Connect to share and comment

Crash spotlights derelict Russian airports

Military airfields like the Smolensk strip where a Polish plane crashed Saturday lack up-to-date equipment.

Only two airports in the country, Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, both in Moscow, are certified as third category by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which means the airport has equipment letting planes land safely even in zero visibility conditions.

“Outfitting airports with equipment to pass such certification is prohibitively expensive,” said Miroslav Boichuk, who heads the labor union of Russian pilots. “It is done out of economic sensibility.”

An experienced pilot would have no problem landing a plane relying only on visual cues, Boichuk said, but on Saturday fog had reduced visibility in Smolensk to 400 meters (about a quarter of a mile) — significantly worse than the minimum visibility of 1,000 meters required for landing at such an airfield, experts said.

“Most military fields have 1,000 meters set as minimum visibility for landing,” Boichuk said. “They should have stopped and gone to a different field.”

A chorus of media reports over the weekend painted a picture of a stubborn crew, which “attempted to land four times” despite inadequate visibility conditions. The reports, now discredited, led experts and veteran pilots to speculate that the crew was pressured by the Polish president to land in order to meet a busy schedule.

Poland's general prosecutor said on Monday there is no proof the captain was pressured into attempting to land. Except for a military flight in time of war, international flight rules do not allow anyone other than the captain to make such a decision, said Boichuk. While the plane's cockpit recorder has been recovered, conversations in the passenger cabin are not recorded.

Kaczynski reportedly threatened to demote a military pilot when the pilot decided not to land in Tbilisi, Georgia, in August 2008, landing instead in Azerbaijan. But the pilot got a medal instead for putting safety first, the defense minister of Poland said.