Marines Clear the Decks Over Gondola Accident

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The Marine Corps delivered a verdict Friday on the 1998 ski gondola accident near Cavalese, Italy, in which a low-flying jet clipped the cable and killed 20 people. The pilot of the EA-6B Prowler, who was acquitted in March of manslaughter, was convicted by a military jury of obstruction of justice and conspiracy for helping destroy an in-flight videotape that might have shed light on the accident. That is the charge that stuck to Capt. Richard Ashby, says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson, after the first court-martial revealed a series of mix-ups and deficiencies up and down the chain of command that may have contributed to the accident. Ashby's sentencing hearing, which could result in dismissal or up to 10 years behind bars, continues on Monday.

Though the U.S. military had imposed a minimum flight altitude limit of 2,000 feet for planes flying out of the Aviano air base, and though the plane flew much lower than that (the pilot said the altitude gauge had malfunctioned), “one of the things that came out of this accident was the crew’s assertion that they had never heard of the 2,000-feet limit,” says Thompson. The Pentagon, which now relies heavily on Aviano for NATO's Kosovo campaign, has since redoubled its efforts to ensure that safety guidelines for pilots in Italy are made clear. “The 2,000-feet rule has now been clearly communicated, maps of the region have been fully updated, and the heat is on to stop the practice of low-flying flat-hatting,” says Thompson. So far, the tough reminders have worked.