David Learmount/LONDON

A US Air Force Grumman EA-6B Prowler which severed the wires of a cable car, causing the deaths of 20 people in north-eastern Italy, was not cleared for low flying in that area, the Italian authorities say. The aircraft suffered minor damage, but was able to land safely.

The USAF says that on 3 February the aircraft, stationed at Aviano AB on secondment for Bosnia operations, had been authorised for a low flying mission at a minimum of 500ft (150m) above ground level. The service does not deny, however, that aircraft flying near the skiing resort area around Cavalese should not have been operated at minimum altitude. Italian reports say that the highest point of the cable is 500ft, but the point of the impact has not yet been established.

The flight was the first in the area for the pilot, say reports, but investigators have not yet revealed whether he carried out flight planning using Italian, US, or NATO maps, all of which mark cables.

Damage was sustained between an underwing electronic warfare pod and the wing, to the wing leading edge, and to the tail fin.

The damage location suggests that the pilot did not see the cables until too late, although local witnesses believe that the crew was intending to fly under the cable.

Italian defence minister Beniamino Andreatta is considering banning all low flying by non-Italian military aircraft in Italy.

Source: Flight International