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Black boxes in Polish crash reveal pilots warned

Cockpit conversations  of the final minutes before the April plane crash that killed Poland President Lech Kaczynski, reveal that pilots decided to land in heavy fog despite warnings.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Poland published cockpit conversations Tuesday of the final minutes before the April plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski, revealing that pilots decided to land in heavy fog despite warnings from air traffic controllers about poor visibility.

A transcript of the last 39 minutes of the flight also shows that a Foreign Ministry official, Mariusz Kazana, entered the cockpit and made remarks indicating that the president was involved in deciding whether or not to make the difficult landing.

There have been suspicions in Poland that Kaczynski might have pressured the pilot and co-pilot to risk a dangerous landing to keep from being late to a memorial ceremony for Poles massacred by the Soviet Union 70 years ago.

The black boxes, which contain some indecipherable information, do not settle that matter definitively, but they do suggest that the pilots might have been distracted by the presence in the cockpit of non-crew members.

According to the transcript, the dangers became clear about 25 minutes before landing, when an air traffic official told the Polish crew: "the conditions for landing do not exist."

'Then we have a problem'
Later, Kazana, the chief of diplomatic protocol, entered the cockpit and Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk told him: "Sir, the fog is increasing. At the moment, under these conditions that we have now, we will not manage to land."

Kazana is quoted as answering: "well, then we have a problem."

"We can hover around for half an hour and then fly off to a backup" airport, the captain replies, later naming Minsk and Vitebsk, two cities in Belarus, as backup options. The crew was also told by the Russian control tower that a Russian Ilyushin plane had abandoned two landing attempts and had flown to another airport.

It's not clear if Kazana left the cockpit and then returned, but a few minutes later he says: "there isn't a decision from the president yet about what to do next."

Polish and Russian investigators have not yet drawn final conclusions about what caused the crash that killed Kaczynski and 95 others, many of them top civilian and military leaders, but evidence has so far pointed to pilot error and bad weather conditions, and the black box recordings seem to further support that theory.

The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk was eager to publish the report in order to quell suspicions about the cause of the crash and conspiracy theories that have surfaced in the tabloids. Some Polish tabloids have suggested that Russia has something to hide, even though Polish officials have repeatedly praised how Russians have responded and helped investigate the tragedy.

The 40-page transcript, released in Russian and Polish, showed that the plane's warning system told pilots in the two minutes before the crash outside the western Russian city of Smolensk that terrain was ahead and urged them eight times in the final 16 seconds of the flight to "pull up, pull up" — instructions the pilots did not heed until it was too late.

Screams and curses
When one wing clipped a tree, which caused the plane to flip and crash, voices in the cockpit screamed and cursed. That was the last information recorded on the black boxes, which then fall silent.

The pilots were warned several times by air traffic control officials that visibility in the fog was limited to about 1,300 feet (400 meters).

The transcript also shows that the pilots were communicating with the crew of a plane carrying Polish journalists that landed at the airport earlier that morning. They mainly discussed the thick fog, with the crew that landed earlier saying that that situation has worsened, but also saying the plane carrying the president could try to land.

Edmund Klich, Poland's envoy to the investigation, confirmed last week that one of two voices in the cockpit not belonging to a crew member was that of the Polish Air Force commander, Gen. Andrzej Blasik. The transcript refers to the presence of Blasik in the cockpit, but does not attribute any words to him.

Klich said that Blasik spent a few minutes in the cockpit and remained there until the end. "He wanted to know what the situation was," Klich said.

Klich said that psychologists were trying to determine if Blasik's presence in the cockpit pressured the pilots to attempt a risky landing.