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17 April 2010

Early Findings in the Investigation of the Polish President's Plane Crash

While the investigation into the crash is in its early stages, some facts about the circumstances around the crash are coming into focus.

Number of Victims
Early media reports gave the number of people on board the aircraft as either 96 or 97. It looks like the confusion was due to the passenger list from Polish authorities that listed 89 passengers. Apparently one passenger did not make the flight.

Crash details
The aircraft, a Polish Air Force Tupolev TU-154M, had been on a nonstop flight from Warsaw, Poland to Smolensk North Airport (a military installation) near Smolensk, Russia. At the time of the crash, there was dense fog in the area. Reportedly, Russia's Prime Minister Putin was briefed by local officials and told that the required horizontal visibility for the approach to the airbase would have been 1000 meters, with actual visibility of only 400 meters at the time of the crash.

Unlike many large international airports, this airport did not have an instrument landing system designed for poor visibility conditions, but rather a less sophisticated system using a non-directional beacon.

Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC) is the organization responsible for investigating this accident. According to a 1998 memorandum of understanding between the US and Russian governments, this would be the same organization that would be responsible for investigating any accidents involving US registered aircraft in Russian territory. is unaware if the Polish government has a similar memorandum of understanding.

According to the IAC, preliminary analysis of the flight data and cockpit voice recorders indicated that the airplane impacted trees 1050 meters short of the runway threshold and about 40 to 45 meters to the left of the extended runway centerline. The airplane continued for another 200 meters before the left wing impacted another tree and the airplane broke up. The airplane came to rest about 350-500 meters short of the runway threshold and about 150 meters left of the extended runway centerline. The debris field was about about 210 meters long.

Some early media reports stated that the aircraft had made several landing attempts prior to the crash, however Polish officials confirmed that the airplane was on its first approach to the airbase, when it impacted the trees. Three flights were to land at the airbase in that period of time: the first was a Yakovlev YAK-40 carrying journalists accompanying Poland's president, which made a safe landing. The second was a Russian Ilyushin IL-76, which diverted after two unsuccessful approaches. The third was the presidential Tupolev TU-154M.

Comparisons to the Ron Brown Crash of 1996
There are some similarities between the 2010 crash of the Polish President's aircraft, and the 1996 crash that killed US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. In both cases, the crash involved a military flight crew using an approach with a non-directional beacon. In an article on the site of The New Republic, Jonathan Kay describes his experience analyzing the Ron Brown accident report, and concluding that the accident had more to do with the mindset of the flight crew than about technology or flight procedures. It will be interesting to see if the IAC report implies that something similar happened with the Polish President's crash.

General view of crash site area

Closeup view of crash site with debris

Photo Credits:, European Pressphoto Agency, Google Earth

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