Strong indications that Polish president’s recklessness and intimidation of pilot caused the crash

(Note: incisive comments on this entry begin here.)

Coming in the midst of this terrible tragedy for Poland, I hate to say what I’m saying here, but the deeply disturbing facts provided by the New York Times make it inescapable.

Two years ago, President Kaczynski publicly berated and threatened with punishment a pilot who had refused Kaczynski’s demand that he land the presidential plane in Tbilisi, Georgia in what the pilot considered dangerous conditions. As was reported in a Polish paper at the time, Kaczynski said: “If someone decides to become a pilot, he cannot be fearful. After returning to the country, we shall deal with this matter.” The pilot was not disciplined, but reported becoming depressed about Kaczynski public scolding of him. This past Friday, the pilot of President Kaczynski’s plane repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to land in foggy conditions at Smolensk, despite ground control’s repeated warnings that conditions were too dangerous and that the plane should land elsewhere. There was evidently concern that Kaczynski’s party would be late for the Katyn Forest ceremony if they went to a different airport. The clear implication is that the pilot was afraid of enduring the same presidential displeasure that the pilot of the Georgia flight had endured.

Crash Inquiry Is Focusing on Decision to Land Jet

MOSCOW—Investigators examining the crash of the Polish president’s plane appeared Sunday to be focusing on why the pilot did not heed instructions from air traffic controllers to give up trying to land in bad weather in western Russia.

Their inquiry may lead to an even more delicate question: whether the pilot felt under pressure to land to make sure that the Polish delegation would not be late for a ceremony on Saturday in the Katyn forest, where more than 20,000 Polish officers and others were massacred by the Soviets during World War II.

Officials have recovered the flight voice recorder, but on Sunday they did not release transcripts of conversations in the cockpit or the control tower. Still, attention has been drawn to the pilot’s state of mind because of a previous incident involving the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, who died along with numerous other senior Polish government and military officials in the crash.

In August 2008, during Russia’s brief war with Georgia, Mr. Kaczynski got into a dispute with a pilot flying his plane to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, according to reports at the time. Mr. Kaczynski demanded that the pilot land despite dangerous conditions, but the pilot disagreed and diverted to neighboring Azerbaijan.

Mr. Kaczynski threatened that there would be consequences for the pilot, the Polish newspaper Dziennik reported. “If someone decides to become a pilot, he cannot be fearful,” Mr. Kaczynski said. “After returning to the country, we shall deal with this matter.”

That pilot was not disciplined and received a medal for his service. But the defense minister later said that the pilot had suffered depression in the wake of the incident.

Lech Walesa, the former Polish president, told the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza over the weekend that in these situations, the captain often sought the views of the government leaders on the plane.

“If there were any doubts, the leaders were always approached and asked for their decision, and only on this basis were further steps taken,” he said. “Sometimes the plane captain would make the decision himself, even against the recommendations. We do not yet know what happened, so let’s leave the explaining to the experts.”

[ … ]

Aleksandr I. Bastrykin, chief of the prosecutor general’s investigation committee in Russia, told Mr. Putin that a preliminary examination suggested pilot error was to blame. “The pilot was informed of severe weather conditions, but nonetheless made a decision to land,” Mr. Bastrykin said.

Russian officials said Saturday that traffic controllers had several times told the plane not to land because of heavy fog, warned that it was descending too low and recommended that it go to another airport.

On Sunday, a Russian news service,, published an interview with an official who was identified as an air traffic controller at the airport. The controller said the pilot, after trying several times to land, indicated that he wanted to try once more.

“He said that if he did not land, then he would go to an alternate airport,” the controller said.

The traffic controller said that at that point, the pilot was asked for the plane’s altitude, but stopped responding to communication from the traffic control tower.

Mark V. Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States and a retired Air Force major general, said the fact that the plane made several attempts to land indicated that “these guys were truly wanting to complete this mission at all cost.”

Mr. Rosenker was the head of the White House Military Office during the administration of President George W. Bush, and was thus responsible for the president’s transportation.

He said Sunday that the Polish pilot could have followed the air traffic controller’s warnings. But if he chose to do so, “He’s going to have to explain to somebody if he’s going to land somewhere else.”

And that could be difficult, Mr. Rosenker said.

Michal Piotrowski contributed reporting from Warsaw, and Matthew L. Wald from Washington.

- end of initial entry -

David F. writes:

According to naval tradition, the captain holds final responsibility for the welfare of his vessel, and likewise has final authority in all matters concerning its operation.

President Kaczynski was right, a pilot cannot be fearful; a good captain must have no qualms about telling the president to shut up and get the hell out of the cockpit.

Ferg writes:

On starting with a private company as a new hire pilot I was very pleased that the first words my boss said to me were “we don’t ever GOTTA be anywhere.” The poor English was humor, the content was not. I could not have been happier to hear those words. There is often a great deal of pressure applied to pilots of corporate and charter airplanes to “get through” no matter what, “That is what we are paying you for,” etc. It sounds crazy but it is true. I lost one part-time corporate job because I canceled a trip due to weather. I never flew for that employer again. I knew that would be the case when I canceled the trip, so I did not do it lightly. But the weather was bad and way beyond the capability of the airplane we were flying.

Because of these experiences I am not surprised that the crash of the Polish President’s plane may be from the same causes. It does happen that passengers pressure pilots to get to the destination no matter what. Powerful people seem to think that they can command the world to obey their desires. It is very sad if that was what happened in this case. The pilot is ultimately at fault, but I understand how it happens. You want to keep your job and your reputation. It will always be thus.

Gary M. writes:

Unless I am mistaken, pressure from a politician had a role in another famous crash.

In 1964, Sen. Edward Kennedy was nearly killed in the crash of a small plane. The weather during the trip was quite bad, and stories surfaced later (in “The Dark Side of Camelot, I believe) to the effect that Kennedy had badgered the pilot into continuing to fly onto the planned destination, against his better judgment.

I don’t remember if the pilot was in the employ of the Kennedy family, or if it was a hired charter flight, but in any case the pilot and an aide of Kennedy’s were killed, probably because the senator thought he was too important to be told “no.”

April 13

Kilroy M. writes:

This is probably correct. Kaczynski’s egregious and often arrogant style was part of his uncompromising nature. It gave him the reputation as a staunch conservative champion in the face of the liberal imperialism of the European Union as well as Russian post Cold War foreign ambitions in the region. In this, he was admired by his Czech and Lithuanian counterparts. He managed to ruffle a lot of feathers in his career: banning the mardi gras in Warsaw, pro life pro religious domestic policies, constant “truth to power” rhetoric towards Moscow (it should also be noted that Poland is possibly the most loyal pro-U.S. ally outside of the Anglosphere). Unfortunately, this attitude also contributed to a hard-handedness and inability to listen to advice. In the case of Georgia and Ukraine’s “orange revolutions” (now largely fizzled out), it was gutsy. In this case, it cost him his life, as well as his wife’s and a good portion of the political, diplomatic and military elite of his nation. Very sad. It reminds us that sometimes a character trait can be a boon and a liability. This highlights a good leader’s need for constant reflection and an ability to self criticise.

LA replies:

How will Poland deal with the fact that this terrible event was (as it now seems) not an accident but a result of what might be called negligence, recklessness, even depraved indifference, on the part of their president?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 12, 2010 01:57 AM | Send

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