Poland’s Presidential Crash: who really is at fault?

Posted on 12. Apr, 2010 by in Airline Safety, Blog

The Aircraft Commander — end of story. Yes, the aircraft was old. Yes, the avionics were dated. However, it was the Aircraft Commander who ultimately made the decision to attempt repeated landings with the available equipment.

I have read accounts saying that the Polish President had in the past ordered the crew to attempt to land. Still, it was the Aircraft Commander who made the decision to try another landing instead of diverting.

Could a mechanical problem have added to the accident? Certainly. The causal factor, in my opinion, will be descending below the minimum altitude for the instrument landing being flown. Simply: the crew exceeded the aircraft and airfield’s minimum safe altitude for the foggy weather on approach.

The articles I have read blame the aircraft, airfield, even the President. However, none that I have read place the blame where it belongs. The crew should have diverted after going missed-approach multiple times. Instead, it appears they pressed the minimums and hit the trees. Even if the President had insisted they try again, upon reaching the minimum descent altitude unable to land safely, they should have diverted.

It is the hard decisions that may save your life. Ironically, you will never really know for sure. Can’t prove a negative.

I remember, years ago, flying an EA-6B from Cubi Point Naval Air Station (NAS) in the Philippine Islands to NAS Atsugi, Japan. We stopped for fuel in Okinawa and checked the weather: it was terrible in Atsugi. It was snowing and below non-precision approach minimums (it was above precision approach minimums 200-feet ceiling, 1/2 mile visibility).

The EA-6B Prowler did not have instruments for precision approaches; we were limited (except at the ship) to a ground-controlled approach (GCA). A GCA was an approach where a ground controller talked you down the glide slop and kept you on course via radio calls. Obviously, if you lost your radio, you were out of luck, so for safety reasons you had to be able to shoot a non-precision approach using the equipment on board as a backup.

The equipment was ancient technology, basically a needle (like on a compass) pointed to a radio station, and you would put the head of the needle on a specific inbound course descending off the clock or distance measuring equipment. It was not accurate, so the minimum altitude was usually 600-500 feet above the ground. BTW, that was above the runway area — you may be descending into a mountain valley or among buildings.

The EA-6B and other aircraft that had NFO’s (Naval Flight Officers) could complicate things because of command structure or rank. The Aircraft Commander could be the junior man by rank in the aircraft because he was the only pilot.

On this particular night, I was a Navy Lieutenant flying with three NFO’s, one of whom was the Commanding Officer of the Squadron, my boss.

Not only was the weather bad, it was a moonless night and we were late. We had flown a flight from the USS Midway, landed in Cubi Point in the Philippines, de-carrierized the aircraft (lowered the pressure in tires) and then launched to Okinawa.

Already a long day, we were tired and hungry when we landed in Okinawa. After I checked the weather in operations I told the crew we couldn’t go; Atsugi was below minimums. Since we were headed home to our families, after weeks at sea, we were all very disappointed. To further add to our disappointment was the fact we were only going to get two nights home. We would now spend one in Okinawa.

Our Commanding Officer, normally a stickler for the rules ,wanted to press. I was a push-it-to-the edge Attack Pilot, and had a beautiful wife and two cute little boys waiting for me. I had already landed zero/zero (zero visibility, zero ceiling) on the Midway more than once. However, there I had a precision CILS (Carrier Instrument Landing System) and a Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on deck, to keep me from hitting the ramp. In short, I had options and a good divert. If we lost our radio, we would be screwed going to Atsugi.

The Commanding Officer pressed (BTW, he was also the kind of guy who would stick it in your eye later for breaking the rules now.)  I held my ground,

“Skipper,” I said, “three legs; we are all tired and it is illegal. Let’s go to the Q (quarters) and hit it first thing in the morning.”

“Stand-by,” he snapped, and went to talk to the weather guessers. My other two crewman implored me to not let him kill us.

After a few minutes he returned triumphantly:

“I found a legal divert.”

It was an obscure Japanese Self Defense Force base in the mountains. None of us had ever flown there and it was just at non-precision approach minimums. As a bonus, it was at maximum-divert range; we would be trick-or-treat on arrival (land or flame out due to lack of fuel). Again, no options.

One of the very junior NFO’s couldn’t take it anymore.

“Skipper this is a bad idea.”

The other immediately agreed.

“Shantini and I will make the decision. You two are in the back!” he snapped in his best Command voice.

“No,” I said, “the decision is mine alone. I’m the Aircraft Commander, and I’m going to the Q.”

He was furious, but it was indeed my call. I was the only pilot.

The next day was beautiful all the way to Atsugi. The ice and snow-laden front had moved through. Our families were waiting as we landed; it was a joyous reunion.

The next afternoon, we sortied back to Cubi Point. Now that cooler heads prevailed, I thought he might give me a pat on the back for playing it safe and stopping the “get home-itis” (often fatal to Naval Aviators). Quite the opposite: he chided me in front of the crew, saying he checked and we could have made it. He then stomped off to the aircraft.

My fellow crewman were as stunned as I was.

“Man that guy is not only an idiot, he’s a jerk,” mumbled our newest Lieutenant Junior Grade.

Later, as we say in Naval Aviation, “I read about it”, on my Fitness as an Officer Report. No matter, I was alive. So was my crew, and my jet was in one piece.

Sometimes the hard decisions are not career-enhancing.

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4 Responses to “Poland’s Presidential Crash: who really is at fault?”

  1. Rick 12 April 2010 at 18:09 #

    Chip, Great, timely post. I was hoping you would comment on this incident. If Poland is such a great Democracy, the pilot should have had the onions to tell the President to back off. I am betting the Russians will release the ATC tapes.
    Very intersting “added value” story as well.

  2. Chip 12 April 2010 at 19:11 #

    Hi Rick;
    I suspect the cockpit voice recorder will also be released. I’ve been real busy working on a project I can’t talk about just yet. But it will be very interesting I promise. Thanks for continuing to read my site. chip

  3. Jim Schneider 14 January 2012 at 16:53 #


    Could see you arguing with Skipper.
    Glad you made the right call

    Doc S
    CVW-5 flight surgeon

  4. Chip 15 January 2012 at 10:07 #

    Doc Jim! How is the best and my all time favorite Flight Surgeon doing? I flew by The Midway the other day, Hotel 41 looks unchanged. Where have you dropped anchor?

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