The tragic deaths of 20 people in a cable car brought about by a low-flying American warplane near Cavalese, Italy, have created a storm of criticism in Italy. The deaths also raise serious questions about the need to train U.S. pilots for high-speed, low-level flights.
I spent hundreds of hours flying Navy attack aircraft at low levels, including flights through those same Italian mountains. I believed then that I was preparing for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The concept was that unescorted nuclear-armed aircraft could penetrate Soviet territory only by sneaking in below the Russians' radar coverage. But that reason is no longer valid. In the unlikely event of a nuclear war today, aircraft attacks would follow only after missile warheads had destroyed Russian air defenses, thus eliminating the need for low-altitude tactics.
Now the presumed justification is that pilots must be prepared for low-level attacks using conventional weapons. Unfortunately, as early as the Vietnam War, the costly lesson was learned that low-level tactics resulted in prohibitive losses because of ground fire from light, even hand-held automatic weapons. Heat-seeking missiles have subsequently added an even more lethal threat to low-flying warplanes.
The cost of low-level attacks was evident once again during Desert Storm operations in Iraq. British Tornado aircraft using minimum-altitude tactics suffered disproportionate losses early in the campaign. The American experience was reflected in the Department of Defense's final report to Congress, which noted how despite the strong peacetime emphasis on training for low-level delivery tactics, the density of the Iraqi planes and the dangers of unaimed barrage fire to low-flying aircraft drove some aircraft to higher altitudes.
The report noted that 10 aircraft were lost later during bad weather when they were forced down to lower altitudes and exposed to heavy defensive fire. Low-level attack operations produced almost one-half of all coalition aircraft losses even though they were abandoned early in the air war.
All of this sad evidence demonstrates that fighting at low altitudes costs lives and aircraft unnecessarily. This truth will be honored in the impending air campaign against Iraq. Only after great damage has been done to Iraqi air defense capabilities will attacks be pressed from closer ranges and lower altitudes, and even then it will be a rare case for aircraft to descend below 10,000 feet. There simply are no targets in Iraq that merit the greater risk of losing air crews and aircraft at lower altitudes.
Even in peacetime, low-level flying is inherently dangerous. Flying just over treetops and mountain ridges at 6 miles per minute allows very few seconds to avoid unexpected obstructions or to deal with emergency conditions in the aircraft. There is also the undeniable fact that pilots frequently fly below prescribed minimum altitudes in order to intensify the exhilarating sense of speed and danger. Even a moment's inattention can be fatal.
It is to be hoped that an investigation of the tragedy in Italy will lead to an end to this unnecessary, dangerous practice of high-speed, low-level flight training.