All the President’s Men: The story of the Smolensk Air Disaster and the death of Lech Kaczyński

Note: this accident was previously featured in episode 23 of the plane crash series on February 10th, 2018, prior to the series’ arrival on Medium. This article is written without reference to and supersedes the original.

The wreckage of Poland’s presidential airplane lies in a forest outside Smolensk, Russia. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

It was a disaster which shook the world: on the 10th of April 2010, Polish President Lech Kaczyński was killed, along with 95 others, when Poland’s presidential aircraft crashed into a forest in Russia, leaving no survivors. The government of Poland was thrown into turmoil, upended by the sudden deaths of numerous high officials, military commanders, and members of parliament. As the entire nation struggled to comprehend the scale of the tragedy, both Poland and the world wanted to know: was the crash of Kaczyński’s presidential plane an accident or an act of war?

No matter the cause, it was immediately apparent that no answer would satisfy everyone. Indeed, twelve years later, debate continues at every level of Polish society, the crash having been incorporated into the rhetorical toolbox of the political elite and mythologized by the population at large. Much of this debate has nothing to do with aviation safety and everything to do with politics, as lines of argument are advanced more often than not by people with little knowledge of airplanes. What follows is an attempt to cut through that fog of uncertainty, to go back to the facts and reconstruct what really happened in the critical days, hours, and minutes leading up to the crash of Polish Air Force flight 101.

Lech Kaczyński, left, and his brother Jarosław, right. (Jacek Turczyk)

In December 2005, Lech Kaczyński was sworn in as President of Poland, having won 54% of the vote in a close-fought race against rival candidate Donald Tusk. This was the first major election for Kaczyński’s newly-created populist conservative party “Law and Justice,” which he founded in 2003 alongside his identical twin brother Jarosław, but the pair were hardly political newcomers. Kaczyński’s political career went back to the Solidarity movement in the late 1980s, when he participated in the strikes that led to the collapse of Poland’s Soviet-aligned government. During the 1990s and early 2000s, he bounced around between various positions, including parliament, where he served in both the Senate and the Sejm (the lower house), as well as in the government of president Lech Wałęsa, where he held the post of Security Minister before being fired in 1992, and later as Minister of Justice and Attorney General under Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, a post from which he was again fired after less than two years. Nevertheless, his outspoken anti-corruption rhetoric made him popular with the public, and when he and his brother split from the Solidarity movement to found Law and Justice in 2003, he was well-poised to become a major political force. It came as no great surprise, then, that he won election to the Presidency in 2005. And six months after that, he appointed his brother to the post of Prime Minister, at last cementing the control of the Kaczyński twins over Polish politics.

Soviet officials observe the excavation of a mass grave in the Katyn Forest in 1943. (Warsaw Institute Review)

In office, Kaczyński focused on educating Poles and the world about crimes committed against Poland by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. One of the most significant of these was the Katyn Massacre, a horrific atrocity carried out on the orders of Lavrentiy Beria, the chief of Stalin’s secret police (or NKVD), following the 1939 invasion of Poland. Seeking to eliminate an entire generation of Polish military expertise, the NKVD systematically executed around 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia throughout April of 1940, many of whom were subsequently buried in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest outside the city of Smolensk in western Russia. Soviet authorities would not admit their involvement in the massacre until 1989, when General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that Beria and Stalin had ordered the killings and expressed “profound regret” for their actions.

A sign at the entrance to the Katyn massacre memorial near Smolensk emphasizes 8,000 Soviet victims of Stalin’s terror, who were not killed in the Katyn massacre and are not buried in Katyn, over the Polish victims, exemplifying Russia’s complicated relationship with the crime. (Ponars Eurasia)

By 2010, plenty of friction remained between Poland and Russia over the extent to which the wounds inflicted by the massacre had been, or should be, reconciled. That year, with the 70th anniversary of the massacre approaching, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made several overtures indicating that reconciliation was on the table, as a documentary about the massacre was aired in Russia for the first time, and Putin invited both Polish officials and opposition members to attend a memorial service at the site of the massacre. The planned ceremony promised to be a major event in the history of Polish-Russian relations, and the guest list was soon filled with entire strata of the Polish elite, including President Kaczyński, who was by now gearing up to run for a second term. However, due to political in-fighting over the upcoming election, Kaczyński and most of the government delegation ended up organizing their own event, making plans to attend a separate ceremony on April 10th, while Donald Tusk and members of his centrist Civic Platform party proceeded with the original event on April 7th, which was hosted by Vladimir Putin.

The route of the accident flight. (Google + own work)

Attending the ceremony required the Polish delegation to travel to the city of Smolensk, a city of around 330,000 people on Russia’s border with Belarus. The problem was that Smolensk’s transportation system was centered around its rail link to Moscow, which for most residents was cheaper than flying and not much slower, leaving little reason to develop the city’s air infrastructure. The only commercial airport in Smolensk was too small to handle anything bigger than a regional jet, and had not had any scheduled airline services since the early 2000s. This airport could not accommodate the three-engine, mid-range Tupolev Tu-154 which the Polish Air Force used as the presidential aircraft. That meant that President Kaczyński and his delegation had only two options: fly to Moscow and take ground transportation to Smolensk, or land the presidential plane at the city’s other airport: a former military airfield known as Smolensk North. For the President’s staff, the choice was obvious — what head of state has time to spend so long on the road when a suitable airport is available?

Smolensk North as it appeared shortly before the accident. (Google)

The problem was that Smolensk North Airport was in a semi-abandoned state with infrastructure that ranged from sketchy to non-existent. The airport had once been home to a factory for the now-defunct Yakovlev aircraft design bureau, but by 2010 the factory had long since shut down. The airport had also once been home to the Soviet Union’s 401st Interceptor Aviation Regiment, but they left in 1991, and the 103rd Guards Military Air Transport Regiment left in 2009, leaving only a tiny skeleton crew to maintain the airbase. Officially, Smolensk North was then transferred to joint military-civilian use, but given that no Russian Air Force planes were based there and Smolensk’s main private aviation club used Smolensk South Airport instead, it is unlikely that Smolensk North saw much traffic, if any, in the six months leading up to April 2010.

Smolensk North’s “control tower.” (Radio Maryja)

Anyone who visited Smolensk North Airport would have been able to tell that it was in a sorry state of disrepair. The runway was riddled with cracks, the parking aprons were filled with around a dozen derelict Ilyushin Il-76 transports, and there were no buildings, except for a one-story shack surrounded by weeds. The airport had no true control tower, no instrument landing system, and no VOR beacon. Its approach lighting system consisted of yellow flood lights of dubious manufacture mounted atop rotting wooden posts, some of which were broken or hidden inside overgrown bushes. Numerous trees, having grown unchecked since the 1990s, had overtaken the terrain just before the runway threshold. Random abandoned objects lurked around the margins of the taxiways. All in all, it was not an airport which inspired confidence, and in fact it was more likely to instill in the casual visitor a sense of nervous displacement, as though they had wandered into a piece of forgotten industrial history that was well on its way to becoming the Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

The aircraft involved in the accident. (Dmitry Karpezo)

Nevertheless, it was the most convenient way to get the Polish delegation to the Katyn Massacre memorial, and plans were laid by both the Polish and Russian sides to prepare it for the arrival of the presidential aircraft. The Russian Air Force dispatched a unit from the city of Tver’ to take over air traffic control services, which would operate out of the aforementioned shack using the Soviet-era radar which was already installed. A weather observer was also dispatched, who would make periodic visibility checks by climbing onto the roof of the shack using a ladder and peering around a parked Il-76.

Under this ad-hoc setup, Donald Tusk and his delegation arrived and departed from Smolensk North Airport on the 7th of April without major issues. Now it was time for the President and his even larger delegation to follow suit.

