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January 27, 2023

Russia says pilot ignored ground command, foul-play speculation mounts

It was not the first time the presidential plane – a 26-year-old Russian-made Tupolev-154 – had encountered difficulties. It had been grounded during a state visit to Mongolia 16 months ago owing to technical problems, leaving the Polish leader to charter a private jet for the next stage of his tour to Japan. There have been 16 crashes involving Tupolev-154s since 1994, killing 1,727 people, ‘Daily Mail’ reports in its online edition and Poles have been asking why their president was using an aircraft with such a poor safety record rather than fly with the Polish state airline lot whose entire fleet is Western-made.

Eye witnesses said the Tupolev clipped the tops of trees as it tried to land at Smolensk, lurching sideways and breaking into pieces. Wreckage including engines and a large part of the red and white tail were strewn over a forest less than a mile from the runway. Radio communication with the plane had been lost just before 8am on Saturday.

Questions were being asked about the actions of the pilot, who was killed along with all 96 passengers and crew. Russian sources said he had received repeated warnings from air traffic control about the dangerous weather conditions and had been advised to cut short the flight and land at Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Reports from Moscow, which were not officially confirmed, said these concerns had been passed by the flight crew to 60-year-old President Kaczynski but he had wanted to get to Smolensk because he was anxious not to miss the commemoration ceremony, which was to have been attended by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The plane carrying the president of Poland was only 500-700 meters away from reaching the runway at the Severny (North) airport of Smolensk when it hit the ground on Saturday, witnesses told Interfax. “The Polish presidential airliner hit the treetops about 20 meters above the ground and fell apart,” a witness said. The Smolensk regional police told Interfax the number of people aboard the plane has yet to be clarified. “We have still not received information from the Polish side as to how many people boarded the plane in Warsaw,” a police officer on duty said.

The daily Kyiv Post writes in its online edition that, according to Russia’s top investigator Alexander Bastrykin the pilot attempted to land in thick fog against the advice of air traffic controllers. “Recordings confirm the nature of the discussions,” Bastrykin reported to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who heads a commission on the disaster. Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza paper said earlier the pilot and Kaczynski were advised to turn around and head for Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, as the Smolensk military aerodrome lacked the necessary navigational equipment to receive planes in heavy fog. Another anonymous expert quoted by Russian media said it was not clear why the presidential plane did not land on Severnyi military airport, and also asks how it was possible that so many people from Poland’s political, military and religious elite were flying aboard the same aircraft.

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