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.
Although the recording does not give proof of direct pressure being exerted on the crew, it does show that the president and his people were aware of and concerned about the possibility of not landing on time.
Protasiuk informed the delegation that there may not be a landing about 15 minutes before the crash. “Well, we have a problem,” responded Mariusz Kazana, a foreign ministry official. Ten minutes before the crash, Kazana came back into the cockpit to say: “For the moment there is no decision from the president on what to do.”
As the plane circled above the airport, with the crew straining unsuccessfully to see anything on the ground and visibility down to 200 meters, an unidentified voice says: “He'll be really upset if ...” with the rest of the sentence garbled. Gen. Andrzej Blasik, the commander in chief of the Polish air force, was also in the cabin, although the only decipherable comments from him are of a technical nature.
Just one minute later, with the plane dropping to 400 meters, the airliner's terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) gives its first alert, with a recorded voice saying: “Terrain Ahead!”
The crew continues to prepare for landing as the Tu-154 drops below the 120 meter altitude that air traffic control set as the height at which a decision to land should be made based on whether the runway below is visible.
As the navigator continues to read down the meters, “100,” “90,” “80,” “70,” “60,” warnings fill the cockpit with alarms and cautions. Every few seconds the TAWS says: “Pull up! Pull Up!” but the crew does not react.
At 50 meters the air traffic controller says: “Horizon!” calling on the airliner to level out its flight, but the rapid descent continues.
At 20 meters, with the TAWS again calling on the airplane to pull up, there is a sound of the Tu-154 hitting a tree followed by a curse from co-pilot Robert Grzywna. The last sound is a drawn out curse before the recording cuts off at 10:41.05 local time, the time of the crash.