updated 1/24/2008 1:23:06 PM ET 2008-01-24T18:23:06

Poland on Thursday mourned the death of 20 officers and crew in the crash of an air force plane, while rescuers recovered the aircraft's flight data recorder from the site of the accident.

The Spanish-built CASA C-295M military transport plane clipped trees on its approach to the Miroslawiec air base in northwestern Poland Wednesday evening before crashing into a wooded area and bursting into flames.

All 16 passengers and four crew members were killed in what was the Polish air force's deadliest accident since World War II. They included high-ranking air force officers.

Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said the victims were the "cream of Poland's air force," which he said had suffered an "irreparable loss."

President Lech Kaczynski declared a two-day period of national mourning, starting Thursday evening. Flags in the places where the victims were based were lowered to half-staff.

There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash. However, the air force said late Thursday that the flight data recorder had been recovered.

CASA spokesman Jose Maria Palomino said the company would send experts to Poland to help in the investigation.

Poland ground same model of aircraft
Poland grounded its remaining nine C-295M planes immediately, pending the outcome of the investigation, air force commander Gen. Andrzej Blasik said at a news conference.

He said that the CASA aircraft had spent more time in the air than planned over the past year because of Polish commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, but said that they were "used properly."

The plane was just a few hundred meters (yards) from the air base when the accident happened.

The Polish military's chief of staff, Gen. Franciszek Gagor, said it was making its second approach to the airstrip at the time.

He said on TVN24 television that all devices at the base were working and that there was no problem with visibility. However, "during the first approach, the pilot did not see the airstrip clearly, so all the lights were turned on and (then) the pilot saw the airstrip very well."

Gagor said the air traffic controller on duty told him that "nothing suggested there might be a tragedy."

Poland acquired the new plane from CASA in August, and it had spent some 400 hours in the air, officials said.

Returning from flight safety conference
The plane had 40 people on board when it took off from Warsaw, where the officers had attended a conference on flight safety.

It already had landed at two other military airports to return some to their bases. It had been scheduled to make one more stop in Swidwin, in northwestern Poland, before returning to its base in Krakow.

"Nothing suggested that something bad might happen," Gen. Wlodzimierz Usarek, who got off at one of the earlier stops, told TVN24. "These were very good, experienced pilots."

Most of the victims were officers from the Swidwin base, the air force said.

Among those killed were Brig. Gen. Andrzej Andrzejewski, commander of an air brigade based in Swidwin, as well as the commander of the Miroslawiec air base, Col. Jerzy Pilat.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and others offered their condolences to Poland.

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