Flying the President of Poland was the duty of the 36th Special Aviation Regiment of the Polish Air Force, which operated two Tupolev Tu-154s and several smaller Yakovlev Yak-40 jets for use by top officials. One of the Tu-154s, callsign Polish Air Force 101, was the designated presidential plane, and it would be this aircraft which carried Kaczyński to Smolensk, flying in convoy with one of the Yak-40s, which would carry journalists from the president’s press pool.

The four pilots and three flight attendants who made up the crew of the ill-fated flight. (Lenta.ru)

In command of Polish Air Force 101 on the 10th of April were four pilots from the 36th Regiment. The crew consisted of 36-year-old Captain Arkadiusz Protasiuk; 36-year-old copilot Major Robert Grzywna, 32-year-old navigator Lieutenant Artur Ziętek, and a 37-year-old flight engineer, Warrant Officer class two Andrzej Michalak.

Popular perception holds that the pilots who fly presidents are the cream of the crop, the elite of the elite, the best trained and most capable airmen that a country can offer. In some places this may be the case, but in Poland it decidedly was not. In fact, the crew of flight 101 that day were, by airline standards, complete novices. Boarding a 19-passenger turboprop running commuter flights in the United States would likely get you a crew with as much or more flight experience. Captain Protasiuk, who was by far the most experienced member of the crew, had about 3,400 total flying hours — likely not enough to be a captain for any major US airline. The copilot, Major Grzywna, had only 1,700 total hours, fewer than 200 of which were on the Tu-154; the navigator Lieutenant Ziętek had about 1,060 hours, less than 60 of them on the Tu-154; and the flight engineer Michalak had only 329 hours total.

But, one might ask, surely they were better trained than any civilian pilot? And the answer, again, would have been no. In fact, the quality of their training was significantly worse than one would find at any commercial airline. They had no simulator training whatsoever, as the 36th Regiment did not own or rent a Tu-154 simulator. They had no training in Crew Resource Management (CRM), the foundational principle of modern cockpit teamwork and communication. And they were using a Tu-154 flight crew operations manual which was translated into Polish without the knowledge of the manufacturer and hadn’t been updated since 1994.

The Yak-40 which carried the press pool into Smolensk. (Björn Strey)

Meanwhile in Smolensk, the weather was taking a turn for the worse. Although the weather forecast had predicted mist that would clear up as the morning progressed, a widespread temperature inversion had in fact led to the formation of a dense fog bank which was beginning to roll over Smolensk Oblast. The crew of the Yak-40 carrying the press pool, which left Warsaw about an hour and a half before flight 101, began to encounter the fog as they descended toward Smolensk North Airport, listening as the weather observer’s visibility reports decreased rapidly, from four kilometers at 9:00 to two kilometers six minutes later. By the time the Yak-40 was on final approach, the fog had descended perilously close to the airport’s minimum visibility conditions of 1000 meters laterally and 100 meters vertically. Searching for the runway through the gathering clouds, the crew of the Yak-40 emerged over the threshold at too high an altitude, prompting someone in the control shack to exclaim, “Fuck, go around, fuck, he needs to go around!”

“Go around!” the controller told the Yak-40. But the crew did not reply, instead pushing the plane down onto the runway. As the roar of jet engines filled the shack, the tower controller let loose an expletive-ridden exclamation: “Come on, [no fucking way], he will [fucking] land here, he’ll land right here!”

“….He was approaching well,” someone said.

“Touchdown,” the controller announced. And to the Yak-40, who had just disobeyed his direct order to go around, he said, “Papa Lima zero three one, backtrack after landing. Good job.” He made no attempt to hide the fact that he found the pilot’s reckless actions impressive.

“Did you see how he passed the threshold!?” someone added in the background.

A few minutes later, the assistant chief of the military unit at Smolensk North told his superior by phone, “Well, they approached alright. I guess they have equipment there, on an aircraft like that… Frankly speaking, I thought they would go around.”

The approach chart used by the pilots for the flight to Smolensk North. (MAK)

Around twelve minutes after the Yak-40 landed, Polish Air Force flight 101 finally departed Warsaw with the President, First Lady, and other high officials on board. The flight had been rescheduled from 8:00 (local Smolensk time) to 9:00, then was delayed a further 27 minutes, putting it an hour and a half behind the President’s original schedule. If they were delayed much longer, the ceremony would have to be pushed back.

At 9:27, flight 101 took off from Warsaw and proceeded east on the approximately 75-minute flight to Smolensk. The crew had only the outdated and erroneous weather forecast issued early that morning, and were likely not fully aware of the conditions they could expect to encounter. In fact, they didn’t seem to have any accurate weather for Smolensk North Airport at all.

“Can I also get temperature and pressure?” Flight Engineer Michalak asked at 10:11.

“How am I supposed to know (unintelligible)?” the navigator Ziętek replied.

“I don’t know,” Captain Protasiuk interjected. “Well, I’ll tell you what the temperature is: coooold!”

His comment was met with hearty laughter.

A little over ten minutes later, already descending out of 3,900 meters, the crew made first contact with the military unit running air traffic control services for Smolensk North Airport, callsign “Korsazh.” The military controllers only spoke Russian, not English, so Captain Protasiuk — the only crewmember who was fluent in Russian — had to take over the radio. At the same time, he could not reasonably ask his inexperienced first officer to fly the difficult approach into this sketchy airport in marginal weather, so he continued to fly the plane as well. Normally the pilot not flying would work the radio, but in this case it seemed he had no choice but to break protocol.

At this point the military controllers knew perfectly well that the visibility was greatly below the 1000 meters required to approach the airport, and they seem to have assumed the pilots knew this as well. In fact, one of the first questions Korsazh asked was, “What is your alternate aerodrome?”

“Vitebsk, Minsk,” Captain Protasiuk replied. He did not appear to be aware, nor were the flight planners aware, that the flight’s alternate airport in Vitebsk, Belarus was not open on weekends, and today was Saturday.

A map of the route of the flight with select CVR excerpts chosen by the MAK. (MAK)

Now the controller gave the crew their first real indication of the weather. “PLF 101, there is fog at Korsazh, visibility 400 meters,” he said.

“Temperature and pressure, please,” Protasiuk replied.

“Temperature is plus two, pressure is 745, 745, we don’t have landing conditions,” the controller said.

“Thank you, but if possible we’ll try an approach,” Protasiuk said. “But if the weather isn’t good enough, we’ll go around.”

Simultaneously, the pilot of the Yak-40, which was now sitting on the apron, called flight 101 and began speaking to the copilot, Major Grzywna. “We welcome you heartily,” he said. “You know, it’s generally absolute shit here? The visibility is approximately 400 meters, and by our judgment the cloud base is considerably less than 50 meters.”

“And did you already land?” Grzywna asked.

“Well, we were lucky enough to land at the last minute,” the Yak-40 pilot replied. “But if I were to be honest, I’d say you can try, of course. If it doesn’t work out after two approaches, then I suggest you fly to Moscow or someplace.”

“Well, okay, I’ll pass that on to Arek. Bye,” Grzywna said, signing off.

At that moment, the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Director of Diplomatic Protocol entered the cockpit. His words were picked up only faintly in the background on the cockpit voice recorder.

“In their view the visibility is about 400 meters and the lower bound is 50 meters,” Grzywna said to him.

The Director’s reply was too muddled to be transcribed.

“No, they managed to do it,” Grzywna said. “They also say there’s fog.”

Again, the Director of Protocol said something unintelligible.

“Mr. Director, fog has appeared,” Captain Protasiuk said. “At the moment, in the conditions we have, we won’t be able to land. We’ll give it a go, make one approach, but it probably won’t be successful. If it turns out (unintelligible), what should we do?”

“…?”

“We don’t have enough fuel to wait that long,” Protasiuk said, replying to the Director’s unheard suggestion.

