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SUNDAY REPORT

U.S. Military Accidents Linked to Flawed Maps

From the Italian gondola tragedy to the embassy bombing in Belgrade, the federal agency responsible for military navigation charts has a history of providing incomplete and inaccurate data--sometimes with fatal consequences.

May 16, 1999|LISA GETTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The accidental bombing was not the first operation in which the map-making agency had faltered in a combat mission.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, NIMA's predecessor agency distributed outdated maps that contributed in part to a fatal "friendly fire" incident, the General Accounting Office noted.

In 1983, troops were forced to rely on tourist maps during the invasion of Grenada because most of the military charts did not reach them until the operation was nearly over.

Other incidents illustrate how incomplete NIMA maps pose potential safety hazards for routine training flights.

Jeff Edwards, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, investigated the Italy gondola accident for the legal defense team representing the Marine Corps aviators. As part of his review, Edwards met with three NIMA analysts in St. Louis; he said that none could explain how NIMA ensured the accuracy of its charts.

"In short, NIMA reminded me of a fast-food place," Edwards wrote in a Nov. 20, 1998, memo. "If you knew how the food was prepared, you wouldn't eat there."

Edwards, a former naval aviator, added: "It sends chills down my spine to think that I relied on this information to keep me from hitting a tower or other obstruction."

Italian Map Showed Cable

Although NIMA's chart failed to show the gondola cable--agency officials say the wires weren't tall enough to require inclusion and their charts warned against low flying--it was clearly marked on an Italian aviation map.

Yet NIMA noted in its own investigation of the incident that the Italian Charting Authority suggested "this incident would not have occurred if the pilots had been provided [with] the Italian equivalent, [which] depicted the cableway."

Joseph Schweitzer, the former Marine captain who charted the course of the fatal gondola flight, blamed NIMA for failing to mark the gondola cable.

"What you can't see, you can't avoid," said Schweitzer, who recently pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for destroying a videotape of the flight. "We call those killer wires."

The pilot, Richard Ashby of Mission Viejo, was acquitted in a jury trial of manslaughter charges for his role in the accident, but later was convicted of obstruction.

NIMA maps were available to the five helicopter crewmen who lifted off shortly after 10 a.m. on Feb. 18, 1998, from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center near Ridgecrest. The mission was a routine training flight over the Sierra Nevada.

The co-pilot, Lt. Daniel Mondon, didn't know that his wife was four days' pregnant with their firstborn, a boy. He would never find out.

Less than 90 minutes into the flight, the chopper clipped a span of power lines camouflaged by the terrain of Sequoia National Forest. The helicopter plummeted 1,200 feet into the Kern River canyon and erupted into flames, killing everyone aboard.

The Southern California Edison lines were not depicted on the NIMA map, even though a two-man crew filming a music video for the pop singer Meat Loaf died in 1995 when their helicopter crashed into the same power lines. The wires were 209 feet above the ground at the point of impact.

The investigator assigned to the crash, Maj. Patrick S. Blubaugh, concluded that the wires should have been noted on military maps.

"Although the mishap power lines have been 'strung' for almost 50 years, they should have been considered a hazard and placed on all charts and maps following the 1995 civilian helicopter crash into the same power lines," Blubaugh wrote in a report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sharon Linquist, whose only son, Mondon, died in the crash, said of the omission: "It's just insane."

The families of the Navy fliers have sued Southern California Edison, saying the company is responsible for the accident. The suit is pending; Edison has since moved the wires.

Accident investigation reports show that the issue of marking power lines has worried safety investigators for years. "This is far from the first time an aircraft has collided with suspended power lines," an internal Navy safety report concluded about the California accident. "To minimize the probability of recurrence, it's essential that leaders and air crew take the time to read, study and pass on the costly lessons learned. Only we can make it the last wire strike mishap."

Nor was it the first time a military map had failed to include wires that were involved in a previous crash.

Steel logging cables stretching 650 feet above the Kanno Gawa River in Japan weren't marked on the military map given to Navy pilot Paul Haffen on Aug. 12, 1987. Haffen's EA-6B Buno severed the cables on a training flight. The wires had been installed five days earlier.

"It is extremely fortunate that tragedy was averted in this case," investigators concluded.

But four years later a Marine AV-8B Harrier jet hit the same cables, causing $148,000 in damage. No one was injured. The cables still were not depicted on military charts.

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