Black box reveals pilots of Polish president’s jet knew they were doomed and made a ‘dramatic’ flight deck speech
By Will Stewart In Moscow
Last updated at 12:40 PM on 15th April 2010
Pilots of Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s plane knew they were doomed to crash in the final seconds of their flight, analysis of the black boxes shows.
A member of the investigation team has revealed there was ‘dramatic’ speech on the flight deck moments before the Tupolev-154 hit the ground in dense fog killing all 96 passengers and crew.
Polish expert Colonel Zbigniew Rzepa declined to reveal more but the country’s attorney general Krzysztof Parulski admitted: ‘Three to five seconds before the crash the pilots were aware that it was unavoidable.’
And he made clear that, with the plane travelling at 150 to 180 meters per second, there was sufficient time for Captain Arkadiusz Protasiuk and his flight crew to realise the catastrophe that was about to hit the plane and its passengers.
He did not say if investigators believe that the passengers, including the Polish president, his first lady Maria and many members of the Warsaw political and military elite, would also have realised they were doomed to crash .
Another anonymous source close to the investigation claimed that a fatal pilot error in the final moments of the flight led to the disaster.
He claimed the black box analysis plus a reconstruction of the flight has shown that a final manoeuvre by the pilot plunged the plane into the trees and that he lost a vital chance to save the aircraft.
Having ignored warnings not to land due to severe fog, the black box shows he belatedly aborted his fatal attempt to land after realising the Russian-made jet was not properly aligned with the runway at a military airport near Smolensk.
He used the engines to gain altitude but in the process the plane lurched to the right, and the wing hit the tree tops.
‘At this moment the head pilot made a fatal mistake. He switched on the thrust, rocking the plane to the right. The reason for this is unknown but he aimed to go higher and to turn simultaneously. As a result, his plane clipped the tops of the trees and he lost control. If he had only switched on the engine thrust to go straight up, he would have had all chances to avoid hitting the ground.’
This analysis suggests the pilot was unaware of how low he was, which puzzles investigators since his jet was equipped with a special UIS-made safety device called a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) that warns the flight deck when they get too close to the ground.
Russian officials have ruled out fire or explosion as a cause of the crash on Saturday at Severny military airport.
‘An analysis of the evidence, including the first results from the decoding of the black boxes, shows that an error in piloting led to the disaster,’ said another source close to the probe.
One theory yesterday was that the crew were not familiar with a key peculiarity of the Tupolev-154. As the plane came into land it levelled from its oblique descent approach to a horizontal angle to compensate for bad visibility.
‘A particularity of this aircraft is that if its speed of descent is more that six metres a second, when the plane levels out, it loses altitude,’ said the source. ‘That means that it loses altitude much quicker than usual.’
Russian and Polish investigators are still analysing three flight data recorder boxes, and paying special attention to communications between the pilots after they were warned by the control tower about the dangers of landing.
This could show whether Kaczynski insisted on landing against the advice of his pilots.
Poland’s chief prosecutor Andrzej Seremet said yesterday that in time the full content of the black boxes will be made public.
‘The conversations, their content, will be vital in terms of proving or disproving the various hypotheses. I will not oppose revealing the contents unless they are of an intimate nature,’ he said.
Language problems were a factor in the failure of communication between air traffic controllers and the pilots, Russian sources have made clear.
But one Russian airport employee said: ‘We are all guilty of this tragedy.
‘We cannot only blame the pilots. Because of the bad weather conditions we should have closed the airport. But we could not do it because the Poles would have seen it as a diplomatic scandal.’
Kaczynski and the presidential delegation were killed as they were heading to a memorial service at Katyn, near Smolensk, for 22,000 Polish officers and troops killed by Soviet forces in World War II 70 years ago.
Poles queued in the rain for several hours yesterday to pay respects to the late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria, whose coffins were displayed at the presidential palace.
The coffins went on public viewing after Mr Kaczynski, his wife and 96 other passengers died in a plane crash on Saturday in western Russia.
‘They loved one another so much, it was obvious when they lived and now they lie here together,’ one mourner said.
The line stretched through much of the street to a nearby square and back to the presidential residence where people laid flowers and knelt in front of the coffins covered with Poland’s red and white flags.
Poland’s ruling party said that presidential elections are likely to be held on June 20.
But protests are growing over the choice of a burial site for late the president.
Some Poles reacted with fury to plans unveiled yesterday by a senior cardinal to bury Mr Kaczynski and his wife Maria at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, a place normally reserved for national heroes, poets and kings.
The uproar exposed the first cracks in the display of national unity that has followed Mr Kaczynski’s death in a plane crash, days before world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, are expected in Poland for the Sunday funeral.
The pilots flying the presidential plane knew the crash was inescapable, says Poland’s chief prosecutor Andrzej Seremet. It has not been specified, however, whether the passengers were conscious of the impending disaster.
Recordings from the retrieved black boxes will be released, save for personal content, Seremet said this morning. Military prosecutor Colonel Zbigniew Rzepa has called the recordings “dramatic”.
“On the basis of data accessed by the prosecutors we may assume that the crew onboard the plane was fully aware of the inevitable catastrophe, if only for the fact that they had felt the jolt of the aircraft’s wing hitting the trees,” Seremet told radio TOK FM.
The crew knew about this from three to five seconds before hitting the ground, assuming that such an aircraft lands at a velocity of 150-180 meters per second, said the chief military prosecutor, Colonel Krzysztof Parulski. The precise time can be determined only after the technical investigation has been completed, stressed Seremet. (aba)
A Soviet-made Tu-154 aircraft carrying a top-level Polish delegation, including President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, crashed as it attempted to land at Smolensk airport in thick fog on Saturday morning.