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Lech Kaczynski air crash: ATC transcripts emerge

19 January 11 18:59
An aerial shot from 12 April shows the Polish jet's wreckage (centre) close to Smolensk's Severny airport (image: DigitalGlobe)

Newly released Russian air traffic control transcripts convey the horror of the jet crash which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others.

Seconds after the crash, controllers wonder where the jet has gone, cursing bitterly as the truth sinks in.

Russia released the transcripts after Poland complained they had not been included in Moscow's official report into the crash on its territory.

Questions remain about communications with the doomed plane.

Russia has blamed the crash on pilot error, saying the crew were under pressure to land despite bad weather. It absolved its air traffic control (ATC) officers of any blame.

Polish experts say Russian ATC gave the jet poor advice in the moments before it crashed in thick fog.

Smolensk ATC, they argue, gave wrong weather and visibility information, failed to close the airport despite thick fog and confirmed the Polish plane was on the right track to land while it was actually too low.

Addressing parliament in Warsaw on Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Polish-Russian relations were "not easy" and "maybe even more difficult than before".

"But the duty of the Polish government is to pick the right way ahead for Polish-Russian relations from these crossroads, not to seek fresh arguments to escalate conflict," he added.

'Shut down completely'

At 0940 Moscow time on 10 April - just over an hour before the crash - an ATC officer in Smolensk asks Russia's central ATC to tell the Polish jet that its destination airport, Severny, is closed because of unexpected fog.

The officer says the Polish plane has not contacted Severny to request permission to land.

He stresses the urgency of the situation, saying visibility is at most 400m (400 yards).

"Where was he [presumably the Polish pilot] going at 0900?" he adds. "We're shut down completely."

Shortly afterwards, it appears that the Russians have settled on Moscow's Vnukovo airport as a suitable alternative.

But Smolensk ATC is still unable to make contact with the Polish jet.

When the silence is finally broken, at 1023, the Polish pilot does not seem to be aware of the gravity of the situation.


In their conversation in Russian, detailed in the transcript released by Russia along with its final report on 12 January, the Polish pilot appears not to take in what the Russian ATC officer is saying.

"...fog, visibility 400m," says the Russian.

"Understood," the pilot replies. "What are the weather conditions?"

The ATC officer spells out the visibility in English, then gives temperature and pressure readings, adding, at 1024: "There are no conditions for taking you."

"Thank you," the pilot replies, "but if possible we will try to approach, but if the weather is bad we will circle around."

The last message from the Polish plane, at 1040 as it tries to come in to land, is that it has switched its lights on.

It strikes tree-tops just before 1041, crashing about five seconds later.

The Russian ATC transcripts show controllers swearing obscenities in between desperate attempts to contact the pilot.

Just before 1042, one shouts "Get the fire brigade out there!" The transcript ends with a long-drawn-out Russian swear word.

International aviation experts are split on the issue of blame for the crash with some saying Poland could seek international arbitration if Russia refuses to review its report or if talks fail.

Others say the Russian report is final and Moscow is not obliged to elaborate.

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