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Monday, April 12, 2010

Lech Kaczynski's Death A Conspiracy Or Mere Accident? The Black Box

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Shock, Suspicion Spread After Polish Leader's Death

Poland has declared a week of national mourning after a plane crash Saturday killed 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the first lady, as well as dozens of Poland's senior military, political and religious leaders. While many Poles are still in a state of shock, they're also asking questions about the government's fleet of aging aircraft.

Late into the evening Saturday night and Sunday, thousands of Poles continued to walk through the square in front of the president's residence. They lay bouquets of flowers, lit candles or just stood quietly, staring at the Polish flag fluttering at half-staff above the presidential palace.

The loss is devastating to Poland; in addition to the president and first lady, the rest of the dead include the head of the Polish central bank, the deputy foreign minister, the national security adviser; the deputy parliament speaker and several members of parliament, including two presidential candidates.

The military faced equally horrific loses: the heads of the Polish navy, air force, special forces, ground forces and the army chief of staff were all killed.

Slawka Spurek says she was stunned when she heard. Spurek is visiting Warsaw from a nearby town for the weekend, and was enjoying a museum with her family when a guard told her the news.

"The lady said, 'Have you heard our president is dead?' — and it was a shock. We still can't believe it. There are so many people under the presidential palace here in Warsaw, and so many candles," Spurek says. "There's an endless river of people, and I can't believe this."

President Kaczynski and the other VIPs were traveling to western Russia when their plane crashed in heavy fog while trying to land at an airport in Smolensk. TV footage showed the smoldering, twisted wreckage of the Polish presidential jet, a Russian-made Tupolev-154, spread across a wooded area more than a mile from the airport.

Warsaw resident Alex Martin calls it Poland's biggest tragedy in its post-World War II history. "[We're] left without any commanders of the army and the president of the national bank, so it was really disaster for the country and the people."

The parliament speaker is now acting president, and the country will hold presidential elections sometime in June.

The pain of the loss is compounded by the fact that the president and his entourage were on their way to remember the 70th anniversary of a massacre in the forests of Katyn of thousands of Polish military officers and Polish intelligentsia by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

Poles are now calling the plane crash the "second Katyn," and refer to the forests around the Russian town as "cursed," "haunted" and "damned."

There are already conspiracy theories circulating.

One man standing in front of the presidential palace held a sign that said "the inhuman murderers have done it again," referring to Russia.

But investigators so far believe the accident was most likely the result of pilot error. Russian media report that the Polish pilot was warned several times by air traffic controllers to divert to another airport because of the dangerous fog conditions. Professor Wawrzyniec Konarski with the Warsaw School of Social Sciences says that despite the grief and sadness, Poles are asking tough questions.

"It has to be clarified why the plane, the staff, decided to land despite the fact that the fog was so strong," says Konarski. "If it was really true that the airport warned them or not, to what extent were they aware that it was so dangerous to land the plane? All of those things have to be clarified to avoid any further conspiracy theories."

Poles are also asking why so many VIPs were on one aircraft, and why the Polish government had not upgraded its fleet of aging aircraft.

President Kaczynski had been one of the leaders of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement that helped Poland overthrow the communist regime. His friend Lech Walesa, the dissident who went on to become president, said simply of the crash, "the elite of our country has perished."

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Poland's Deadly Decision

A plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski crashed in Russia Saturday, killing him, his wife, and many top officials. Aviation expert Clive Irving on why they never should have been on that aircraft.

What were they thinking? Poland is in deep mourning for its president and many of the country’s political and cultural elite who died Saturday in the crash of a Soviet-era jet, the Tu-154, on approach to Smolensk in western Russia.

It’s astonishing that they were flying in a plane as old as a Tupolev-154. In the airline food chain, the Tu-154 is more likely to be found in Africa flying for a non-regulated and nameless carrier on arms-running or drug missions.

In 2003, the then-Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller was lucky to survive crashing in an even older Soviet design, the Mi-8 helicopter that he was using. Today, Miller told the Polish media, “I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet.”

Inescapably, Saturday’s national tragedy is invested with the dark and still traumatic memories of the event that caused President Lech Kaczynski to be flying into Russia, the massacre 70 years ago of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest. This deliberate atrocity was ordered by Stalin, but for decades the Soviets claimed that it had been carried out by the Nazis. The Polish presidential entourage’s visit was part of a renewed attempt by Russia and Poland to reconcile both nations to the truth and move on.

Katyn, said former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, “is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine.”

And now, just as Katyn decapitated Poland’s military elite, the crash has decapitated its contemporary leadership in many fields. As the country's most famous former president, Lech Walesa, put it: “They wanted to cut off our head there [at Katyn], and here the flower of our nation has perished.”

Why does it seem so reckless to assign an obsolete airplane to such a prominent mission? The age of the airframe itself is not the problem. The Tupolev is a 1972 design and, as many Russian airplanes of the day were, it is a copy of an American model, the Boeing 727 which, for many decades, was the workhorse of U.S. domestic routes until it was replaced by the Boeing 757 and other new generations of airliners like the Airbus A320.

In those days, Russian airliners were built to be tough and rugged to fly to distant provinces of the Soviet Union in often appalling weather where the airports were often basic and without sophisticated navigation aids. (I remember landing at Moscow in a 154 in the middle of a blizzard and hitting the tarmac with a huge thump. Later the pilot told us that that was standard technique to get a grip on the snow. It didn’t help to see the burned out carcass of a less lucky airliner still lying beyond the end of the runway.) And to that extent the 154, a hands-on plane for skilled pilots, had a good safety record. Only 28 have been lost of the 1,000 or so built in 40 years of service—given the world accident rates over that period, a respectable record.

Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, finally retired its 154s this year, by which time they truly qualified as old bangers. The most pressing reason to dump them for Aeroflot was not simply safety but fuel costs. The 154’s engines were gas guzzlers, noisy and dirty, another sign of how far behind in technology the plane had become. Aeroflot now flies Boeings and Airbuses.

Of course, it is far too soon to judge what caused the crash today in Smolensk. But the circumstances have all the characteristics of the kind of accident that has been virtually eliminated where current aviation technology exists—an approach in thick fog, a plane lacking contemporary avionics to give the pilots an absolutely flawless glide path to touch down in zero visibility, and an airport without the ground equipment that matches those avionics.

The pilots, no matter how skilled, would have been in a situation that no pilot ever wants to be in these days: controlling the approach manually with the engine throttles, flying on instruments all the way until they touched the tarmac. In other words, it’s a very last-century kind of crash.

BBC News reports that Russian media are claiming that the pilots were advised to divert to another airport but chose to persist with the approach to Smolensk. The 154 was being flown by the Polish air force. There are also reports that this same airplane had developed problems during a 2008 flight to Mongolia by President Kaczynski.

Western nations, as a rule, take care that their leaders and VIPs fly either state-of-the-art military transports or commercial airliners of the same standard. The U.S. is the only nation that provides its president with an airplane as sophisticated as the Boeing 747s that operate as Air Force One and Two.

The last time any U.S. official died on a political mission was in April 1996 when Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed—along with many of his department’s top people and U.S. business leaders—in Croatia. Their CT-43, the military version of the Boeing 737, crashed into a mountainside on approach to Dubrovnik. The Air Force blamed the pilots for faulty navigation.

President Lech Kaczynski and all the other more than 80 VIPs who boarded the 154 were in a needless risk situation. Given the weather conditions, they should never have been cleared to fly in such an airplane.

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Sources: MSNBC, NPR, Russia Today, The Daily Beast, Youtube, Google Maps

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