1998 Cavalese Cable Car Disaster (lost cockpit recording of aviation-related accident; 1998)
On February 3rd, 1998, twenty people died when a cable car situated near the ski resort town of Cavalese, Italy plummeted to the ground from 260 feet. It was caused when a United States Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft, which was flying excessively fast and too low during a low-altitude training mission, ultimately severed the cable that supported the cable car as it was descending from Mount Cermis. The disaster has been named the Strage del Cermis (Massacre of Cermis) in Italy. The pilot, Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, were ultimately deemed not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide for their roles in the disaster. However, they were found guilty of obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman upon being found to have destroyed camcorder footage recorded from the plane's cockpit.
On the day of the disaster, the pilots were undergoing a low-attitude training mission, which is critical for optimal wartime "nap-of-the-earth" flying. Military regulations demanded that the plane have a minimum flying height of 1,000 feet, with restrictions regarding maximum speed and what manoeuvres could be conducted also enforced. This was in response to a Prowler jet crash that occurred in Yuma, Ariz two years prior, killing all four crew members during a training exercise. But according to engineers belonging to the ski-lift company that owned the cable cars, the plane must have been flying between 260 to 330 feet for it to have hit the cable based on estimations regarding how high the cables were off the ground. Additionally, training flights within the Cavalese region were restricted to 2,000 feet, although an investigation board consisting of six U.S. Marine Corps officers, one U.S. Air Force officer, and one Italian Air Force officer found that ground supervisors failed to inform the crew about this.
Italian investigators also discovered that the plane severed the ski lift cables at around 540 mph (870 km/h), which was essentially the plane's top speed. In the initial trial of Ashby and Schweitzer, Ashby claimed to have been unaware of any speed restrictions while they were conducting the mission. According to some eyewitness accounts, the plane was travelling so low and fast that it barely managed to navigate past lakes, roads, houses and even over vehicles upon crossing a busy roadway, frightening some villagers in the process. Then-Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi claimed it was "a terrible act, a flight practically scraping the ground."
Investigators also discovered that past the halfway mark of the training flight, the Prowler suddenly changed direction, veering left into the valleys. According to Italian Government officials, this was in violation of the agreed course and area limits for this exercise. The independent board blamed the aircrew for aggressively manoeuvring their aircraft, while the prosecution deemed that the crew had also conducted an unorthodox roll manoeuvre that further contributed to the plane going off course. All of these aspects contributed towards the disaster. At around 3:12 PM, Ashby saw the yellow cable car to his right, and banked sharply left and up in an attempt to avoid a collision. Ultimately, it was too late, and the Prowler's right-wing severed through the cables that caused the cable car to plummet to the ground. All twenty on board the car, including one operator, were killed. The Prowler suffered severe damage to its right wing and tail, which caused fuel and hydraulic oil to leak. Nevertheless, the plane successfully made an emergency landing at Aviano Air Base. This was the second cable car disaster to have occurred in Cavalese, the other occurring in 1976 and taking 43 lives.
In the initial trial, all four crew members, Ashby, Schweitzer, and Captains Chandler P. Seagraves and William L. Raney, were charged, but only the former two faced trial for twenty counts of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. The defence for Ashby's trial claimed that the US military map provided by the Pentagon, was inadequate as it did not show where the cables were situated. Ashby also argued that the plane's altimeter had malfunctioned. On March 5th, 1999, a jury voted to acquit Ashby, with Schweitzer's being dropped not long after Ashby's acquittal. This was much to the anger of many in Italy, which contributed towards further strain of Italian-US relations.
Cockpit Videotape and Second Trial
Although acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, Ashby and Schweitzer would face a second court martial for obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. During the investigation, it was discovered that a video camera was situated in the front cockpit of the Prowler, going against regulations. Upon attempting to examine the footage, all Italian investigators found was black.
It was found that videotape shot from the Prowler's cockpit during part of its flight was destroyed by its crew. Ashby and Schweitzer maintained that no information that could incriminate them was lost upon the videotape's destruction. The video camera's purpose was to capture the surrounding scenery, and according to Schweitzer, contained footage of him smiling prior to the accident occurring. This provided the motivation for him to destroy the footage, because of concern that television broadcasts would picture him smiling alongside graphic imagery of the disaster's aftermath. Upon landing at Aviano Air Base, Ashby gave Schweitzer the tape, the latter claiming he then destroyed the footage by throwing it onto a bonfire.
However, because investigators were never able to view what was on the tape, prosecutors in the second trial claimed that the crew had destroyed the footage in an attempt to obstruct the trial. Consequentially, Ashby and Schweitzer were charged with obstruction of justice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Ashby was sentenced to six months in prison, dismissal from the Marines and the surrendering of all military pay and allowances. Because Schweitzer entered a plea agreement, he faced no prison time but was also ultimately dismissed too. An appeal by both pilots against their dismissals was rejected in November 2007.
Because Schweitzer destroyed the videotape containing the footage, this recording will never be recovered. Hence, the only people that can recollect what was on that tape were the aircrew themselves. In a 2012 episode of Seconds From Disaster that discussed the disaster, titled "Cable Car Collision," Schweitzer summarised the footage as an "innocent record of a happy flight".
- Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (partially found contents of missing flight recorders from disappeared passenger aircraft; 2014)
- Malév Flight 240 (lost flight recorders and crash investigation reports of fatal passenger aircraft crash; 1975)
- Pan Am Flight 708 (lost flight recorders of fatal cargo aircraft crash; 1966)
- Varig Flight 967 (lost flight recorders and Manabu Mabe paintings of disappeared cargo aircraft; 1979)
- International Civil Aviation Organization, which summarised the disaster. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Tampa Bay Times, reporting on the disaster and investigation findings, including the estimated feet the plane was flying at by the time of the disaster. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- The Incident at Cavalese and Strategic Compensation, which discussed the investigation and its findings. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- The New York Times reporting on the investigation findings, including how the plane was essentially flying at top speed. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- BBC News article discussing the investigation findings, summarising the prosecution's claims the plane was going too low, too fast and had conducted an unorthodox roll manoeuvre. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Independent article discussing the disaster, the plane's landing and the trials. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- BBC News article discussing the 1976 Cavalese cable car disaster. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Washington Post article reporting that the US military map did not show the ski-lift cable. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Devastating Disaster article mentioning the malfunctioning altimeter used in Ashby's defence. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- The Spokesman-Review reporting on Ashby's acquittal. Retrieved 20 June '21
- Guardian article reporting on the anger many Italians felt upon hearing the acquittal of Ashby. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Washington Post article discussing the videotape and the alleged purpose of filming footage inside the cockpit. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Lastampa reporting on the video footage being destroyed. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- BBC News article reporting on Ashby and Schweitzer being sentenced for destroying the videotape footage. Retrieved 20 Jun '21
- Repubblica.it reporting on the dismissal appeals being rejected. Retrieved 20 Jun '21