Were the pilots of the doomed Polish jet obedient to a fault?

Crashing in fog belongs to an earlier age of aviation

Poland, Plane crash

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Last Saturday the city of Smolensk, Russia, was shrouded in heavy fog. Before departing Warsaw, Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s flight crew would have studied the weather charts. Fog forms at dawn and often dissipates. Military pilots Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, 36, and Maj. Robert Grzywna, 36, probably expected it to lift by 10:30 a.m., the estimated arrival time for their planeload of military, business, political and ecclesiastical dignitaries at Smolensk Air Base.

On this day the fog lingered. Visibility was insufficient for landing. According to one report, the pilots tried three times. On their fourth attempt, the three-engine Tupolev contacted trees about a kilometre from the runway and broke apart. All aboard perished.

It was a puzzling accident. Crashing in fog, though still available to venturesome pilots in the 21st century, belongs to an earlier age of aviation. The weather may not have changed much since powered flight began, but our ways of coping with it have. Aviators have developed drills, procedures, avionics and navigational aids to make flying in inclement weather almost as safe as flying in blue skies, even if not quite as predictable.

The drill isn’t difficult. Depending on the airborne and land-based equipment available to the crew­­—some systems permit so-called “zero-zero” landings, with no ceiling and visibility at all—pilots descend to the published minimums for the airfield they’re approaching. At that point they look out the window and either see the runway environment or not. If they do, they land. If they don’t (or aren’t sure) they execute a missed approach. They may try again, or just fly to the alternate airport filed on their flight plan. They don’t keep trying until the first tree stops them.

Why did Capt. Protasiuk and Maj. Grzywna?

With a reported 5,000 flight hours between them, the two pilots would have been qualified, if not impressively experienced. Western crews on presidential assignments would share 25,000-30,000 flight hours or more. But pilots don’t need immense experience to fly to an alternate airport.

The Russians seemed more than ordinarily dismayed. The last thing they needed on the 70th anniversary of their Stalin-era massacre of Polish elites at Katyn, the tragic event that President Kaczynski and his entourage had come to commemorate, was to have even more remains of Polish elites scattered around the forests near Smolensk. Deputy Chief of Russian Air Force Staff Alexandr Alyoshin was quick to point out that the Russians ordered the pilots to go away.

Alyoshin explained that as the Russian air traffic controllers saw the Polish plane’s rate of descent increase about 2.5 kilometres from the runway threshold, the head controller “gave a command to the crew” to level off, and when the pilots failed to “implement this order” the controller gave “several more orders” to the crew “to divert to an alternate airport.”

“Despite this, the crew continued the descent. Unfortunately, this ended in tragedy,” the Russian Interfax Agency quoted Deputy Chief Alyoshin as saying.
Inadvertently, the deputy chief may have put his finger on the possible cause of the disaster. It may not have happened because Capt. Protasiuk and Maj. Gryzwna were insufficiently obedient but because they were obedient to a fault.

In Western aviation culture, the pilot-in-command (PIC) is used to being de facto in command. A controller—or fellow crew member or passenger or employer—may request or advise a PIC but can’t order him. At one time pilots used to reply to controllers’ instructions with the word “wilco,” signifying that they “will co-operate.” The expression has fallen into disuse but the principle remains. No one outranks the skipper, whether on the ground, flight deck or cabin.

In non-Western aviation culture pilots know their places. A controller isn’t called a “controller” for nothing. The authorities aren’t unreasonable. As Smolensk regional government spokesman Andrei Yevseyenkov explained, while traffic controllers generally have the final word, they can and do leave things to pilots’ discretion.

Western aviation culture is the flip side of the coin. Although the final word is the skipper’s, pilots can and do comply with safe controller requests, even when inconvenient. What their command authority enables them to do, however, is to refuse requests they consider unsafe.

It’s a luxury Capt. Protasiuk and Maj. Grzywna may not have had. The word was during the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008 the president got very huffy with a pilot who thought landing in Tbilisi was too risky.

Former Polish president Lech Walesa was quoted as saying that he had flown a lot “and whenever there was a doubt [pilots] always came to the leaders and asked for a decision.”  Yes. If the leaders wanted to try one more descent into the murk, a pilot’s response in that aviation culture would be to say “Sir!” and pull back the throttles.

In very light southeast wind, the plane’s last descent through dense fog would have felt serene and as smooth as silk. The cabin would have been quiet until the windows suddenly darkened and shattered under the impact of the first trees.

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