“Well, then we have a problem,” the Director of Protocol said, his voice finally coming through loud enough to hear.

“We could hold for half an hour, then go to an alternate airport,” Protasiuk suggested.

“Which alternate?”

“Minsk or Vitebsk.”

Acknowledging the information, the Director of Protocol left the cockpit to brief the President on the situation.

A witness took this photograph of the Il-76 during one of its two unsuccessful approaches. (State Accident Investigation Committee)

As flight 101 descended through 1,500 meters, a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 made two attempts to land, but failed to catch sight of the runway on both approaches. Witnesses twice caught sight of the Il-76 just barely breaking through the bottom of the fog, each time less than 100 meters above the ground and significantly to the left of the runway centerline, before it ascended back into the clouds and informed the controllers that they were diverting to Moscow.

Moments later, calling the Yak-40 crew again, Grzywna asked, “And did the Russians already arrive?”

“The Ilyushin made two go-arounds, and now it seems he went somewhere else,” the Yak-40 pilot replied.

Meanwhile, the crew began preparations for final approach. Until he heard from the President, Protasiuk’s plan appeared to be to continue the approach, but to be prepared to go around in the likely event that it did not succeed. That meant they would need to fly the NDB approach to runway 26 — a highly outdated and imprecise procedure. To fly the approach, they would need to tune their automatic direction finders (ADFs) to pick up the signals from two non-directional beacons (NDBs), called the middle marker and outer marker, which lay along the extended centerline of the runway. By aligning the plane with the two NDBs, they could line up with the runway, although the process required intensive manual flying to hold the plane straight, on top of full manual control of the plane’s altitude. It was much more difficult than the full instrument landing system (ILS) approaches that the pilots were used to.

Briefing the procedure, the navigator Ziętek said, “Unfortunately, we have no ILS. Landing course 259 is established. Our ADFs are ready, 310/640 set. Five, six, automatic thrust control.” Although he correctly mentioned the ADFs, they wouldn’t be the primary instrument the pilots used during the approach: they had in fact set up a series of GPS coordinates in the flight management system, and planned to use the system to assist them in aligning with the runway.

Now the controller cleared them down to 500 meters. If the visibility had been good enough, they would have been minutes from landing, but the airport was completely socked in, and a safe landing was impossible.

Captain Protasiuk in the cockpit of a Tu-154. (Fakt.pl)

At 10:30, as the plane approached 500 meters, the Director of Protocol returned to the cockpit. “There’s still no decision from the President about what to do next,” he reported, before quickly exiting again.

The news meant that Captain Protasiuk would remain in a state of decision-making limbo. He still didn’t know whether the President would accept a diversion to an alternate airport, or whether he would insist on pushing a landing he clearly knew was dangerous. And until he got an answer, he had little choice but to continue with the plan for a dead-end approach.

“We’ll approach for landing,” Protasiuk said, briefing the crew on his intentions. “And in case of a missed approach, we’ll go around in automatic mode.”

His plan demonstrated a low understanding of the Tu-154’s auto-flight systems. It was only possible to press the go-around switch and fly an automatic go-around if the auto-flight system’s vertical mode was set to “glide slope.” Seeing as Smolensk North Airport had no glide slope equipment for the auto-flight system to track, and thus could not enter glide slope mode, it was not possible to perform an automatic go-around at this airport. The airplane’s design assumption was that when flying a non-precision approach like the one to Smolensk, the crew would be flying by hand with the auto-flight off — although in this case, the pilots intended to keep it on.

Two minutes later, at 10:35, Captain Protasiuk reported that they had reached 500 meters, and the controller cleared them to enter the base turn and begin their approach. As flight 101 embarked on the first of two 90-degree turns that would bring it in line with the runway, the controller reminded them, “Polish 101, be ready to go around from 100 meters.”

“Yes sir,” Protasiuk replied. He already knew that 100 meters was the minimum descent altitude (MDA) for the approach — the lowest altitude to which he could descend without seeing the runway. And he also knew, based on the statements of the Yak-40 pilot, that the cloud base was considerably lower than this. A go-around seemed all but inevitable.

Flight data for the last two minutes of the flight, starting at approximately the current point in the narrative and continuing until impact. (MAK)

At some point around this time, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Air Force, who was riding as a passenger, made his way into the cockpit. Why he was there has never been conclusively established, but his presence could not have failed to have some impact on the pilots’ states of mind.

The Yak-40 pilot now came on the frequency again. “Arek, the visibility is now 200,” he said. The conditions were getting even worse.

“101, distance is 10 [km], enter the glide path,” the controller instructed.

Captain Protasiuk now initiated their final descent toward the airport. But by the time he did so, they were about 1.5 kilometers past the point at which the descent should have started, which put the plane above the optimal 2˚40’ glide path down to the runway. At 10:39, as the pilots quickly ran through the approach and landing checklists, extending the gear and flaps, they passed over the first NDB — the outer marker — at a height of 420 meters, 120 meters higher than they should have been.

Noticing that they were too high, Captain Protasiuk reached over and increased their descent rate using the Tu-154’s “DESCENT-CLIMB wheel,” which adjusts vertical speed by changing the pitch of the airplane. This small wheel is used to quickly climb or descend while at high altitudes and is not meant to be used so close to the ground, since it lacks the precision required to achieve the specific descent rates needed to fly a prescribed glide path. It was therefore unfortunate, but not surprising, that Protasiuk’s input pitched the plane down sufficiently to achieve a descent rate of 7.5 to 8 meters per second (about 1,500 feet per minute), which was much faster than the rate needed to return to the 2˚40’ glide path. The copilot was supposed to call out any descent rate faster than 5 m/s, but he never did.

As the plane pitched downward, it began to gain speed, and the autothrottle, which was set to maintain 280 km/h, had to roll engine power all the way back to idle to prevent the plane from accelerating. The plane was now dropping toward the ground with very little available potential energy.

Visualization of the TAWS warning envelope. (Zuopeng Wang)

Meanwhile, the controllers monitored the progress of the plane on a pair of special radar screens which displayed the rough target of the airplane against a crude background depicting the appropriate lateral and vertical course to the runway. Even though the plane was too high, the controller announced, based on the indications on his screen, “Eight [km], on course, on glide path.”

“Landing gear and flaps are down, Polish 101,” Captain Protasiuk replied.

“The runway is clear,” the controller added.

Suddenly, the plane’s Terrain Awareness and Warning System (or TAWS — the same thing as an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System) called out, “TERRAIN AHEAD.”

The “terrain ahead” warning was erroneous, and the crew knew it. Smolensk North Airport wasn’t in the TAWS database, so the system thought they were simply flying towards the ground, away from any airfield. Fortunately, the navigator Ziętek knew a way to silence it: he reached over and pressed the “standard pressure” button on the captain’s barometric altimeter. This worked because the TAWS constantly compares the position of the airplane against a built-in terrain database, and to determine the height of the plane above sea level, it relies on the captain’s barometric altimeter. As the controller had stated earlier, the actual air pressure at Smolensk North was 745mm Hg, but “standard pressure” — the default sea-level value used in the absence of any local value — is 760mm Hg. The altimeter compares the measured outside pressure to the base pressure chosen by the pilots in order to determine the height of the plane, so by changing the base pressure to a higher value, the altitude displayed by the altimeter increased by 168 meters, convincing the TAWS that the plane was farther from the ground than it actually was.

The ravine just before runway 26. (State Accident Investigation Committee)

Simultaneously, the controller repeated, “Four [km], on course, on glide slope.” In fact, they were still too high, but that didn’t stop him from adding, “Three [km], on course, on glide slope” some 13 seconds later.

