On this day in 2010, one of the most shocking events happened in European politics and aviation. A Tupolev Tu-154, carrying top Polish officials including the president and his wife, crashed outside Smolensk.
The official delegation was on its way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre that happened in 1940, but as it attempted to land in one of Smolensk’s airports, it crashed. Out of the 89 passengers and 7 crew members, none survived the impact.
Following the crash, grief, disbelief, anger and conspiracies have followed. To this day, new theories about the Polish Air Force crash in Smolensk pop up.
But as we remember the victims of the Smolensk crash and the victims of Katyn, I think it is important to stay level headed and look at the facts thoroughly.
So on this day 9 years ago, what happened?
The Tupolev Tu-154 took off from Warsaw-Chopin Airport 7:27 AM, 27 minutes later than it was supposed to. As the flight continued over Poland and later Belarus, the conditions at Smolensk worsened deeply.
An hour and a half before the PLF 101 was supposed to land, another Polish Air Force aircraft landed at the same airport, a Yakovlev Yak-40. The Yak-40 carried Polish journalists and the aircraft landed without any issues. However, they reported that the conditions at the airport were absolutely horrible (although the Yak-40 pilots used more profane words).
To highlight the atrocious conditions, a russian Ilyushin Il-76 attempted to land at the airport as well, between the Yak-40 and the PLF 101 flights. However, it diverted to Vnukovo Airport in Moscow, as the conditions to land in Smolensk continued to worsen.
In addition, the airport they were supposed to land in, Smolensk North Airport was in a terrible condition. A former military base, it began serving civilian operations in 2009. But it did not have an instrument landing system, only an active non-directional beacon. The approach lamps were also either overshadowed by the terrain and the trees or did not even work, as they were shattered.
The ATC at the airport did not speak a word of English and only the captain of the PLF 101 spoke Russian. So, he
With the atrocious weather, visibility and facilities at the airport, you’d think that the pilots of the Tupolev Tu-154 would divert as well, right?
Unfortunately, they did not.
A leaked cockpit transcript has revealed that the pilots were discussing either diverting or turning back, as the fog was too heavy. Visibility was just too poor.
A cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder, alternatively called Black Box
But the passengers created a chaotic workplace for the pilots, as the CVR transcripts reveal. But the president had to attend the commemoration and officials onboard let the pilots know that no diversion is possible.
In addition, the head of the Polish Air Force at the time told the PLF 101 pilots that “you’ll make it easily”, while an official from the foreign ministry said to the captain that “we will try until we make it”.
So, there was no way back – they had to land.
Because of the lack of an ILS, the Tu-154’s systems could not recognize they were landing at an airport. As the plane approached the airport, the Tupolev’s Terrain Awareness Warning System went off to warn the pilots that they are approaching the ground. As the cockpit was already at a lot of stress, the captain of the flight turned it off by resetting his altimeter.
The navigator took over the role of measuring altitude with the radio altimeter.
But the pilots thought they were much higher above the ground, as the radio altimeter reads out altitude above the ground, not sea level. As the terrain went up, the aircraft did not. Even when the PLF 101 was below the proper altitude to land at an airport, ATC at the airport continued to tell the crew that their altitude was correct.
As the Polish Air Force continued to descent to land, the TAWS started to signal to “PULL UP”. As the pilots previously reset their altimeters, they ignored it to be faulty. 60 meters above the ground, the First Officer instructed to go around, as the speed and the AoA was not safe.
At the same time, ATC also said to cancel the approach and try once more.
But the captain hesitated for a tiny moment. After that, it was too late. As the flight crew began noticing trees in front, the captain increased the throttle to the maximum and tried to pitch up.
As it tried to climb, the PLF 101’s left wing hit a tree. Subsequently, the aircraft turned upside-down and plunged into the ground, leaving no survivors.
As Poland and the rest of the world began to grief and realize what impact the crash would have, both Polish and Russian investigators began unraveling the truth.
The same day, on April 10th, investigators dug up the CVR and the FDR.
However, this is where another round of problems begins.
While Russia announced that they would offer full cooperation with the Polish investigators, the Poles faced a different reality. In an interview with a Polish news website called Onet.pl, the head of the Polish commission noted that they “do not have a lot of things that we would like to have”. The Polish side did not have a lot of the evidence and documents and would only receive as much as the Russians would give them.
To further instigate tensions, Russia released the final report in January of 2011. Their report did not include any Polish comments or findings that were laid out in the draft document of the report.
As a response, Polish investigators publicly released their comments of what the russians left out. Amongst them, the comments noted
And many more details have been left out.
But both the Russian and the Polish reports have agreed on the fact that pilot error was the cause.
Nonetheless, yet again the Polish report differed from the Russian one. The main difference was, that the russians noted that only the crew of the PLF 101 were at fault, while the Polish report (and rightfully so) also put the blame on the russian ATC, which passed on the wrong information about the Tupolev Tu-154’s altitude.
One more difference was that the Polish report noted that the airport at Smolensk also contributed to the accident. Firstly, the tall trees just before the start of the runway have to be removed. Secondly, the airport’s approach lights were not properly maintained, as they either did not work, were missing lenses or were blocked by bushes.
But even after the Polish investigating committee released their final report, a lot of conspiracy theories have a risen.
Mainly, that the crash was a planned assassination and that a bomb brought the plane down, not a pilot and ATC error. But many, including the Polish investigators, have denied these claims, as no traces of a bomb were found in the wreckage.
The same leaked cockpit transcript denies of any possibility of a planned assassination.
Mixing politics and aviation is never a good idea, especially if it endangers the lives of many, as the shocking case with the Boeing 737 MAX has shown.
First and foremost, the role of the investigators is to find out why did the aircraft crash. After that, they conclude any safety measures that airlines have to take up, in order to prevent any similar accidents from happening. Throughout history, plentiful of accidents have triggered safety measures that have stopped the same type of crashes.
Same as the 2010 Polish Air Force Tupolev Tu-154 crash did. Most Polish officials began using civilian airlines. LOT Polish Airlines have started to operate the VIP flights to prevent any kind of pressure from the passengers and as a result making the flight safer.
So, when looking at an air crash investigation, keep your emotions down, no matter how hard would it be.