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Prosecutors: Pilot Made Bad Choice

February 8, 1999

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ A Marine pilot was hotdogging when his jet sliced through a ski gondola cable in the Italian Alps, killing 20 people, a prosecutor said in opening statements Monday at the aviator’s court-martial.

In addition to flying his radar-jamming plane too low and too fast ``whenever he had the opportunity″ that day, Capt. Richard Ashby broke regulations by putting the aircraft through a barrel roll, Lt. Col. Carol Joyce said.

Ashby is charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and other offenses, and could be sentenced to more than 200 years in prison.

Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, Calif., was at the controls of an EA-6B Prowler on Feb. 3, 1998, when its wing cut the cable. The gondola plummeted to the ground, killing all 20 people aboard.

``Whenever he had the opportunity to fly too low and too fast, he did it,″ Joyce said.

Joyce said the Marine Corps had banned flights below 1,000 feet in Italy after a 1996 accident. The cable that Ashby’s jet struck was 370 feet above the ground.

In addition, the prosecutor said, one of the two back-seat officers in the jet will testify that Ashby performed a 360-degree barrel roll as the jet swooped through a mountain valley.

A jet loses altitude fast during such a roll, the first prosecution witness testified later.

``At low altitude ... it becomes very dangerous,″ said Maj. David Wilkinson, an aircraft weapons system officer from Marine Corps headquarters.

Ashby’s attorney Capt. Jon Shelburne told the jury in his opening statement: ``It was just an accident. It was an accident waiting to happen.″

Carlo Demattio, a former policeman from Cavalese, Italy, testified through an interpreter that he was walking his dogs on a trail near the cable system when he saw the jet coming down the valley ``very, very fast.″

``There was this loud noise, and I looked up and screamed, `What, are they crazy to be flying so low over a residential area?′ I started screaming, `The cable! The cable!‴ he said.

Demattio ran to the crushed gondola car, but ``when I saw the destruction, I knew there was nothing to do″ and no one answered his calls looking for survivors.

The pilot’s lawyers have said that he didn’t know the cable was there because it wasn’t on the map he was issued, and that an optical illusion may have made him think he was flying higher than he was.

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