“300,” the navigator called out as they descended. “250 meters…”

Having switched the captain’s barometric altimeter to an erroneous value, he obviously was not reading from that instrument — instead, he was using the radio altimeter, which measures the height above the terrain directly beneath the airplane. However, on approach this is strictly forbidden, and he was about to discover why. As it turns out, the terrain underneath the final approach path into runway 26 at Smolensk North Airport is not flat — it slopes down from the runway threshold into a ravine, rises back up almost to the runway level, then drops off again about three kilometers from the runway. As the plane crossed the hill and passed over the ravine on the near side, the value indicated by the radio altimeter increased, as the ground had dropped away from the plane. This led to a dangerously misleading indication, as the bottom of the ravine was some 60 meters lower than the runway level, and if the pilots descended to 100 meters above the ravine, that would leave them only 40 meters above the runway — well below the minimum descent altitude for the approach.

At this point, the plane was still too high, but at its brisk descent rate, it would reach the glide path within seconds. And yet still, no one mentioned their vertical speed.

Twenty-six seconds after it first activated, the TAWS again called out, “TERRAIN AHEAD!” But no one said a word about it. They knew that it was normal for TAWS to activate when approaching an airport that wasn’t in the system’s database.

“200,” said the navigator. “150.”

Flight 101 dropped through the glide path and began to descend below it.

Nevertheless, the controller again said, “Two [km], on course, on glide path.”

“TERRAIN AHEAD! TERRAIN AHEAD!” the TAWS blared.

“100 meters,” someone said.

“100,” the navigator affirmed.

But at this point they were 91 meters above the terrain, and only 39 meters above the airport. It was well past time to level off, but instead, they kept descending.

Flight 101’s vertical and lateral deviation from the glide path during its final moments. (State Accident Investigation Committee)

As the terrain fluctuated underneath the plane, the radio altimeter height jumped back to 100 meters, and the navigator again called out “100.” Simultaneously, the TAWS issued an even more dire warning: “PULL UP! PULL UP! PULL UP! PULL UP!”

“Normal,” said the copilot Grzywna.

“90,” said navigator Ziętek.

“PULL UP! PULL UP!”

“80,” the navigator continued.

The captain said something which might have been, “Let’s make a go-around.”

“Let’s go around,” Grzywna affirmed. Someone pulled back slightly on the controls, but not enough to disconnect the autopilot.

One second later, at a height of 65 meters above the ground — 23 meters above the runway level — the radio altimeter emitted a chime indicating that they were dangerously low.

“60, 50,” the navigator said.

Suddenly realizing that the plane was too low, the controller hurriedly said, “Level, 101!”

“40,” said the navigator.

“PULL UP! PULL UP!

“30.”

“Check altitude, level!” the controller repeated.

Finally, at a height of 25 meters above the ground and almost level with the runway, Captain Protasiuk spotted trees through the fog, looming dead ahead. He immediately jammed the thrust levers to max power and pulled back on the yoke as hard as he could, but it took time for the engines to spool up from idle, where the autothrottle had set them. Inertia kept the plane on its downward trajectory, dropping below the runway level and into the ravine as the engines roared to life in a desperate attempt to drag it back from the brink.

This CGI animation of the crash sequence was featured in Mayday (Air Crash Investigation) Season 12 Episode 10: “Death of the President.”

But it was too late. Just as the plane began to gain altitude, streaking up the far side of the ravine at just a few meters above the ground, it clipped the top of a tree, then plowed headlong into a large birch just five meters above its base. The massive tree trunk sliced clear through the left wing, ripping off the outermost 6.5 meters with the horrible sound of rending metal. “Kurwa mać!” Grzywa shouted.

With the severe loss of the lift from the left wing, the plane began to turn on its side. Still gaining altitude, it rose briefly above the trees, then rolled past 90 degrees to the left, turning upside down as it plunged back toward the ground. In the passenger cabin, anyone not strapped in for landing was thrown violently to the side amid screams of terror.

“PULL UP! PULL UP!” the TAWS called out, its final, futile warning issuing forth into the cacophony of the flight’s dying seconds.

“Go around!” the controller frantically shouted, his voice heard over the speakers in the now-inverted cockpit, but it was far, far too late.

“KURWAAAAAAA!!” someone screamed, their last, chilling cry slicing through the roar of the engines and the thud of trees against the airframe, until the cockpit voice recording abruptly went dead, silenced along with the terrified voices of the crew, their arms still gripping the controls, trying helplessly to level the plane as the ground rose to meet them. It was a scream of abject horror, the kind that we can only produce in the instant we perceive the imminence of death — a sound which no human being should ever make or hear. And with its end came the end of 96 lives, snuffed out in an instant, as Polish Air Force flight 101 plowed upside down into the forest, never to rise again.

An aerial view of the debris field, with two of the trees hit by the plane and a profile view of the terrain. (MAK)

The brutal, inverted, nose-first impact reduced the Tu-154 to rubble almost instantaneously, subjecting the airframe and occupants alike to deceleration forces in excess of 100 G’s. Within a fraction of a second, the plane disintegrated utterly, sending burning debris tumbling between the naked birches, surrounded by swirling fog. For those aboard, there was no hope — all 96 passengers and crew were killed instantly.

In the control shack, the controller frantically repeated, “Go around! Go around!” but there was no reply from the presidential plane. “Fuck, where is he?” he said, growing frantic. “101? Go around, 101! …101? …101?” But all that came from the fog-shrouded forest was silence.

“Well, fuck,” said the assistant chief of the unit. Perhaps never before had those simple words carried so much weight.

Firefighters douse the wreckage shortly after the crash. (Public domain image)

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Within minutes, rescuers reached the scene, a few hundred meters short and to the left of the threshold of runway 26. They found the forest strewn with shattered pieces of the Tupolev — and mixed in among them were the mutilated remains of the Polish president and his entourage. All around them spot fires burned, emitting sharp hisses and bangs as objects exploded amid the wreckage. It was obvious that no one could have survived.

News of the disaster quickly reached the crowds gathered at the Katyn memorial, where Poles erupted into tears and Russians fell into a shocked and bewildered silence. It seemed unimaginable that the president’s plane could crash, and yet somehow, it had.

Portraits of the victims of the disaster. (Smolenskcrash.eu)

Those who knew the passenger list would have been even more horrified than those who did not. Practically every one of the 89 passengers was a major figure in Polish politics and society. The list of victims read like a who’s-who of the Polish elite:

Lech Kaczyński, President of the Republic;

Maria Kacyznska, First Lady;

Lieutenant General Andrzej Błasik, Commander of the Air Force;

Major General Tadeusz Buk, Commander of the Land Forces;

Vice Admiral Andrzej Karweta, Commander of the Navy;

Major General Włodzimierz Potasiński, Commander of the Special Forces;

Premysław Gosiewski, Sejm member and Deputy Prime Minister;

Ryszard Kaczorowski, former President of the Republic of Poland in Exile;

Grażyna Gęsicka, Sejm member and Minister for Regional Development;

The Deputy Marshal of the Senate;

Two other sitting Senators;

Two Deputy Marshals of the Sejm, including the presidential candidate for the Left and Democrats Party;

Twelve other sitting members of the Sejm, including two former Deputy Prime Ministers;

The Deputy Minister of National Defense;

The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs;

The Deputy Minister of Culture;

The Head of the National Security Bureau;

The Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces;

The President of the National Bank of Poland;

The President of the Polish Bar Council;

The co-founder of the Solidarity trade union, who sparked the revolution of 1989;

The Commander of the Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces;

The Commander of the Warsaw Garrison;

The Ombudsman for Civil Rights;

The President of the Polish Olympic Committee;

The Roman Catholic Bishop of the Polish Armed Forces;

The Orthodox Ordinary of the Polish Armed Forces;

Two members of the Polish Resistance during WWII;

The President of the Polish Katyn Foundation;

The President of the Federation of Katyn Families;

The Head of the Katyn Committee;

Seven other high-ranking members of cultural organizations;

The Director of Diplomatic Protocol for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;

Seven other prominent priests;

Seven Presidential staff members;

Eight family members of Katyn massacre victims;

One social activist;

One famous sculptor;

One famous actor;

The President’s personal physician;

Four pilots;

Six body guards;

And three flight attendants.

