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Flight PLF 101 Crash - April 10, 2010

The leader of the right of center governing Law and Justice (PiS), president Lech Kaczynski, was among 96 people who died in the crash of a Tu-154 in Smolensk, western Russia, on April 10, 2010. The crash killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, as well as the country's central bank chief, a number of high ranking military chief of staff and several lawmakers. The officials were headed to Russia's Katyn forest to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the 22,000 Polish officers executed by Soviet secret police in 1940. For decades the Kremlin refused to acknowledge responsibility for those crimes, and the subject was also taboo for Poland's communist era governments that were backed by Moscow.

The disaster led to increased tensions with Russia, with some Poles believing that the crash was a deliberate assassination by Russian authorities, or that Russian air traffic controllers were to blame for the disaster. Nearly one-quarter of Poles believe the air crash was an assassination, according to a poll in 2009.

On 13 January 2011, the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) delivered its final report on the investigation of the plane crash. The investigation involved research institutes, industry and flight experts from Russia, Poland, the US and other countries. The IAC committee defines the major reason for the crash as “the crew not taking a timely decision to route the plane to an alternative airport, in spite of receiving punctually and repeatedly the information about weather conditions at Smolensk-Severny Airport; the minimal weather requirements for this airport being set much lower.” Other important reasons include “descending to an altitude profoundly lower than the norm with the ground cues being out of sight” and “the crew not reacting in due manner to the repeated signals of the alarm system and early warning system.”

The pilots circled the airport three times before attempting a landing. Investigators said the pilot ignored repeated warnings, including from the crew of a Polish airforce Yak-40 which had landed at Smolensk's Severny airfield earlier that day, that visibility was far below the 1,000 meter minimum generally considered necessary for a safe landing. Polish transcripts of conversations held in the plane's cockpit shortly before the crash lent weight to Russian claims that the Polish pilots were largely to blame for choosing to land in heavy fog. They suggest that a Polish air force commander pressured the pilots into making the landing despite the adverse weather condition.

The Terrain Awareness Warning System (abbreviated TAWS, also known as the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System or EGPWS) did not have the Smolensk airport, a former military airfield not open to international flights, in the system's database. Someone (most likely the captain or navigator) commanded the standard barometric pressure setting on the captain's main electronic altimeter to increase the altimeter's reading by 170 meters (560 ft). The radar altimeter does not take into account the contour of the terrain around the airport. The terrain on approach to Smolensk airport is uneven and locally much lower than the runway level. The aircraft was flying into a valley, only 15 meters (50 ft) above runway level.

The Committee for Investigation of National Aviation Accidents published its report on 29 July 2011. The report stated that pilot error was the main cause of the accident, with the crew lacking adequate training in operating in adverse weather conditions. The Polish report differed from the Russian report in several aspects. Chief among these was a conclusion that the pilots were not placed under pressure forcing them to land at Smolensk.

Although enquiries attributed the disaster to human error and bad weather, Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party, led by Kaczynski's twin bother Jaroslaw, believes the crash was deliberate and conducted its own probe. Jaroslaw Kaczynski made a range of allegations about to crash, suggesting that there was an explosive onboard, that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the assassination and that former Premier and current EU President Donald Tusk was complicit in the orchestrating the crash and hindering the subsequent investigation.

Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz suggested the crash was orchestrated in response to Poland's 2009 request to define the World War II Soviet massacre of Polish officers in Russia's Katyn forest as "genocide.... There is no doubt about the fact that what happened ... was meant to deprive Poland of a leadership that was leading our nation toward independence".

The Polish government pressed charges against the two air traffic controllers in 2015, one for "being directly responsible for having endangered air traffic" and the other for "unintentionally causing an air traffic disaster." The Russian Investigative Committee said in a statement"The Russian investigation sees no grounds to talk about even a minimal responsibility of the flight control group for the air crash .... They were acting in full accordance with instructions and international civil aviation rules," it added, saying the crash was caused by "a combination of factors."

On 17 September 2016 a new Polish commission re-investigating the 2010 plane crash accused its predecessors of doctoring evidence and manipulating facts. The new inquiry was sought by the current nationalist ruling Law and Justice party led by Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has blamed the crash on Tusk and Russia.

Polish prosecutors said on 03 April 2017 that new evidence into the 2010 plane crash suggested that two Russian air traffic controllers and a third official in the control tower had deliberately contributed to the accident.

The discourse referred to the plane crash as a “second Katyn” and the country was divided in those who believed that it was an accident and those who were convinced it was an assassination. According to Polish journalist Artur Domoslawski (November 2013), the doctrine of the “Smolensk religion” was “a singular, explosive mixture of Polish messianism and religious fundamentalism, xenophobia and a love of martyrdom. For followers of the faith, any rational argument about the crash was instantly transubstantiated into further proof of the assassins’ cunning”.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2017 18:44:25 ZULU