Crash inquiry is focusing on decision to land Polish 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 tryintg 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 it the Katyn forest, where more than 20,000 Polish officers and others were massacred by the Soviets during World War II.
Officials 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, Kaczynski got into a dispute with the pilot flying his plane to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, according to reports at the time. Kaczynski demanded that the pilot land despite dangerous conditions, but the pilot disagreed and diverted to neighboring Azerbaijan.
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,” Kaczynski said. “After returning to the country, we shall deal with this matter.”
The 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.”
Officials from both Russia and Poland were taking part in the inquiry into the crash, which killed 96 people, and they said preliminary evidence seemed to indicate that there were no technical malfunctions on the plane, though it was a 20-year-old, Soviet-designed Tupolev.
Prosecutors, forensic pathologists and crash investigators were working in Moscow and at the crash site in the city of Smolensk.
Throughout the weekend, the Russian government seemed to go out of its way to demonstrate its despair over the crash and its determination to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry, efforts that were well-received in Poland. The two countries have long had an uneasy relationship, though it has improved recently.