Device spurs questions in Polish plane crash, reports USA Today

By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

The Polish jet that crashed short of a runway in fog, killing that nation’s president and other top leaders, was equipped with a safety device that warns pilots when they get too close to the ground, the device’s manufacturer said Tuesday.

The existence of the device deepens the mystery of why the jet struck woods and exploded as pilots attempted to land Saturday at a Russian military airport, aviation safety experts said. If the safety device was working properly, it would be the first such crash of an aircraft equipped with the system since its introduction in the late 1990s.

The Russian-built Tupolev TU-154 had been equipped with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) made by Universal Avionics Systems of Tucson, said company spokesman John Hamby. He said the company could not discuss the investigation into the crash or other details.

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TAWS devices contain computerized maps of the world and issue warnings whenever aircraft come too close to mountain tops, radio towers or any other obstruction. Accidents in which a functioning airplane flew into the ground had been the leading cause of deaths around the world.

The devices, required on commercial aircraft since 2005, have virtually wiped out such crashes. If a jet gets too low, the TAWS issues a whooping siren and a recorded voice demands pilots “pull up.”

The fact that the jet had a TAWS device “opens more questions than it answers,” said John Cox, a safety consultant and former accident investigator.

“I really would like to know what was going on in that flight deck because no matter what kind of pressure other pilots have been under or what kind of weather they encountered, no pilot has ignored a TAWS warning. What is so different about this plane that it would break that chain?” Cox said.

Bill Voss, president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation, said that the crash may highlight a weakness in the TAWS. Maps of the U.S. and other developed nations are highly accurate, but gaps exist in the maps for countries such as Russia and in the developing world, Voss said.

President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria Kaczynska, and other prominent Poles were on their way to Smolensk in western Russia, where they were to attend a memorial service for thousands of Polish soldiers who were executed 70 years ago. All 96 people aboard the jet died.

There is no evidence that engine failure brought down the plane, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said. The airport was shrouded in fog and controllers advised the pilots to divert, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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