It was, without a doubt, the largest number of public figures ever to die in a single plane crash. And their deaths would leave Poland reeling, struggling to understand what the future of their state would look like without them. It was a dark day for the republic and for Europe. The Katyn Forest, that cursed place so full of death, had once again struck at the heart of Poland.

Mourners place candles outside the presidential palace in Warsaw. (Patryk Korzeniecki)

As the scale of the disaster became clear, Poland’s system of emergency succession kicked into gear. The Marshal (Speaker) of the Sejm, Bronisław Komorowski, was sworn in as Acting President, while second-level officers took over in every branch of the Armed Forces, as the air force, army, navy, and special forces had all been decapitated. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people mourned the President and the other victims on the streets of Warsaw. For weeks, people struggled to absorb the scale of the tragedy; in Russia, even Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev appeared moved by Poland’s loss, declaring April 12th a national day of mourning. The Katyn documentary was played on Russian TV for a second time, and the government released more Soviet-era documents related to the massacre in a gesture of goodwill. Unfortunately, however, the sense that both countries sought mutual reconciliation would soon fade, as the shock of the disaster wore off and the true priorities of all sides started to become apparent.

These were some of the largest remaining sections of the fuselage. (BBC)

In the meantime, however, the world demanded to know what exactly had happened and why — something which would require an impartial investigation. Initially, the government of Russia appointed a “State Commission” of investigation headed by none other than Vladimir Putin, and it was this body which oversaw the first three days of activity at the crash site. Bad blood began to form between the Polish and Russian sides rather quickly, not just out of a lack of trust in Putin, but also because Russian soldiers who had helped secure the scene were caught stealing the victims’ credit and debit cards, and because of a lack of transparency surrounding the identification of the bodies. Only years later would it be discovered that Russian pathologists had botched the procedures, resulting in several families receiving the wrong sets of remains.

However, after three days, Putin turned over leadership of the investigation to the Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK), the international civil body responsible for investigating aircraft accidents across much of the former Soviet Union, including in Russia. As far as the likelihood of an impartial inquiry was concerned, the MAK was a better bet than Putin’s State Commission. The MAK’s chairwoman, Tatiana Anodina, was no friend of the Russian government — but for most observers, that would only become readily apparent years later, as her increasingly critical aircraft accident reports led to an open spat with Russian aviation regulators that culminated in Anodina and her family fleeing the country. Had all of that happened before the disaster in Smolensk, Polish trust in the MAK might have been higher, but even so, it was necessary for Poland to conduct its own investigation parallel to the Russian one. After all, as long as the MAK’s leadership resided in Russia, it was suspected that there would be pressure placed on them to avoid conclusions which implied Russian responsibility for the death of the President. Therefore, Jerzy Miller, the Chairman of the Polish State Accident Investigation Committee, was appointed to head a second, simultaneous inquiry.

The wing roots and landing gear were the largest pieces overall. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

Together, the Polish and MAK investigations established a number of facts in common. They agreed that the flight data recorded by the Russian-made FDR and by the Polish-made Quick Access Recorder matched perfectly, allowing a mutually agreeable reconstruction of the flight path. Other systems, such as the TAWS, were examined in the United States, lending them credibility as well. But the Polish side complained that Russia was not handing over key items of wreckage to Poland — something which is not standard procedure in an accident investigation, but could have been a way to generate good will and mutual trust. And as the investigation went on, the divisions between the two sides became even greater. When the two reports were finally released, their conclusions differed in several key respects, some of which were laid out in Miller’s 148-page reply to the MAK report, in which his team enumerated a long list of inconsistencies and mistakes in the Russian findings. What follows is a breakdown of each party’s analysis, and the important ways in which they diverged.

Firefighters tackle flames near the tail section shortly after the crash. (NBC)

In the MAK’s opinion, the crash occurred because Captain Arkadiusz Protasiuk, feeling pressure from his superiors to get the President to the memorial on time, deliberately chose to descend below the minimum descent altitude in order to effect a landing in conditions which were below minima. This decision turned fatal because the navigator made altitude callouts using the radio altimeter, which misled the crew about their height relative to the airport due to the presence of the ravine; and because the pilots were conditioned to ignore terrain warnings when approaching military airports that were not in the TAWS database.

The MAK cited a comment, allegedly heard on the CVR and variously attributed to the navigator or an unknown person, which appeared to say, “He’ll go crazy if (unintelligible),” which was interpreted as a sign that the pilots did not want to risk the wrath of the President or some other official if they did not land at Smolensk. The MAK acknowledged that Captain Protasiuk probably began the approach with every intention to go around at 100 meters, but that this comment, the lack of a decision from the President, and the presence of the Commander of the Air Force in the cockpit during final approach convinced him to take a risk by descending further than was allowed.

Emergency crews work amid the wreckage. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

His decision-making would have been further affected by an incident which had shaken the 36th Regiment two years earlier. On August 12th, 2008, Protasiuk was acting as copilot on a flight carrying President Kaczyński to Azerbaijan. During a stopover in Simferopol, Crimea, the President informed the Regiment that he wanted to make an additional stop in Tbilisi, Georgia. At that time, the 12-day Russo-Georgian War was in full swing, as Russian tanks rolled across the Georgian countryside and Russian bombs fell on Tbilisi. Landing there would already be dangerous, but to make matters even worse, the crew did not have any approach charts for Tbilisi Airport. The Captain therefore made the wise decision to refuse to land there, and took the president to Ganja, Azerbaijan, as was originally planned, forcing Kaczyński and his delegation to travel to Tbilisi by car. Afterward, according to the MAK, that captain was never again asked to fly for the President (although some Polish sources say he flew the President one more time before being reassigned). He eventually went on trial to determine whether his actions amounted to insubordination, but was acquitted. Having personally witnessed the incident and seen the consequences faced by the Captain of that flight, Protasiuk would have been very reluctant to make any decision that might be seen as inconveniencing the President.

The plane’s vertical tail came off mostly in one piece. (MAK)

The MAK’s version of the cockpit voice recorder transcript also included the copilot, Major Grzywna, calling for a go-around at a height of about 65 meters above the terrain, followed by a small nose-up input on the copilot’s control column which was insufficient to disconnect the autopilot. At this point, if a go-around had been initiated, the crash likely would not have occurred. However, the MAK assessed that while Grzywna clearly felt they should go around, the lack of a response from Captain Protasiuk, his low experience, and his lack of training in crew resource management disincentivized him to take decisive action. Protasiuk, for his part, only realized that they had descended into a ravine short of the airport when he spotted trees through the fog at a height of about 25 meters. Witness statements confirmed that fog had pooled even more thickly in this low-lying area, resulting in a local visibility of just 50–100 meters laterally and 15–30 meters vertically, as opposed to 300–500m laterally and 50m vertically over the runway. Tests showed that at flight 101’s abnormally fast descent rate and with the engines at near idle, increasing thrust and pulling up would only have managed to reverse the descent after a further loss of 30 meters, which was more than they had available. Thus, by the time the crew saw the terrain, it was too late to avoid the accident. Although Protasiuk’s response was far more aggressive than that called for by standard procedures, simulations showed that had the Tu-154 not struck the tree and rolled inverted, Protasiuk’s nose-up inputs would have caused it to stall and fall to the ground anyway less than two seconds later.

