SMOLENSK AIR CRASH April 12, 2010Posted by wmmbb in European Politics, Modern History.
The air crash on the approach to Smolensk airport resulting in the death of the Polish president and reportedly some of the countries most important officials already already qualifies this event as one of the most extraordinary air disasters in history.
Given the conditions on approach on thick fog, it made sense for the airport air controllers to send the plane elsewhere, a request that was no acceded to. So who made that decision? One suspects it was not the pilot of the plane, although that will have to be determined. The plane on approach hit the top of some trees no doubt compounded by poor visibility and lack of familiarity with the terrain. Whether it was a factor that the presidential plane was over twenty years old and presumably very well maintained may not have been a critical factor in the accident. However, in Poland and elsewhere, questions will be raised about the fact that half the government, or at least leading people in the administration of the country were on board will be. Conjecture might give rise to the proposition on the generality of the evidence that the personality of the President might well have contributed significantly to the outcome.
Luke Harding in The Guardian provides some the known context for the crash, adding both poignancy and international politics:
Poland held a two-minute silence today to mark the death of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and dozens of officials in a plane crash in western Russia yesterday.
Russian officials said 97 people died, including eight crew members, after the president’s Tupolev plane clipped a copse of trees on its approach to Smolensk airport in thick fog. There were no survivors. Russian TV showed pictures of the upended wing and smouldering fuselage. Small fires burned in woods shrouded in fog.
The crash wiped out almost half of Poland’s leadership. Those killed included Kaczynski, his wife, Maria, the army chief of staff, the head of the national bank, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, 12 members of parliament, and at least two presidential aides, the Polish foreign ministry said. Rescuers found several unidentified bodies and the plane’s black box.
This morning, the bodies of the victims arrived in Moscow by helicopter for identification. Relatives were expected to fly to the Russian capital later today. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, visited the crash site last night, with TV pictures showing him kneeling and praying. The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, also flew to Smolensk from Warsaw where he met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and placed a wreath.
Across Poland bells were rung at a slow and mournful pace. People sought solace in churches and laid candles at national monuments and government buildings. Mourners queued in their hundreds to sign books of condolences. “I can’t fathom this, it reminds me of when the pope died – five years ago this month,” said Zofia, recalling the death of Pope John Paul II on 5 April 2005.
Kaczynski had been flying to Smolensk to attend the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when Soviet secret police executed 15,000 Polish officers in one of the most notorious incidents of the second world war. In a tragic twist, family members of the Katyn victims were on board the president’s plane. Others were waiting at the airport.
There was no suspicion of foul play, but the extraordinary timing and location of the disaster, together with Kaczynski’s known antipathy towards the Kremlin, are likely to fuel conspiracy theories on both sides.
The Kremlin failed to invite Kaczynski to a ceremony in Katyn last Wednesday attended by Tusk and Putin. Kaczynski organised his own separate event. Newspapers bearing headlines such as “Katyn – a double tragedy” lay next to portraits of some of the crash victims.
“We still cannot fully understand the scope of this tragedy and what it means for us in the future. Nothing like this has ever happened in Poland,” said a foreign ministry spokesman, Piotr Paszkowski. “We can assume with great certainty that all persons on board have been killed.”
Russian officials said that the airport, 270 miles west of Moscow, had been closed because of thick fog. They advised the pilot to land instead in Moscow or Minsk, but he continued with the original flight plan, making three abortive attempts to land at Smolensk’s Severny military airport. On the fourth attempt, the Russian-built airliner crashed. According to witnesses, Kaczynski’s plane was between 500 and 700 metres from the runway, and about 20 metres off the ground when it ploughed into the trees.
“The Polish presidential plane did not make it to the runway while landing. Tentative findings indicate that it hit the treetops and fell apart,” said Smolensk’s governor, Sergei Anufriev.
In Warsaw, Tusk held an extraordinary meeting of his cabinet and emerged to declare a day of national mourning. He said a two-minute silence for victims of the tragedy would be held at midday today. “The contemporary world has not seen such a tragedy,” he said.
It is a rare event in the history of aviation disasters that the country investigates an air crash involving the leaders of a bordering country intertwined with the cross associations, not least membership of the Soviet Block realized by the aircraft involved. How do you get around the apparent foolishness of repeatedly approaching a fogbound airport?
The Associated Press report, from Salon, provides alternative reflection of the same event and adds important details. For example, Putin has assumed responsibility for investigation into the crash, which may be problematic if distance from the investigation might have been a wiser political course to follow. Poland post 1989 has become a firm ally of the United States, and so the crash has become embedded in the forward placement of missile systems in Eastern Europe, supposedly as a mechanism to block an attack from Iran. The web of the political narrative entangles events and changes their significance.
Emma Alberici, the ABC Europe Correspondent suggests that the former Polish President had a history of dangerous landings and there was urgency to make the anniversary of Katin Massacre. Whereas under normal circumstances the pilot would be excepted to make these decisions, the case is likely to change when the President of the country is on board. Nonetheless, in my opinion, the pilot is still best placed to make the decision since he best able to assess the risks involved.
Patrick Smith in Salon attributes the crash to pilot error and gives a first hand account of flying in a similar plane.
UPDATE: 18 October 2012
I hope these observations of mine make sense for the people reading them in Polish. If so disposed, please comment, and I will have any comment translated. I realize this is a imperfect process. Then at least, I will be better informed.
Unlike Judith (below), I sometimes demonstrate an empathy deficit.