x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Russia blames Polish failures for plane crash

The Polish president Lech Kaczynski died in the crash along with 94 others; a Russian investigation has found that top officials put pressure on inexperienced pilots to land in dangerous weather.

MOSCOW // Russia on Wednesday blamed Polish failures for the plane crash that killed president Lech Kaczynski, revealing that top officials put pressure on inexperienced pilots to land in dangerous weather.

Kaczynski died with 95 others when his presidential jet crashed on April 10, 2010, as it attempted to land in fog near the city of Smolensk in northwestern Russia in Poland's worst postwar tragedy.

With the damning Russian report risking a new clash between two states with a long history of strained ties, the late president's twin Jaroslaw accused Russia of mocking Poland while Prime Minister Donald Tusk cut short a holiday.

The Russian probe included audio evidence indicating two top Polish officials -- one of whom had consumed alcohol -- entered the cockpit to pressure pilots to land as they did not want to annoy Kaczynski by diverting.

Tatyana Anodina, head of the Moscow-based aviation commission investigating the tragedy, said the pilots had lacked sufficient training and ignored repeated advice from air traffic control to land at another airport.

"The presence in the cockpit of high-ranking officials -- Poland's air force chief and head of protocol -- and the expected negative reaction from the main passenger put psychological pressure on crew and affected decision-making regarding the continuation of landing under any conditions," she said.

She did not identify the "main passenger" but it appears she was referring to Kaczynski. However the commission emphasised that no comment from Kaczynski himself ordering the plane to land was found on the black box recording.

"There was a strong motivation to perform the landing precisely at the airport of destination," Anodina said.

The investigation's technical chief Alexei Morozov said the navigator was heard exclaiming on the flight recording "He'll go crazy!", apparently referring to Kaczynski's anticipated reaction if the plane did not land.

The commission played a harrowing excerpt from the flight recording, as the pilots debate whether to land and a computerised voice then repeats "pull up! pull up! terrain ahead!" The recording then breaks off.

The co-pilot can also be heard pleading with the captain to abort as he sought to land the plane, the final report said. By the time the captain tried to give the plane altitude, its wing had already hit a tree.

Anodina said that in the course of the flight, the crew "repeatedly received information about the absence of adequate weather conditions" from the Severny airport in Smolensk and a crew of a Yak-40 plane that landed there earlier.

"Despite this, the Tu-154 crew did not make a decision to land at a substitute airport. This fact can be considered the start of a critical situation during the flight," she said.

Anodina said experts also found alcohol of a concentration of 0.6 grams per litre in the blood of Polish air force chief Andrzej Blasik who was present in the cockpit of the plane along with head of protocol Mariusz Kazana.

Meanwhile, the pilots operating the plane had "substantial deficiencies" in their training, Anodina added.

The Russian-made Tupolev-154 was carrying Kaczynski to a ceremony at Katyn forest commemorating the 70th anniversary of a World War II massacre of around 22,000 captured Polish officers by the Soviet secret police.

His attendance at the ceremony was considered a landmark moment for Kaczynski personally. In the past, he had been largely shunned by Russia for his perceived anti-Moscow sentiments.

Poland and its Soviet-era master Russia have had uneasy relations since the demise of Communism two decades ago. Yet Poles were struck by the level of public and official mourning in Russia following the tragedy.

But Warsaw's initial reaction to the report appeared marked by suspicion, with Tusk breaking off his holiday in Italy to hold urgent talks with his interior minister.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former prime minister and now leader of the conservative opposition, said that the Russian report "makes a mockery of Poland".

"This is the result of leaving the investigation in the hands of the Russians," said Kaczynski, adding he heard nothing that "would rule out or confirm the hypothesis of an assassination."

Senior Polish crash investigator Edmund Klich on Wednesday also accused Anodina of "lying about free access for Polish experts to all the activities in the investigation."