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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 2, 2011
Politics & Society
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Shake-Up In Air Force After Crash Report
September 2, 2011   
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Poland’s defense minister resigned and 13 high-ranking officers were dismissed after a government report concluded that the pilots of the plane that crashed last year while carrying the Polish president and 95 others were poorly trained and made a string of errors.

The long-awaited report was released July 29 by a special commission chaired by Interior Minister Jerzy Miller, following over 12 months of investigation into the causes of the crash. The Polish Air Force Tu-154M aircraft crashed April 10 last year killing all 96 on board, including President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, senior state officials, military commanders, politicians and members of social organizations.

According to the report, the presidential airplane was fully operational until it struck a tree approximately 15 meters above the ground. The impact destroyed the left wing, as a result of which the crew lost control of the aircraft, which rolled upside down and crashed into the ground seconds later.

On presenting the report, Miller said nobody had interfered with the flight using explosives, chemicals or any other substances. According to experts, the chief error the Tu-154M crew made was that it monitored altitude using radio altimeters instead of pressure altimeters and relied on an automatic “go-around” procedure to abandon the landing approach and make a second landing attempt.

The pilot took five seconds to react to the “level” command while the plane continued its descent over terrain that was rising. The captain wrongly assumed the plane would automatically discontinue the landing procedure to fly around the airport when in fact that was technically impossible.

According to the government commission, when the airplane was six kilometers from the airport the Russian ground controller wrongly informed the crew that the airplane was on the right flight and descent path.

The commission pointed out that the crew was inadequately trained and under too much strain. Organizational errors were made as well and the role of the navigator was assumed by the captain, as he was the only one to speak Russian well enough. He was not an experienced pilot, especially in terms of flying in adverse weather, and had mostly flown planes to well-equipped airports in the past. The Smolensk North Airport, in turn, could not ensure safe landing conditions, least of all in poor visibility.

Predictably, the report from the special commission was deemed unsatisfactory by the opposition, especially the Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jarosław Kaczyński, the twin brother of the late president. Several weeks prior to the release of the report, PiS unveiled its own report drawn up by a team of Law and Justice deputies headed by Antoni Macierewicz, Polish interior minister in the early 1990s. That report suggests the crash was caused by a deliberate attack on the plane.

“The presidential plane became incapacitated 15 meters above the ground,” Macierewicz said on presenting his report, but did not specify who might have been responsible or how an attack could have been carried out.

After the government report was released, Jarosław Kaczyński described it as “outrageous.”

The conclusions of the official Polish report prompted a response from the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK). In its own report earlier this year, the Russian committee put all the blame on the Polish side. For example, according to the Russian committee, Gen. Andrzej Błasik, the Polish air force commander who died in the crash, was in the pilots’ cabin during the flight and had been drinking (see factfile).

Following the government report, Defense Minister Bogdan Klich resigned and was replaced by Tomasz Siemoniak, a former deputy interior minister. Siemoniak Aug. 4 decided to disband the 36th Special Air Squadron of the Polish Air Force which was in charge of flying Poland’s most senior state officials. Then, 13 high-ranking officers were dismissed, including three generals: Anatol Czaban, former head of Air Force training; Czaban’s successor Leszek Cwojdziński; and Zbigniew Galec, deputy Operational Commander of the Armed Forces.

Siemoniak said that after the dissolution of the 36th Squadron, Polish VIPs will use scheduled flights more frequently, flying with LOT Polish Airlines.


Differences between the Polish and Russian reports

Conclusions of Jerzy Miller’s commission:

- Information from the control tower was inaccurate. It may have misled the pilots about the location of the airport and the plane’s flight path and route
- The flight was subject to military regulations

- There is no evidence of alleged psychological pressure on the crew exerted by air force commander Gen. Andrzej Błasik
- Russian air traffic controllers were subjected to outside pressure

- The captain pressed the “ukhod” button (to abandon the approach and go around for a second approach)
- Misjudged altitude due to a wrong type of altimeter

- The airport was only temporarily open
- Thickly wooded area may have interfered with airport systems
- The radar system at the airport may have been defective; no evidence
- The pilots decided to abandon the landing approach, but this decision came too late

Conclusions of the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee:

- Information from the control tower was not a contributing factor to the disaster
- The flight was subject to the regulations of Russia’s Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP)
- The crew was under psychological pressure. Unauthorized persons were in the pilots’ cabin
- Russian air traffic controllers received no external orders nor were they under any outside pressure. One controller contacted his supervisor, which is standard practice
- No evidence of the “ukhod” button being pressed

- Misjudged altitude. The pilots attempted to make visual contact with the airport while ignoring instrument readings
- The airport was open and working
- The airport infrastructure was working properly
- The radar system was working properly
- No decision to fly to a backup airport
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