Incident changes his life forever

Trial: Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, now facing charges in the deaths of 20 people who fell from a gondola in the Italian Alps, once had high hopes of making the world a safer place.

February 09, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

When Joseph Schweitzer graduated from the Naval Academy in 1989, classmates wrote in his yearbook that the Marine Corps-bound lacrosse star would "make the world safe for democracy."

But a year ago, Schweitzer was co-piloting a jet that caused one of the most gruesome peace-time disasters in U.S. military history: the deaths of 20 civilians aboard a ski resort gondola in northern Italy. His otherwise spotless reputation as a serious, almost shy Marine is now stained by accusations he is a reckless killer.

Much attention in the case has focused on pilot Richard Ashby, whose court martial began yesterday. But the Annapolis-trained Schweitzer is being held equally liable. Both Marine captains face the same two-dozen charges; Schweitzer's trial will follow Ashby's.

For Schweitzer, 31, the tragedy carried with it an ironic twist. The Feb. 3, 1998, flight was to be one of his last. A week later, he planned to return to the United States, quit the military and go to law school.

Schweitzer and Ashby, also 31, were part of a NATO-backed squadron patrolling Bosnia. On Feb. 3, they were to make a training flight over the Italian Alps just south of the Austrian border.

Schweitzer was the navigator. He'd hoped to be a pilot since he was little, but imperfect eyesight had dashed that dream. Instead, he became a pilot's right-hand man, who decides where and how the plane flies.

The day before, Schweitzer pored over charts of the Alps. During the flight, on the final leg of the 60-minute exercise, Schweitzer sat in the jet's front right seat, looking down at a chart in his lap. Ashby was flying at least 600 mph, less than 400 feet off the ground. Too fast and too low, investigators would later say.

When Schweitzer saw the gondola cables, he screamed, "Climb, climb, climb." Ashby, though, jerked the jet left and down. Schweitzer heard a thud.

The aircraft soared away. Below it, a gondola car with 20 people aboard fell to earth.

The next day, waiting for Italian police to arrest him, Schweitzer looked north from the military base in Aviano toward the Alps. "I came to the realization this was my Mount Everest," he said later. "I felt hopeless."

A childhood dream

Joe Schweitzer never wanted to be anything but a soldier. When his family moved from Manhattan to Long Island, he met boys who felt the same. They played Army, built forts and pieced together model airplanes they dangled from bedroom ceilings.

There was no explanation for the fascination, no military in the immediate family. His father, Joe Sr., worked at Bell Atlantic.

"I called him Captain America," says Louis Brown, a classmate at the all-boys Chaminade High School in Westbury, N.Y., who also went to the Naval Academy.

Schweitzer once told his mother, Pat: "Mom, if there's a war, I'm going to enlist."

Despite his parents' resistance, he enrolled in the Naval Academy.

"He really believed it all that stuff -- in America and serving your country," says Rich Meade, the academy lacrosse coach. Schweitzer was team captain.

After graduating, Schweitzer married his college sweetheart. In 1993, He became an "electronic counter measures officer" aboard EA-6B Prowlers, a radar-jamming aircraft.

But in 1997, after tours in Asia and Europe, he needed a change. His long tours abroad had led to divorce. He decided to go to law school, to study international relations. Visiting Annapolis that summer, he dined with Meade and another coach. He said he was leaving the Corps, but had been asked to stay six more months.

In August of that year, he was assigned to the Aviano Air Force Base in northern Italy.

Six months later, on Feb. 2, 1998, days before the end of his tour, Schweitzer spent the afternoon reviewing Department of Defense maps of the Italian Alps. He'd tell investigators later that none showed a gondola or the Cermis ski resort.

Regardless, Marine investigators and investigation documents, Schweitzer's family and friends, and Italian witnesses agree on one thing: What happened the next day was certainly avoidable.

The game plan was a "low-level training flight." Schweitzer had navigated just one such flight before, though never on the mountainous route through the Trentino Alto Adige Region.

Low-level flights by U.S. planes in Italy typically hugged the contours of the earth, no less than 1,000 feet off the ground. The tactic was good practice for evading enemy radar, and it's one of the more exciting and enjoyable aspects of jet piloting.

Investigators later learned that noise complaints had prompted a new rule banning jets from dipping below 2,000 feet. The directive was found in a flight crew information file, but Schweitzer and the pilot said they never saw it.

As it turned out, the difference in minimum altitude didn't matter, since the accident occurred well below both restrictions.

With Schweitzer sitting beside him, Ashby took off at 2: 35 p.m. from Aviano. Two other officers -- Capt. William L. Raney and Capt. Chandler P. Seagraves -- sat in the back of the jet.

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