IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pilot error in Polish plane crash?

Russian investigators say there were no technical problems with the Soviet-made plane that crashed and killed the Polish president and 95 others over the weekend.
Image: Shipyard workers hold flowers
Shipyard workers in Warsaw, Poland, offer their respects on Monday after the deaths of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.Agencja Gazeta / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russian investigators suggested human error may have been to blame in the plane crash that killed the Polish president and 95 others, saying Monday that were no technical problems with the Soviet-made plane.

The Tu-154 went down while trying to land Saturday in dense fog near Smolensk airport in western Russia. All aboard were killed, including President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish political, military and religious leaders.

They had been traveling in the Polish government-owned plane to attend a memorial at nearby Katyn forest honoring thousands of Polish military officers who were executed 70 years ago by Josef Stalin's secret police.

The pilot had been warned of bad weather in Smolensk, and was advised by traffic controllers to land elsewhere — which would have delayed the Katyn observances.

The pilot was identified as Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, 36, and the co-pilot as Maj. Robert Grzywna, 36. Also on the cockpit crew were Ensign Andrzej Michalak, 36, and Lt. Artur Zietek, 31.

In Warsaw, there was concern that the pilots may have been asked by someone in the plane to land at Smolensk instead of diverting to Minsk or Moscow, in part to avoid missing the commemoration ceremonies.

In Warsaw, Polish Prosecutor General Andrzej Seremet said Polish investigators talked to the flight controller and flight supervisor and "concluded that there were no conditions for landing."

"The tower was advising against the landing," Seremet said.

Polish investigators have not yet listened to the cockpit conversations recorded on the black boxes, but will, to see if there were "any suggestions made to the pilots" from other people aboard the plane.

Polish president is among 96 killed in plane crash

Slideshow  54 photos

Polish president is among 96 killed in plane crash

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and some of the country's highest military and civilian leaders died when the presidential plane crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog in western Russia on Saturday, killing 96.

Other Russian officials said the pilots were offered the chance to land in Moscow, Minsk or Vitebsk, but they chose Smolensk, despite four failed attempts before the fifth and fatal approach.

Polish media reported in August 2008 that pilots flying Kaczynski to Tbilisi refused the president's order to land there because of the country's military conflict with Russia, diverting instead to Azerbaijan.

In remarks shown on Russian television, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told a government meeting including President Dmitry Medvedev that the data recorders on the plane were found to have been completely functional, which will allow a detailed analysis.

"It is reliably confirmed that warning of the unfavorable weather conditions at the North airport and recommendations to go to a reserve airport were not only transmitted but received by the crew of the plane," he said.

Russian investigators have almost finished reading the flight recorders, said Alexander Bastrykin, Russia's chief investigator.

"The readings confirm that there were no problems with the plane, and that the pilot was informed about the difficult weather conditions, but nevertheless decided to land," Bastrykin said during a briefing with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Smolensk.

Bastrykin said the readings would be double checked, according to footage of the meeting broadcast Monday on Poland's TVN24.

The wreckage, meanwhile, will remain on site through midweek to help speed the investigation, Russian Deputy Transport Minister Igor Levitin said.

Both Russia and Ukraine declared a day of mourning Monday, as Poles struggled to come to terms with the national tragedy that eliminated so many of their government and military leaders.

Tens of thousands watched as Kaczynski's body, returned Sunday to Warsaw, was carried in a coffin by a hearse to the presidential palace, including his twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former prime minister.

Adam Bielan, an aide to Jaroslaw, said Monday the two brothers spoke briefly Saturday morning when the president called his twin just before the plane crash to say they would be landing soon.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, the U.N.'s blue and white flag with the map of the world flew at half-staff Monday in Kaczynski's memory.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his "most profound condolence at such a tragic passing away of President Lech Kaczynski with whom I have been working very closely, especially on climate change."

An annual Holocaust memorial event at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Monday was honoring Kaczynski and the other victims. Organizers of the March of the Living — with some 10,000 Jewish youth marching over a mile between the two parts of the former Nazi death camp — said those marching would also remember Poland's elite killed in Saturday's crash.

Forensics experts from Poland and Russia were working to ID other bodies, including first lady Maria Kaczynska, using DNA testing in many cases.

Jacek Sasin, a spokesman for the Presidential Palace, said Kaczynska's body would be sent to Warsaw on Tuesday.

He said the bodies of the first couple would lie in state at the palace from Tuesday, their coffins closed, and the public would be permitted to view them.

"We want every Pole who wants to pay tribute to the president, to be able to come and stand by the coffin," he said.

Sasin that officials are now planning the funeral for Saturday but a final decision depends on when the bodies of all 96 victims are returned home.

Medvedev has said he wants to attend, according to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.

Sasin said nothing has been changed in the living quarters of the president and his wife since they were last there for breakfast on Saturday.

"I don't think there is anyone who would want to change anything there. We still cannot believe what has happened," he said.

Among the victims Saturday was Ryszard Kaczorowski, 90, the last leader of Poland's exiled government in London. The exile leadership was established during the Nazi occupation of Poland and continued to declare itself the rightful government during the decades of communism, until Lech Walesa became Poland's first popularly elected president in 1990.

The crash also took an icon of Poland's Solidarity freedom movement, 80-year-old Anna Walentynowicz. Workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk went on strike when Walentynowicz was fired from her job as a crane operator in August 1980 for her opposition activity.

That injustice sparked strikes that spread like wildfire to other plants across the nation, giving rise to the movement that helped bring about the demise of communism in Poland nine years later.

Also aboard the Tupolev were the army chief of staff, the navy chief commander, and heads of the air and land forces, the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the army chaplain, the head of the National Security Office, the deputy parliament speaker, the Olympic Committee head and at least two presidential aides and 17 lawmakers.

Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski said he was moving to fill the seats in parliament left empty because of the crash.