The accident report by the Russian investigators, MAK, has been published. It does not make happy reading for the Polish people or their government, and indeed they are finding its truths difficult to swallow.
This understandable. That crash at Smolensk in April 2010 was a national tragedy for Poland. In a few seconds on final approach to the fog-obscured runway, the nation lost its president, his political retinue, and Poland’s top military people, intelligentsia and churchmen.
As if that were not enough of a tragedy in its own right, the irony associated with their purpose adds to the pain. The 90 occupants of that Polish military Tupolev Tu-154 were on their way to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre perpetrated by the Stalinist Russian regime, which murdered 22,000 Polish military, professionals and intelligentsia.
A tragedy does not get much more emotional than that.
And now the report reveals, as anticipated, that this was an ordinary, avoidable, controlled flight into terrain accident.
The Polish government is not happy with the report. It does not deny the main findings, but would like to see the Russians accept some of the blame for the mistakes its own crew made. Their target is the air traffic controllers at Smolensk.
The Smolensk controllers did all they could to prevent this accident, given that the Polish crew were clearly operating autonomously, conducting their own FMS letdown and not requesting any help. Language was almost certainly a much bigger problem than the Russian report suggests. The Polish captain spoke basic, functional Russian, but he was the only crew member who did, and he was flying the aeroplane.
The fact that explains it all for me is that there was no approach briefing before top of descent. And this for a non-precision let-down toward an unfamiliar aerodrome wreathed in fog with visibility reports way below the limits of all the parties involved.
The fact that the head of the Polish air force was a presence on the flight deck, and that there were dark mutterings recorded on the CVR to the effect that the President would go ballistic if they had to divert, may have been the reason for the lack of a TOD briefing, and for the crew’s persistence with attempting the approach even if only to prove it couldn’t be done. But however obvious a reason that is - and the MAK considers it obvious - that does not provide the crew with a valid excuse for what happened, and the way it happened.
If the Polish government insists on dredging up procedural technicalities in an attempt to prove that the Russian controllers should shoulder some of the blame for the crew’s actions, all it will do is dishonour the dead and obscure the lessons that Poland’s military aviators must learn from this.
This was a truly Polish tragedy in which Polish leaders paid the price for Polish mistakes and misjudgements.