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Lawyers defend jet's path, altitude

Attorneys representing the crew of a U.S. jet that severed a ski gondola's cable last week said Friday a U.S. AWACS surveillance plane following the jet found it was flying along its planned altitude and route.

The U.S. military has acknowledged the EA-6B Prowler was flying below the approved altitude of 500 feet when it sliced the gondola's cable during a training flight through the Italian Alps on Feb. 3.The gondola plunged to the ground, killing the cable car operator and 19 skiers inside.

The Italian government says the plane was off course.

Bruno and Antonio Malattia, the Italian attorneys for the pilot and three crew members, did not say what the planned altitude was or whether they were directly challenging the military's statement.

But they argued the jet was flying the altitude called for on the flight plan.

The Malattias also said the cable car was not marked on the flight maps, and that it had no signal to warn of its presence. Another cable car at a different location was on the map.

No one answered the telephone at the public information office at the U.S. air base at Aviano, where the Marine Prowler squadron is based.

An Italian prosecutor is investigating the case, as are American officials. The judge in the case will appoint independent experts to determine the exact height of the cable, the state of the cable car and whether the plane's altimeter was working, the lawyers said. A hearing was set for Tuesday to choose an expert.