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Witness Describes Jet Descending

February 11, 1999

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) _ A Marine jet that was traveling “very fast” descended rapidly moments before it struck a ski gondola cable in the Italian Alps, killing 20 people, a witness testified today.

Alexander Angerer, a snowboard instructor who was teaching a group in the Mount Cermis area the day of the tragedy, said at Capt. Richard Ashby’s court-martial that his first thought was, “He’s crazy ... because the jet was flying so low over the village.”

“It went very fast, following the slope,” he said. He added that the jet then descended below where he was on the mountainside, lower than he had never seen a military jet reach before.

“First it was above me, then it was on the slope. It went below,” Angerer said.

Also today, an analyst for the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va., showed jurors computer-generated graphs showing the plane’s position at various stages of the fatal flight. The positions were plotted from information on the data recorder on Ashby’s plane and from ground and air radar.

“An accident investigation is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together without all the pieces, and radar data is one element,” said the analyst, Chip Brown. The judge let the display be shown over the objections of Ashby’s attorneys, who said it contained errors.

Ashby, 31, of Mission Viejo, Calif., was piloting the EA-6B Prowler on Feb. 3, 1998, when it sliced the cable over the Italian village of Cavalese. He is charged with 20 counts of involuntary manslaughter, destroying government and private property and dereliction of duty. If convicted on all charges, he faces more than 200 years in prison.

On Wednesday, witnesses said Ashby’s jet rustled tree tops as it swooped over the valley with a roar moments before striking the cable.

“It was almost at the top of the trees,” 16-year-old Andrea Mover of San Michele all’Adige, Italy, testified. “Just as the plane passed by the tops of the two trees, I saw the tops moving.”

Mover testified that his home is on a route commonly used by military planes, but that Ashby’s jet was “much lower than they usually go.” He said he watched the jet from a window in his home.

Prosecutors contend Ashby was negligently flying too fast and too low _ in violation of an altitude restriction of 1,000 feet. The cable was hit at about 360 feet.

Defense lawyers say Ashby will tell the jury his map didn’t have the ski gondola marked on it and that his jet’s radar altimeter _ which measures flying altitude _ was faulty.

Mario Bleggi, a surveyor working near a mountain ridge near Chivo, Italy, testified that he heard the Prowler before he saw it. Bleggi, of Trento, Italy, also told jurors he watched the jet make a clockwise rotation, allowing him to see the belly of the jet.

“Apart from the fact I had never seen a plane so low, I was very afraid because of the noise,” Bleggi testified.

Also Wednesday, maintenance officer Lt. Col. Gary Eugene Slyman and Capt. Scott Roys testified that the jet’s radar altimeter had malfunctioned on two earlier flights but was fixed.

And Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Poncelet said his analysis of tapes from the Prowler showed the jet had exceeded its 517 mph speed limit during 89 percent of the ill-fated flight.

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

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