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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » April 30, 2010
Politics&Society
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Tragic Crash Probed
April 30, 2010   
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Polish and Russian prosecutors as well as experts from the International Aviation Committee are investigating the causes of the presidential air crash. According to media reports, the most probable cause was a combination of bad weather and pilot error.

The Tu-154 airplane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 95 other passengers and crew crashed near Smolensk’s Severny (Northern) Airport at 8:56 a.m. Polish time on April 10. As it approached to land in heavy fog—with visibility not exceeding 500 meters—the plane clipped a treetop a kilometer before the landing strip. Some 200 meters farther, the plane’s left wing hit another tree, after which the plane sharply veered to the left, rolled over and hit the ground. The main part of the wreckage lay 350-500 meters from the landing strip, 150 meters to the left of its axis.

After several days of work in difficult conditions—the terrain was so boggy that the emergency teams had to build a makeshift road to the site before they could use heavy machinery—the largest pieces of the plane were lifted and other debris scattered within a radius of several hundred meters was collected. Then experts began to reconstruct the plane from the wreckage, a job that was completed a week after the accident. Now, on the basis of the damage suffered by the plane, specialists are trying to recreate its exact trajectory in the last moments of the tragic flight.

Meanwhile, investigators have examined the plane’s technical documentation at Warsaw’s Okęcie military airfield, from which the ill-fated flight departed, but found no evidence of any technical defects.

‘Dramatic’ recordings
Two of the plane’s “black boxes”—a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder—were found almost immediately after the search of the wreckage began. These did not record any failure of onboard equipment, according to media reports. A preliminary investigation showed that the engines were working properly and there was no fire or explosion on board the plane prior to the crash.

A few days later officials disclosed that the presidential plane had been fitted with a third, extra recorder built by Polish experts and installed only recently. This recording will be analyzed in Poland.

Polish prosecutor-general Andrzej Seremet said the recordings from the “black boxes” will be disclosed to the public in full. Polish and Russian media have been trying to establish whether the crew and passengers were aware of their perilous situation shortly before the crash. According to Seremet, the final segment of the recordings is “dramatic” and the crew knew that the crash was imminent and unavoidable. However, everything took no more than a few seconds, he said.

Smolensk airport is not equipped with the Western-style Instrument Landing System (ILS) which helps guide airplanes in for landing. After the crash, the Russian media reported that three days earlier the Russian army brought in special mobile guidance systems to Smolensk airport when planes carrying Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk were about to land at Severny Airport for a similar ceremony in the Katyn Forest. The next day, these systems returned to their bases.

According to the Russians, the presidential plane’s crew ignored several commands from the control tower. When the plane was about 2.5 km from the airport, the air traffic controllers noticed that it had increased its speed and changed its landing angle. The crew were told to abandon the maneuver. The air traffic controller recommended several times that they land at an airfield in Minsk, Belarus instead. However, the Polish pilot decided to land in Smolensk, according to the Russian media.

Earlier, Belarusian and—after the Tu-154 entered Russia’s air space—Russian air traffic controllers had informed the pilots that the conditions in Smolensk were bad. Alternative routes to Moscow, Minsk or Vitebsk were suggested. The Vitebsk airport is the closest to Smolensk, about 130 km away.

Although the recordings analyzed so far do not suggest that anyone except the pilots was in the cockpit or that anyone pressured the pilots to land, the media is rife with speculation that the captain may have been persuaded to make the landing attempt despite bad weather so that the delegation could make it to the Katyn ceremony on time.

The pilot, Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, was a member of the 36th Special Air Transport Regiment, which handles Poland’s VIP flights. He was 37 years old and had flown government aircraft for 13 years, spending almost 1,400 hours in the air.
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