- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 12, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian officials investigating the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski placed the blame squarely on the Poles on Wednesday, saying the crew was pressured to land in bad weather by an air force commander who had been drinking.

Kaczynski and 95 others, including his wife, died in April 2010 when their Tu-154 plane crashed while trying to land in Smolensk, Russia. There were no survivors.

In Warsaw, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother and head of the opposition Law and Justice party, sharply criticized the Russian aviation authorities’ report, calling it a “mockery of Poland” and saying it unfairly puts all the blame on Poles. He said the report fails to offer convincing evidence the Poles are solely responsible and is based on speculation.

It has been clear all along that the pilots’ decision to land in heavy fog at an airport with only basic navigation equipment was the main reason for the crash. However, Poles have been eagerly awaiting the Russian report in order to learn if other factors — such as possible mistakes by Russian air traffic controllers or technical conditions at the Russian airport — might have played a role as well.

There was a broad expectation in Poland that Russia would acknowledge some responsibility, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk expressed anger last month at an earlier draft by Russian investigators that also reportedly put responsibility only on Poles.

The issue of responsibility has a strong emotional component in Poland, where suspicions of Russia remain strong because of Moscow’s domination of Poland in communist times and because of older conflicts.

In Moscow, officials of the Interstate Aviation Committee, which investigates crashes in much of the former Soviet Union, said the pilots were pressured to land by Poland‘s air force commander, Gen. Andrzej Blasik, who was in the cockpit. They said he had a blood-alcohol level of about 0.06 percent, enough to impair reasoning.

Blasik’s presence in the cockpit “had a psychological influence on the commander’s decision to take an unjustified risk by continuing the descent with the overwhelming goal of landing by all means necessary,” Tatiana Anodina, the committee’s chairwoman, told a news conference announcing the final results of the investigation.

Mr. Kaczynski slammed that conclusion, saying a suggestion of pressure on the pilots is an example of speculation based only on what “some psychologists are saying,” with no confirmation from the flight recorders.

He also said that he was not fully convinced that Blasik had been drinking but that, in any case, there is no proof that the “small amount of alcohol” said to be in his blood would have contributed to the plane crash.

“This report is a mockery of Poland,” Mr. Kaczynski said.

The blood-alcohol content found in Blasik was lower than what is generally considered outright intoxication. But the professional pilots and physicians group www.flightphysical.com says, “The number of serious errors committed by pilots dramatically increases at or above concentrations of 0.04 percent,” a level lower than Blasik’s.

The Polish government has not yet reacted to the Russian findings, saying it needed time to study the roughly 200-page report.

The report found no fault with Russian air traffic controllers, who “gave no permission to land,” said Alexei Morozov, the head of the committee’s technical commission.

“They gave permission to descend to 100 meters,” he said. “The crew should have started a second attempt but instead continued their unauthorized descent.”

Mr. Morozov added that a glitch in one of the plane’s gauges prompted the crew to think the plane was more than 100 meters above the ground.

The crew of another Polish plane, a Yak-40 that landed at the Smolensk airport shortly beforehand, recommended that the presidential aircraft’s crew attempt a landing, Mr. Morozov said.

“The Yak-40’s pilots gave a very emotional warning about the bad weather, but suggested that (the second plane) land,” Morozov said.

Kaczynski and his delegation were on their way to attend a ceremony commemorating the victims of the 1940 Katyn massacre, in which 20,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war were killed by the Soviet secret police.

Efforts to cover up responsibility for the massacre long have been a significant irritant in relations between Poland and Russia. But in recent years Russia has attempted to overcome the tensions by releasing thick dossiers of documents and saying the killings were ordered by dictator Josef Stalin.

The symbolic importance of Kaczynski’s planned visit apparently increased the pressure to land the aircraft despite the poor conditions. Mr. Morozov said there was no “concrete command” from Kaczynski to land. But he referred to one of the pilots saying, “He is mad,” which is interpreted as evidence that the pilots expected the president to be angry if they did not get to the ceremonies on time.

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.


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