Connect to share and comment

Polish plane crash mystery deepens

The cockpit recording shows pilots knew about poor visibility. So why did they keep descending?

polish people pray
People pray outside the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, May 10, 2010. A plane carrying 96 passengers including Kaczynski and other senior political and military officials crashed in Smolensk, April 10, 2010. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — Dramatic recordings from the black box of the doomed Polish government airliner that crashed April 10, killing Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, indicate that the main cause of the catastrophe was pilot error.

The result comes as a shock to many Poles who had seen Moscow's hand in the tragedy, on the assumption that Kaczynski had become an enemy of Poland's old imperial master by trying to shore up the independence of ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia. Even for those without a conspiratorial bent of mind, the thought that Polish pilots may be responsible has been very uncomfortable, and the hunt has been on to find some level of Russian responsibility, for example in the way air traffic controllers led the airliner in to land.

The Russians have been similarly keen to ensure that as little of the blame as possible falls on them, something that otherwise could jeopardize their newly warm ties with Poland.

“The Russians were terrified after the crash that they would get blamed for it,” said Pawel Zalewski, a member of the European Parliament for the ruling Civic Platform party.

But so far there is little chance of Moscow being tarred with the blame. The 41-page transcript of the cockpit voice recorder published on June 2 shows the last 39 minutes of the tragic flight, and makes clear that the pilots were well aware of the foul weather at Smolensk's Severny military airport:

“It's going to be terrible, we're not going to be able to see anything,” says an unidentified voice in the cabin more than half an hour before the landing attempt.

As the Russian-built Tu-154 airliner approached Smolensk, the pilots were told by the air traffic controllers that visibility was only 400 meters (about a quarter of a mile), confirmed by the crew of a Polish military Yak-40, which had landed at Smolensk earlier that morning. As the airplane began its final approach, controllers informed the crew: “There are no conditions for landing.”

The Severny airfield, rarely used by the Russians, is not equipped with modern equipment allowing airplanes to land in poor conditions, and minimum requirements for a safe landing call for horizontal visibility of 1,000 meters and vertical visibility of 100 meters.

Although the Russian controller may have been a little slow to react, the recording shows the Polish air force pilots making decisions that have aviation experts perplexed — namely the decision to land at an airport where the weather conditions were so poor.

One theory is that the Arkadiusz Protasiuk, the pilot, was pressured to land by Kaczynski or people from his entourage. The president was traveling to the Katyn forest, about 10 miles from Smolensk, for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviets in 1940. The ceremony was being used by Kaczynski as a way of kick-starting his flagging re-election campaign.