President 'might have put pressure on pilot to land'
THE role of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski in the air crash in which he and 95 others died was questioned yesterday amid suggestions he might have put pressure on the pilot to land despite weather warnings.
Russian aviation experts claimed that "VIP passenger syndrome" could have played a part in the tragedy.
It was disclosed that Mr Kaczynski previously tried to sack a pilot who refused to land a plane for him in dangerous circumstances.
Black box recordings confirmed that Arkadiusz Protasiuk, an experienced air force pilot, ignored warnings to divert to another airport because of heavy fog. It was suggested that Mr Kaczynski did not want to miss a ceremony in Katyn and might have urged the crew to continue trying to land the plane at Smolensk.
Viktor Timoshkin, an aviation expert, said: "It was quite obviously 'VIP passenger syndrome'. Controllers suggested that the aircraft's crew divert the plane to an alternate route. I am sure that the commander of the crew reported this to the president. But in response, for whatever reasons, he had a clear order to land."
In August 2008 Mr Kaczynski "shouted furiously" at a pilot who disobeyed his order to land his plane in war-torn Georgia for safety reasons. He later tried to have Captain Grzegorz Pietuczak removed from his post for insubordination, but Donald Tusk, the prime minister, intervened.
Capt Pietuczak was later awarded the air force silver medal for carrying out his duties conscientiously after refusing to land.
Referring to the crash on Saturday, another Russian aviation expert said: "If he tried to land three times and fell on the fourth then he probably had the 2008 incident in mind, and that was why he felt he had to land at any price. In effect, he did not take the decision but the main passenger on board did -- even if the main passenger did not utter a word to the pilot."
Andrzej Seremet, Poland's chief prosecutor, said there was no information from the investigation so far to suggest that Mr Kaczynski had put undue pressure on the pilot.
But one of the Russian air traffic controllers involved in the tragedy, Col Anatoly Muraviev, said he believed the pilot was "desperate to land" because of the high-ranking passengers he was carrying. "Now try to imagine yourself in the chief pilot's shoes. Fear, false shame and thinking that going to another airport is a disgrace -- all this led to the fact that the crew died and killed all the others."
As the two sides struggled to communicate in Russian and pidgin English, he said the situation was dangerously chaotic. "It was hard to guess here if the pilot understood us properly," he said.
Audio recordings of what was believed to be the pilots talking with the controllers appeared on the internet last night. The pilots could be heard speaking Russian with a heavy Polish accent. International protocol dictates that everyone should have been speaking English.
Tensions between Russia and Poland escalated when a Polish MP claimed that the Kremlin was partly to blame for the tragedy. Artur Gorski, from the Law and Justice party founded by Mr Kaczynski, said the Russian controllers came up with "dubious reasons" to prevent the plane from landing, suggesting this was because of the memorial ceremony the president was due to attend.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised an "objective and thorough" inquiry of the crash, which is being carried out by Russian and Polish teams. (© Daily Telegraph, London)