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Russia: Human error caused plane crash

| April 13, 2010 9:00 PM

By MATT MOORE and MONIKA SCISLOWSKA

Associated Press writers

WARSAW, Poland - Russian investigators suggested human error may have been to blame in the plane crash that killed the Polish president and 95 others, saying Monday there were no technical problems with the Soviet-made plane.

The Tu-154 went down Saturday while trying to land in dense fog near a Smolensk airport in western Russia. All aboard were killed, including President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish political, military and religious leaders.

They had been traveling in the Polish government-owned plane to attend a memorial in the nearby Katyn forest for thousands of Polish military officers executed 70 years ago by Josef Stalin's secret police.

The pilot had been warned of bad weather in Smolensk, and was advised by traffic controllers to land elsewhere - which would have delayed the Katyn observances.

He was identified as Capt. Arkadiusz Protasiuk, 36, and the co-pilot as Maj. Robert Grzywna, 36. Also in the cockpit were Ensign Andrzej Michalak, 36, and Lt. Artur Zietek, 31.

In Warsaw, there was concern the pilots may have been asked by someone in the plane to land at Smolensk instead of diverting to Minsk or Moscow, in part to avoid missing the ceremonies.

Polish Prosecutor General Andrzej Seremet said Polish investigators talked to the flight controller and flight supervisor and "concluded that there were no conditions for landing."

"The tower was advising against the landing," Seremet said.

The plane was equipped with an instrument landing system, or ILS, said Col. Wieslaw Grzegorzewski of the Polish Defense Ministry.

"I can confirm the pilots were preparing for landing without the ILS system," he said. "The airport didn't have the ILS system."

Russian media reports said the Smolensk airfield is a former military air base that lacks equipment for automatic landings.

The business daily Kommersant said Monday that about 50 military personnel maintain the airport which is used only sporadically for official visits. It said the airfield has no permanent traffic controllers, and they are brought from the city of Tver when it's necessary.

Kommersant also said that the pilots had been informed about the bad weather in the area while the plane was still over Belarus, but the captain said he would see conditions for himself and then make a decision.

Polish investigators said they will listen to the cockpit conversations recorded on the black boxes to see if there were "any suggestions made to the pilots" from other people aboard the plane.

Other Russian officials said the pilots were offered the chance to land in Moscow, Minsk or Vitebsk, but they chose Smolensk, despite four failed attempts before the fifth and fatal approach.

Polish media reported in August 2008 that pilots flying Kaczynski to Tbilisi refused the president's order to land there because of the country's war with Russia, diverting instead to Azerbaijan.

In remarks on Russian television, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told a government meeting including President Dmitry Medvedev that the data recorders on the plane were found to have been completely functional, which will allow a detailed analysis.

"It is reliably confirmed that warning of the unfavorable weather conditions at the North airport and recommendations to go to a reserve airport were not only transmitted but received by the crew of the plane," he said.

Russian investigators have almost finished reading the flight recorders, said Alexander Bastrykin, Russia's chief investigator.

"The readings confirm that there were no problems with the plane, and that the pilot was informed about the difficult weather conditions, but nevertheless decided to land," Bastrykin said during a briefing with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Smolensk.

The wreckage will remain on site through midweek to speed the investigation, Russian Deputy Transport Minister Igor Levitin said.

In Warsaw, the acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, moved Monday to start appointing replacements for the many posts left vacant in the presidential office. He appointed a retired general, Stanislaw Koziej, as new National Security Bureau chief, and said the first task he was setting him was a review of the rules for travel of top military officials.

Both Russia and Ukraine declared a day of mourning Monday, as Poles struggled to come to terms with the tragedy that eliminated so many of their government and military leaders.

Tens of thousands watched as Kaczynski's body, returned Sunday to Warsaw, was carried in a coffin by a hearse to the presidential palace. His twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former prime minister, was present.

At U.N. headquarters in New York, the U.N.'s blue and white flag flew at half-staff Monday in Kaczynski's memory.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his "most profound condolence at such a tragic passing away of President Lech Kaczynski, with whom I have been working very closely, especially on climate change."

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