filed a complaint about the radar altimeter, Slyman said. Slyman didn’t elaborate on the nature of the problem Ashby cited.

Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, Calif., is charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and other offenses. He could get more than 200 years in prison.

Prosecutors said the jet was flying too low and too fast in violation of an altitude restriction of 1,000 feet. The cable was hit at about 360 feet. Defense attorneys contend the ski area in the Alps wasn’t on Ashby’s map.

The Prowler’s navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, 31, of Westbury, N.Y., is awaiting trial next month.

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