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THE WORLD

Pilot Is Focus of Milan Crash Probe

Italy: Friends attest to Luigi Fasulo's skills. But a son thinks he hit a skyscraper on purpose.

April 20, 2002|From Times Wire Services

LOCARNO, Switzerland — The pilot who crashed into an Italian skyscraper Thursday had been making a detour from Switzerland to Italy to save fuel taxes, friends and fellow pilots said Friday.

Three people were killed, including pilot Luigi "Gino" Fasulo, and several dozen hurt when Fasulo's four-seater red-and-white tourist aircraft slammed into the upper floors of the 30-story Pirelli building in Milan.

Fasulo, 67, had taken off from this southern Swiss town, about 30 minutes away by plane, and had planned to return almost immediately to Lugano, another town in Italian-speaking southern Switzerland.

Pilots said they regularly make such short jaunts to Italy after filling up their tanks in Switzerland. By flying across the border, they can claim to have exported the fuel and reclaim the fuel taxes from Swiss customs authorities when they return.

Friends said Fasulo was in good health and emotionally stable. They firmly ruled out any suggestion that the father of two sons--both pilots themselves--might have wanted to take his own life.

But Fasulo's son Marco, a pilot for the airline Swiss, told the Rome newspaper La Repubblica that his father's crash was a suicide induced by despair over financial problems.

Italy's ANSA news agency said that Thursday morning, Fasulo made a telephone call to police in the Italian town of Como, close to the border with Switzerland, saying he had lost substantial sums in secretive, cross-border financial transactions.

"It was a suicide, a suicide, do you understand?" La Repubblica quoted Marco Fasulo as saying. "They wanted to cheat him, knock him down economically, and he killed himself."

Milan Chief Prosecutor Gerardo D'Ambrosio, however, said suicide was the least credible of three possible explanations police were examining, including a technical problem and pilot illness.

Italian Transportation Minister Pietro Lunardi said in a Friday briefing in the Senate that the pilot could have fallen ill at the controls. After Fasulo made initial radio contact with flight controllers, "there was silence, he was not operating any of the plane's controls in the last two minutes," D'Ambrosio said.

Lunardi said he had ordered a probe into the pilot's health, personal life and finances.

Minutes before the crash, Fasulo had started his landing approach to Milan's Linate Airport but was not lined up correctly, said a spokesman for Italy's civil aviation authority, ENAV.

"Watch out, you're heading toward a cross runway, line yourself up," the air traffic controller told the pilot shortly before 5:42 p.m., according to a transcript of radio communications between the plane and Linate.

Fasulo said, "I've got a small problem with the landing gear."

"Roger, circle ATA," the flight controller said, referring to the private airstrip at the western edge of Linate just east of the city.

According to ENAV, a helicopter flying in the area then asked permission to land.

"Request authority to begin landing procedure," the helicopter pilot said.

"No, go away, go away," the flight controller said.

Fasulo then spoke, apparently believing that the order to fly away from Linate was for him.

"Understood. I'll execute [the order]," ENAV quoted him as saying.

"No, no, it's not for you. It's for me," the helicopter pilot said.

The air traffic controller advised Fasulo of his mistake and told him that he was heading toward the heart of the city.

"OK, I'm fixing a problem with the landing gear," the pilot said in his last recorded words.

At the Magadino airport near Locarno, director Sandro Balestra, like others, described Fasulo as an excellent pilot with more than 5,000 hours of flight time in more than 30 years.

Yet Balestra confirmed stories of mishaps. Fasulo, who at one time ran an air taxi service flying VIPs around Europe, once ran out of fuel as he approached the airport in Zurich, Switzerland, missing the runway by more than a mile.

Another time, under similar circumstances, he landed in a field.

After the Zurich incident, which occurred more than a decade ago, Fasulo temporarily lost his pilot's license, Balestra said. Fasulo gave up the taxi business and no longer had the necessary license to fly with instruments, and on Thursday was flying just by sight.

The mishaps earned Fasulo the nicknames "Cowboy of the Air" and "Out of Oil." But friends said that, as he aged, Fasulo had become more cautious.

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