The two wing roots with landing gear. (MAK)

The MAK also raised the question of why the air traffic controller continuously told the crew that they were on the glide path even though they were not. It was noted that these frequent comments could have lulled the crew into believing their descent profile was correct, causing them to neglect monitoring parameters such as descent rate. In the MAK’s view, this occurred because the special radar equipment which displayed the plane’s location relative to the descent profile was calibrated incorrectly. Although the actual glide path into Smolensk was centered on 2˚40’ with a tolerance of 30’ in either direction, the glide path shown on the controller’s display was centered on 3˚12’. As a result, the plane would have appeared to be close to the glide path even though it was too high for most of the descent. Therefore, the plane never left the 30’ tolerance above and below this glide path until just before the accident, at which point the controller called out “Level, 101!” Therefore, while the pilots may or may not have been misled by the controller’s statements, the controller was only acting based on the information he had.

Part of the fuselage skin and an engine. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

While the MAK report acknowledged the lack of equipment at the airport, in their opinion most of the airport’s shortcomings had no impact on the accident. The plane never got close enough to the runway to have seen the approach lights, even if they had been working properly, and the condition of the runway and ground facilities obviously played no role. Although the lack of an instrument landing system (ILS) was a factor in the accident, the crew should have known how to fly an NDB approach safely even in low visibility. The problem, both Polish and Russian investigators agreed, was with the pilots. For a crew who was flying around the most important person in Poland, they were woefully inexperienced, with as few or fewer flying hours as the pilots of your average commuter plane. As mentioned earlier, they had not undergone training in various basic areas which had been mandatory for commercial pilots for years or decades.

But perhaps most relevant of all was that Captain Protasiuk was not properly qualified to land in low visibility. Every pilot has a certain minimum visibility in which they personally are allowed to land; for Protasiuk, this minimum was 800 meters laterally and 60 meters vertically (which, the investigators noted, was not good enough to land at Smolensk North that day). However, this rating expires every four months unless the pilot is checked on their ability to fly in low visibility, which may be accomplished by landing in actual cloudy conditions, or, if these cannot be found, by landing with a “training hood” that obscures the pilot’s view out the windows until reaching the MDA. Protasiuk’s record showed that he landed in low visibility in Brussels in February 2010, but weather data from this date showed that the actual conditions were fairly good, with a 900-meter cloud base and 10 kilometers visibility, and the record did not indicate the use of a training hood. Therefore, Protasiuk’s personal weather minima had expired by the time of the accident.

Emergency workers examine part of the fuselage. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

As far as the crew’s ability to land at Smolensk North Airport was concerned, this was only the tip of the iceberg. Protasiuk’s records showed that he had landed six times in low visibility since June 2008, but this was always at well-equipped airports. He had conducted an NDB approach only six times in his entire career, and always in clear conditions. This meant that, incredibly, the accident flight was Protasiuk’s first ever attempt to fly an NDB approach in bad weather, and he was doing it with the President on board.

From there, the discrepancies only continued to pile up. Numerous documents were missing, including those regarding key checks which the navigator was supposed to have completed before being allowed to navigate the Tu-154 without supervision. This was also the navigator’s first Tu-154 flight in two and a half months, because his real job was as a Yak-40 copilot, and he was only drafted into the Tu-154 navigator position because of a shortage of qualified navigators. This kind of switching was very common, as most of the pilots in the 36th Regiment were rated on both the Yak-40 and Tu-154, and frequently switched between the two planes and between the various crew positions within them without undergoing retraining, a practice which is illegal in commercial aviation. They were also using a Tu-154 operations manual designed for use by a three-person crew, even though the 36th Regiment flew with four crewmembers. And although it had nothing to do with the accident, the MAK found several problems with the qualifications of the mechanics who maintained the presidential plane, and with the plane itself, as the Russian investigators were unable to locate its certificate of airworthiness. Two such certificates were found in the wreckage, one of which was expired; another was valid, but belonged to a different aircraft. This bizarre discrepancy was never explained.

The tail section and #1 engine. (Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives)

In the area of pilot training, the Polish investigation went into even greater detail. According to Jerzy Miller and his investigators, the problems began at the regulatory level, where the rules applying to military flight crews in Poland lacked precision and were inconsistent with civilian rules, even though an order to harmonize them had been in place since 1996. On the level of individual crews, they greatly expanded on the shortcomings found by the MAK. Documents showed that Captain Protasiuk was trained in a piecemeal manner, with large breaks in training that were not bookended by refresher exams. Numerous check rides had been carried out using non-standard methods by pilots who were not qualified instructors. Protasiuk had not performed any training on emergency scenarios in nearly two years. Records included training flights that could not possibly have occurred within the indicated timeframes. No evidence could be found to prove that Major Grzywna underwent ground training before flying the Tu-154. Flights with VIPs on board were frequently recorded as “training flights,” including the navigator’s first ever flight on the Tu-154. Major Grzywna’s qualifications to fly both the Yak-40 and Tu-154 had expired. The navigator was rated to fly various types of approaches which he had never attempted, and was granted his Tu-154 rating without completing the requisite examinations. In fact, taken all together, the only member of the crew who was properly qualified to fly the Tu-154 with the President on board was the flight engineer.

Part of the aft galley lies upside down amid the wreckage. (The Guardian)

Despite this, however, the Polish investigation took a different view of the pilots’ actions during the final minute of the flight. They felt that there was no evidence Protasiuk was under pressure to land, noting that no officials, not even the Air Force commander who was in the cockpit, had said anything about the relative merits of a diversion. The Polish report made no mention of the line “He’ll go crazy if…,” which they apparently did not think was correct. But while there could have been some level of self-induced pressure, in the Polish investigators’ opinion Protasiuk never intentionally deviated from his original plan to descent to 100 meters and go around if the runway could not be seen.

The problems in fact began when the TAWS activated due to the absence of Smolensk North Airport in its database. While the MAK investigators refused to explicitly connect this event with the navigator pressing the “standard pressure” button on the captain’s barometric altimeter, the Polish investigators were much less reticent, writing that this was surely done in order to silence the alarm. It was a dangerously incorrect way to do so, but one which pilots in the 36th Regiment had apparently taught themselves on an informal basis.

It was at that point that the navigator began calling out the aircraft’s altitude using the radio altimeter. This should never be done on final approach, for reasons which the accident made obvious. However, pilots on the 36th Regiment’s Yakovlev Yak-40s, where the navigator had most of his flight time, had nevertheless been taught to make altitude callouts using the radio altimeter. The MAK felt that this was the most likely explanation for his actions, while the Polish investigation explained that he most likely used the radio altimeter because he could no longer use the captain’s barometric altimeter.

The wingtip which was severed during the crash. (MAK)

By this point in the approach, the plane was still above the glide path, but descending too steeply, due to the captain’s incorrect use of the “DESCENT — CLIMB” wheel. As the aircraft passed over the ravine, it began to descend below the glide path, but the terrain beneath the plane was simultaneously falling, causing the radio altimeter reading to remain around 100 meters for about ten critical seconds, right as the TAWS began to issue terrain warnings again. The navigator’s repeated callouts of “100 meters” might have convinced the other crewmembers that they were leveling off. There was no evidence that anyone was aware of their vertical speed, as the copilot was required to call it out but never did so, proving that he was not monitoring the instruments. The pilots did seem to be aware of the presence of the ravine, as the Polish investigators noted that at 10:40 and 12 seconds the copilot said, “There is a dip Arek,” to which Captain Protasiuk replied, “I know, it is coming soon.” This statement was absent from the MAK’s version of the cockpit voice recorder transcript. However, the navigator never stated that he was calling out their radio height and not their height above the field, so it was likely that the pilots never realized they were descending into the “dip” that Major Grzywna had mentioned.

