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Marine Pilot Called ‘Reckless’

February 22, 1999

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ A Marine Corps pilot intentionally flew low and fast before his EA-6B Prowler cut a ski gondola cable and killed 20 people, an accident expert testified Monday.

``It was reckless,″ Bernard Coogan said. ``There was no need to be down in that valley so low at that speed.″

Coogan testified as the manslaughter trial for Capt. Richard Ashby entered its third week. Ashby, 31, was at the controls of the Prowler on Feb. 3, 1998 when it cut the cable at Cavalese, Italy, killing everyone on the gondola.

Prosecutors contend Ashby was flying too low and fast, against regulations. The defense contends Ashby was the victim of a faulty radar altimeter, a map that didn’t have the cables on it and that an optical illusion made him think he was higher.

Coogan, a former military pilot who has investigated more than 1,000 aircraft accidents, said he concentrated his examination on the final six to eight seconds of the Prowler’s flight.

Using a three-dimensional topographical map of the valley with radar plots and witness statements, Coogan traced the Prowler’s flight path.

Ashby didn’t have a good military reason to fly so low _ the cables were struck under 400 feet _ because he didn’t time the flight, Coogan testified. Usually, a low level flight is run against the clock, so at best the flight was an orientation run that should have been conducted at higher altitude, he said.

Members of Ashby’s squadron testified last week they never were told about a 2,000-foot winter altitude limit over the snow-covered mountains. Coogan said the minimum altitude was increased from 1,000 feet four months before the disaster.

Ashby’s speed along the route was at least about 590 mph, Coogan said, but a better speed would have been around 480 mph. The jet also deviated from the center line of the route by more than a mile and a half at times, he said, which showed a lack of concentration.

Coogan said the radar altimeter wasn’t a critical instrument during the low-level flight because a pilot flying low should spend his time looking outside. He also said there was no optical illusion to make Ashby think his flight, at times lower than buildings perched on mountainsides, was higher than it was.

Coogan, who flew for the CIA in Vietnam, said under cross examination that he had not flown a military plane since the 1970s.

Ashby is charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count each of destruction of private property, destruction of government property and dereliction of duty. If convicted, he could receive a maximum sentence of more than 200 years in prison.

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