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Italy Probe Points to Cessna Pilot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators of Italy’s worst air disaster said Tuesday that the pilot of a twin-engine Cessna thought he was taxiing parallel to the Linate airport runway here when he crossed into the path of a Scandinavian Airlines System jetliner that was speeding toward takeoff in heavy fog.

Monday’s collision between the two aircraft caused the SAS jet to careen into a cargo hangar and burst into flames. All 114 people aboard the two planes and four workers in the hangar died.

Linate airport remained closed for a second day Tuesday as work crews tried to recover bodies from the wreckage.

All 110 people aboard the Copenhagen-bound SAS jet were believed to be Europeans. Fifty-six were Italians, many of them on business trips. An Italian restaurateur was taking his wife and 6-year-old son on a surprise visit to see his daughter, who had been studying in the Danish capital on a scholarship since August.

Also aboard were an Italian couple who had married Saturday and planned to honeymoon in Egypt, but had rebooked after the terrorist attacks against the United States, thinking that Scandinavia would be safer.

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Italian politicians, pilots, air traffic controllers and commentators voiced outrage that Linate, the smaller of Milan’s commercial airports, does not have a ground radar system that might have averted the crash. The old system has been out of service for two years, and a new one delivered from Norway was not operating because of technical problems that critics said should have been swiftly resolved.

SAS and other airlines said they would continue using the airport despite the lack of ground radar. Many of Europe’s smaller airports, they note, operate without such systems. The Italian pilots union said it would continue a 3-year-old lobbying effort to make ground radar obligatory at all of the country’s airports.

But Italian investigators, noting that Linate has safety procedures for operating without ground radar, said they were more interested in understanding what led to the Cessna’s fatal wrong turn.

Gerardo D’Ambrosio, Milan’s chief prosecutor, said a recorded conversation in English between the Cessna’s German pilot and the traffic control tower showed that the pilot presumed he was on taxiway R5, when in fact he was on R6, which leads straight onto the runway.

The Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera published part of the exchange Tuesday. “Take R5,” an air controller reportedly instructed the pilot, whose plane was shrouded in early-morning fog and invisible from the tower. “R5,” the pilot confirmed, according to the newspaper.

Investigators said the Cessna went through two sets of stoplights on its collision course with the SAS MD-87, but they said it was not clear whether the signals were visible in the fog.

“There has been a human error,” D’Ambrosio said. “But we need to go all the way to see what may have had an influence on this error.”

Hermann Dieter Eschmann, the Cessna’s German owner, said two German pilots with “decades of flying experience” were in the cockpit. He identified them as Horst Koenigsmann and Martin Schneider.

“There is no way that they crossed a runway without permission,” Eschmann, a 59-year-old Cologne steel executive, told the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper in Germany. But he conceded that there might have been a problem of comprehension between them and the tower.

Italian investigators said the pilots may have been unfamiliar with the airport and become disoriented in the fog. They said it was unclear whether the Cessna’s control panel was equipped with a properly functioning compass.

The Cessna was an eight-seat Citation II, a new model the U.S.-based aircraft maker put into production last year. Eschmann had lent his plane to the Cessna company to fly a prospective Italian client, Luca Fossini, from Milan to Paris.

Fossini, 44, president of an Italian food-processing company, Star, died in the crash along with both German pilots and Stefano Romanello, the only other person aboard the Cessna. Romanello, an Italian who was Cessna’s European sales representative, was hoping to close the sale of a new $4-million Citation II to Fossini’s company.

Carlo Alberto Mori, a Cessna spokesman in Italy, said he could not comment on the cause of the accident. “The only thing I can tell you is a fact: that the [Cessna] plane was in a place where it should not have been at that moment. Why? It is unknown.”


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