Pallbearers carry Kaczyński’s casket at his funeral. (Carsten Koall)

When the plane began to descend below 100 meters by radio altitude, or 40 meters above the field, the Polish investigators wrote that Captain Protasiuk said, “Going around,” followed by an identical line from the copilot. Only the copilot’s call for a go-around was included in the MAK’s transcript and analyzed in its final report, a fact which Miller attributed to the partial obscuration of the captain’s statement by a terrain warning. The disagreement over this line was critical to the two sides’ interpretations of what happened next. If Captain Protasiuk actually called for a go-around at that point, the question had to be raised as to why he did not immediately carry it out. The Polish report did not mention the small nose-up input which the MAK attributed to the copilot, but did bring up a completely different possibility. In their opinion, Captain Protasiuk initially attempted to effect the maneuver by using the go-around switches to place the auto-flight system into go-around mode, as he had said he would do earlier in the approach. However, it was not possible to carry out an automatic go-around if the auto-flight system’s vertical channel was not in “glide slope” mode. Due to his inadequate knowledge of the aircraft, Protasiuk pressed the go-around switch anyway, and was confused for several seconds when the plane didn’t respond as he expected. During this time, the plane continued to descend into the ravine, and by the time Protasiuk took manual control of the aircraft, it was too late to prevent it from striking the ground.

Firefighters near the tail section during the wreckage cleanup process. (Moscow Times)

The Polish investigators also provided a different interpretation of the role the air traffic controller played in the accident. In their opinion, the incorrect calibration of his display was not a sufficient explanation of his “on course, on glide slope” comments, and in particular the last one. Ten seconds before the pilots called for a go-around, the plane was 70 meters below the glide slope and outside the 30’ tolerance of the controller’s approach profile display, and yet he said, “Two [km], on course, on glide slope.” Had he read his display correctly, he should have seen that the plane was too low. Instead, he told the pilots they were on course right at a critical moment when they should have realized they were below the glide path, potentially delaying their recognition of the danger. For this reason, the Polish report cited the controller’s misleading callouts as a contributing factor to the accident. As for why he made these statements, the Polish investigation noted that this was his first time working at Smolensk North Airport; he was inexperienced in air traffic control, having worked only nine shifts in the past year; and trees near the control shack interfered with the radar signal, making the display harder to read.

Although it did not directly contribute to the crash, the Polish investigators also criticized the airport in other ways. In particular, the GPS coordinates of the airport were over 100 meters south of the field’s actual position, which caused flight 101 to remain left of the runway centerline throughout its approach. The Russian Il-76 ahead of flight 101 also strayed to the left on both of its approaches. Additionally, Russian authorities gave the crew of flight 101 an outdated approach chart for Smolensk North that included navigational aids decommissioned in 2009 and lacked critical information such as the correct descent gradient. And while the tree that the plane hit was not one of them, there were numerous other trees near the runway threshold which impinged upon the safety area under the final approach path and should have been removed.

Pieces of the Tu-154 were recovered and placed on the apron at Smolensk North. (Aviation Safety Network)

In the end, while the process of the investigation ranged from at times unfriendly to openly hostile, the Polish and Russian reports agreed on the basic accident scenario and disagreed only about how exactly events transpired in the flight’s final minutes. From the evidence, there was no way to avoid a glaring truth: that the pilots who flew the President were dangerously inexperienced, and when faced with a challenging approach to an under-equipped airport, they flew their plane into the ground.

But not everyone agrees that the crash was an accident at all. Theories that the plane was destroyed by a bomb are widespread on the internet and in certain segments of Polish society, and as time goes by they are increasing in popularity. As such, it is impossible to tell the story of the Smolensk Air Disaster without examining these theories, and the political and cultural forces which drive them.

More pieces of the Tu-154 after being collected from the crash scene. (TASS)

Considering that Russia and Poland have had a fraught relationship for centuries, which has included such crimes against humanity as the Katyn Massacre, the death of the Polish president on Russian soil was always certain to spawn speculation that the crash was no accident, and indeed it would have been foolish not to investigate the possibility of foul play. Jerzy Miller’s investigation pulled out all the usual stops to detect signs of sabotage, such as testing for explosive residue, searching for pitting damage associated with explosions, and looking for shrapnel in the bodies of victims. None of these areas of inquiry yielded any evidence that a bomb exploded on board the plane.

Nevertheless, skepticism of these findings was widespread. Although some opposition politicians were also on the plane, most of the victims were allied with President Kaczyński and many of them were openly anti-Russian. Polish commentators called Jerzy Miller “naïve” for cooperating with the MAK at all. The biggest purveyor of these criticisms was none other than Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late Lech Kaczyński and leader of the Law and Justice Party.

The full reconstruction of the wreckage. (MAK)

Less than three months after the crash, Poland went to the polls to elect their next president in a race between Jarosław Kaczyński and Acting President Bronisław Komorowski, who represented Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform. Although sympathy for Kaczyński boosted him in the polls, where his party had been lagging, this groundswell of support was insufficient to propel him to victory, and Komorowski won with 53% of the vote. It was under Komorowski that the MAK and Jerzy Miller published their findings, which led to a complete restructuring of the 36th Regiment, among other changes intended to prevent such a disaster from happening again. But Jarosław Kaczyński never accepted the findings, continuing to believe that his brother had been assassinated on the orders of Vladimir Putin. Shortly after the election, a group of Law and Justice MPs formed a special committee to investigate the crash, and in particular the allegations, promoted by Kaczyński, that the plane was brought down by a bomb. Unsurprisingly, this was precisely the conclusion that the committee eventually reached, writing that the impact with the birch tree was not sufficiently violent to have ripped off the Tu-154’s wingtip, and that the wing was destroyed by two detonations separated by several seconds. The report was published only in March 2015, two months before the next presidential election.

Poles commemorate the anniversary of the disaster. (Polskie Radio 24)

In May of that year, Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda won an unexpected victory, unseating Komorowski in a vote which broke narrowly in his favor, 51.5% to 48.5%. Following the election victory, another parliamentary committee was established to “re-investigate” the crash. This committee, led by deputy Law and Justice Party chair Antoni Macierewicz, has since produced a large number of “preliminary” and “interim” reports, spaced every one-to-two years. The latest was released in 2022. The basic premise of all the reports is the same as the first one, and as such, they will be addressed collectively on a point-by-point basis.

The destruction of the plane was total; there was no possibility of survival. (State Accident Investigation Committee)

One of the most popular aspects of the assassination theory is based on a video filmed by some of the first people to reach the scene, in which sharp sounds similar to gunshots can be heard. A widespread belief holds that the sounds are the result of Russian soldiers shooting the survivors of the crash in order to ensure an absence of witnesses. However, without even addressing the cause of the sounds, this theory runs up against the sheer improbability of anyone having survived in the first place. The plane impacted upside down and with a substantial nose down angle, resulting in almost total destruction of the airframe; in fact, the largest pieces left were the wing root areas with the landing gear attached. There was no piece of wreckage large enough to have provided a survivable space even if the occupants had not been subjected to an instantly fatal 100-G impact. This theory is popular only because most people don’t understand the forces involved in a plane crash, or why some crashes have survivors and others do not.

The reinvestigation committee claims this photograph shows the wing having been ruptured from the inside out. (Comittee for the Reinvestigation of the Smolensk Air Crash)

Nevertheless, the idea that survivors were shot is not critical to the premise of any of the Macierewicz reports. More significant are the allegations that explosions took place aboard the plane before it crashed.

The investigators were obviously aware that any bomb theory would have to explain why the left wingtip was the first piece to come off the plane. While much has been made of the fact that various pieces were moved from their original locations during the disorganized emergency response, this has little bearing on the fact that any bomb would have to have been located inside the wing structure, not in the cabin or cargo hold. However, there is no record of any airliner ever having been brought down by a bomb hidden inside the plane’s structure, as opposed to areas easily accessible to passengers or ground crews. If we were to overlook that fact for a moment, and assume that a bomb in the cargo hold would be discovered too easily, prompting the perpetrators to put it in the wing instead, the evidence for such an explosion is still shaky at best. The assertion is mostly predicated on examinations of photos of the wreckage which appear to show outward peeling of the wing skin, which some experts believe indicates an overpressure inside the wing box. However, photographs of these areas in the Macierewicz reports show no signs of charring. The fact is that during the breakup of an airplane, metal gets twisted in all kinds of ways, and it is nearly always possible to find some outward peeling of the skin if one looks hard enough. Although some charring was found on objects located just before the main crash site, this was likely due to ignition of fuel from the severed left wing tank after the collision with the tree.

