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04.10.10

Poland's Deadly Decision

A plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski crashed in Russia Saturday, killing him, his wife, and many top officials. Aviation expert Clive Irving on why they never should have been on that aircraft.

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What were they thinking? Poland is in deep mourning for its president and many of the country’s political and cultural elite who died Saturday in the crash of a Soviet-era jet, the Tu-154, on approach to Smolensk in western Russia. It’s astonishing that they were flying in a plane as old as a Tupolev-154. In the airline food chain, the Tu-154 is more likely to be found in Africa flying for a non-regulated and nameless carrier on arms-running or drug missions.

In 2003, the then-Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller was lucky to survive crashing in an even older Soviet design, the Mi-8 helicopter that he was using. Today, Miller told the Polish media, “I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet.”

In the airline food chain, the Tu-154 is more likely to be found in Africa flying for a non-regulated and nameless carrier on arms-running or drug missions.

Inescapably, Saturday’s national tragedy is invested with the dark and still traumatic memories of the event that caused President Lech Kaczynski to be flying into Russia, the massacre 70 years ago of 20,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest. This deliberate atrocity was ordered by Stalin, but for decades the Soviets claimed that it had been carried out by the Nazis. The Polish presidential entourage’s visit was part of a renewed attempt by Russia and Poland to reconcile both nations to the truth and move on.

Katyn, said former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, “is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine.”

And now, just as Katyn decapitated Poland’s military elite, the crash has decapitated its contemporary leadership in many fields. As the country's most famous former president, Lech Walesa, put it: “They wanted to cut off our head there [at Katyn], and here the flower of our nation has perished.”

Why does it seem so reckless to assign an obsolete airplane to such a prominent mission? The age of the airframe itself is not the problem. The Tupolev is a 1972 design and, as many Russian airplanes of the day were, it is a copy of an American model, the Boeing 727 which, for many decades, was the workhorse of U.S. domestic routes until it was replaced by the Boeing 757 and other new generations of airliners like the Airbus A320.

In those days, Russian airliners were built to be tough and rugged to fly to distant provinces of the Soviet Union in often appalling weather where the airports were often basic and without sophisticated navigation aids. (I remember landing at Moscow in a 154 in the middle of a blizzard and hitting the tarmac with a huge thump. Later the pilot told us that that was standard technique to get a grip on the snow. It didn’t help to see the burned out carcass of a less lucky airliner still lying beyond the end of the runway.) And to that extent the 154, a hands-on plane for skilled pilots, had a good safety record. Only 28 have been lost of the 1,000 or so built in 40 years of service—given the world accident rates over that period, a respectable record.

Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, finally retired its 154s this year, by which time they truly qualified as old bangers. The most pressing reason to dump them for Aeroflot was not simply safety but fuel costs. The 154’s engines were gas guzzlers, noisy and dirty, another sign of how far behind in technology the plane had become. Aeroflot now flies Boeings and Airbuses.

Of course, it is far too soon to judge what caused the crash today in Smolensk. But the circumstances have all the characteristics of the kind of accident that has been virtually eliminated where current aviation technology exists—an approach in thick fog, a plane lacking contemporary avionics to give the pilots an absolutely flawless glide path to touch down in zero visibility, and an airport without the ground equipment that matches those avionics.

The pilots, no matter how skilled, would have been in a situation that no pilot ever wants to be in these days: controlling the approach manually with the engine throttles, flying on instruments all the way until they touched the tarmac. In other words, it’s a very last-century kind of crash.

BBC News reports that Russian media are claiming that the pilots were advised to divert to another airport but chose to persist with the approach to Smolensk. The 154 was being flown by the Polish air force. There are also reports that this same airplane had developed problems during a 2008 flight to Mongolia by President Kaczynski.

Western nations, as a rule, take care that their leaders and VIPs fly either state-of-the-art military transports or commercial airliners of the same standard. The U.S. is the only nation that provides its president with an airplane as sophisticated as the Boeing 747s that operate as Air Force One and Two.

The last time any U.S. official died on a political mission was in April 1996 when Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was killed—along with many of his department’s top people and U.S. business leaders—in Croatia. Their CT-43, the military version of the Boeing 737, crashed into a mountainside on approach to Dubrovnik. The Air Force blamed the pilots for faulty navigation.

President Lech Kaczynski and all the other more than 80 VIPs who boarded the 154 were in a needless risk situation. Given the weather conditions, they should never have been cleared to fly in such an airplane.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.