The birch tree struck by the Tu-154. (MAK)

The theory also relies heavily on the notion that the birch tree could not have severed the wingtip in the first place, and that wing debris found in and around the tree must have landed there after a midair explosion, or been planted after the fact. This assertion is largely based on computer simulations by a single professor in Akron, Ohio. History, on the other hand, has plenty of cases of wings or parts of wings being ripped off by impacts with normal-sized trees, including a large number of similar “controlled flight into terrain” (CFIT) accidents. (For example, some readers may remember Surinam Airways flight 764, which almost managed to go around before the left wing collided with a tree, causing the plane to turn inverted and strike the ground.) Furthermore, the diameter of the birch tree in the area where it was struck by the wing was 30–40 centimeters, easily enough to deal catastrophic damage to the Tu-154’s wingtip. The only reason there is even any question about the capability of an average tree to deal this damage is because the tree impact does not fit with the bomb theory. Otherwise practically every CFIT crash in a forested area would have to be re-examined.

Another tree which was struck by the plane as it turned inverted. (Comittee for the Reinvestigation of the Smolensk Air Crash)

At the same time, Macierewicz’s reports accuse the Russian air traffic controllers of deliberately misleading the Polish crew about their location. All merits of the theory aside, it is difficult to understand what the point of misleading the crew would have been if the plan was to blow up the plane anyway. This line of argument seems to be pursuing the notion that the controlled flight into terrain was in some way orchestrated, while ignoring the simultaneous conclusion that there was no CFIT at all, and that the plane was destroyed by a bomb at a height of 30 meters. On the other hand, if the plane were destroyed by a bomb at this height, the fact that it reached 30 meters above the terrain in that area already put it on track to crash, bomb or no bomb. No convincing attempt to reconcile these arguments has been made, nor has there been any serious attempt to explain the motive for trying to destroy the plane in two different ways simultaneously. The only conceivable explanation is that the CFIT scenario was arranged in order to make the crash look like an accident. If so, the Russians did an uncharacteristically good job, because the weight of the available evidence indicates strongly that the plane really did fly into terrain accidentally.

Firefighters extinguish the flames shortly after the accident. (TVP)

In short, the Macierewicz reports are full of dubious conclusions, emphatic pursuit of red herrings, and collections of “gotchas” which don’t add up to a convincing alternative sequence of events. Basically all the CVR and FDR evidence, as well as many items of physical evidence, are disregarded as Russian fabrications. The reports employ classic conspiratorial logic and the inquiries which produced them were transparently oriented toward supporting the assassination theory, rather than objectively analyzing the data.

It is of course understandable, given Russia’s actions in recent years, that many people would take issue with the notion that Russia played no role in the accident. However, this belief is based on an inadequate understanding of Russia’s capabilities and modus operandi. While Vladimir Putin does carry out frequent political assassinations, the targets are nearly always current or former Russian citizens, and usually specific techniques are used which are designed to signal Russia’s involvement and send a message to other dissidents and detractors. The spectacular downing of a presidential aircraft during a highly symbolic state visit would be the exception, not the norm. Putin has grown bolder with time, but in 2010 he was far too careful to have carried out such a provocation. If Russia destroyed Kaczyński’s plane and failed to execute a perfect cover-up, the crash could have been seen as an act of war against a NATO member, potentially resulting in the invocation of NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause. This would have been a huge risk to take for very little reward. In fact, even though the crash was ruled an accident, it significantly harmed Polish-Russian relations and reduced Poles’ opinion of Russia for a generation at least. It is unclear what benefit Russia would have extracted by causing such a crash on purpose. Such a scenario also assumes that Russia was capable of mounting a competent cover-up that convinced numerous trained investigators, but if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that belief in the competence of Russian intelligence is sorely misplaced.

A man mourns at the site of the crash. (AP)

Considering this evidence, all of the so-called Macierewicz reports make more sense when viewed as conscious acts of political theater rather than genuine attempts to investigate the causes of the accident. In fact, the publicity surrounding the reports is not aimed so much at Russia as it is at the Law and Justice Party’s domestic rivals, in particular Donald Tusk and the Civic Platform. A major element of the conspiracy theory is that Tusk colluded with Russia to bring his party to power by killing Kaczyński and other major opponents. This ignores the fact that the Civil Platform was on track to win the 2010 election anyway, and that the crash actually increased support for the Law and Justice Party. Nevertheless, the Macierewicz reports allude to Tusk’s supposed complicity in the cover-up. In fact, the latest report, despite allegedly being the product of a safety investigation, calls out Donald Tusk by name less than two pages in, and reserves considerably harsher language for him than it does for Vladimir Putin.

A victim is carried away from the scene in a temporary casket. (Reuters)

In effect, the Law and Justice Party is using the never-ending investigation and its frequent new reports as a political weapon. The investigation has never been about facts, or even about Russia, but about domestic politics, positioning the ruling party as a victim of a heinous crime in order to increase its political capital. This is why, despite 12 years of continuous investigation, no suspects have been named; no one has been prosecuted or charged; and the Committee has given no indication that it will ever stop “investigating” and issuing new reports that repeat the findings of all the previous reports. In fact, as long as the crash retains its salience with the Polish electorate, they will probably continue to do so.

Jarosław Kaczyński and Lech Kaczyński’s daughter Marta at the arrival of Kaczynski’s casket in Warsaw. (AP)

Amid the endless political struggle, it is easy to lose perspective on the Smolensk Air Disaster as, first and foremost, a plane crash. Had the President not been on board to politicize the tragedy, it would have been obvious to everyone that the flight that day was a disaster waiting to happen. A poorly trained and unqualified crew was charged with flying VIPs into an ill-equipped, decrepit airport amid extremely dense fog. One can almost imagine some high-ranking official uttering the words, “What could possibly go wrong?” Indeed, the list of what could have gone wrong was so extensive that if this crash had involved a commercial airliner, there would have been no public doubt that it was an accident, and the airline would have had its operating certificate revoked with prejudice.

In this respect, the Smolensk Air Disaster is a textbook example of our innate human desire to search for patterns and meaning in a world which is, at its core, inscrutable. Time and time again throughout history, humanity has proven unable to accept the fact that hugely consequential events can and often do have fundamentally random, accidental causes. It is in our nature to seek a reason, to seek someone to blame, because it is less frightening to believe that tragedies are the result of evil actors plotting for personal gain than it is to acknowledge that any of us, even a president, can die at any time due to a single ill-timed mistake.

Thousands of candles were lit outside the presidential palace to commemorate the victims. (AP)

The real lesson, perhaps, is to not take it for granted that VIP flights are held to a higher standard of safety. The culture within Poland’s 36th Special Air Regiment was one of invulnerability and overconfidence, permeated by a sense that their mission was too important to worry about such trifling matters as safety regulations and standard procedures. In fact, that very importance necessitated strict adherence to safety standards in order to avoid a disaster with global implications. Their failure to do so changed the course of history, and most certainly not for the better, a lesson which other countries should take to heart. Lech Kaczyński was far from the first head of state to die in a plane crash, but it will be up to governments around the world to decide whether he will be the last.

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (eventually™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.

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Admiral Cloudberg

Admiral Cloudberg

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Analyzer of plane crashes and author of upcoming book (eventually™). Contact me via @Admiral_Cloudberg on Reddit or by email at kylanddempsey@gmail.com.