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Polish Pilot Pressured to Land Before Kaczynski Crash

Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) -- The pilots of a Polish airliner that crashed last year in Russia killing President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others were under “psychological pressure” to land in heavy fog, Russian investigators said today.

The commander of Poland’s air force, General Andrzej Blasik, was in the cockpit at the time of the crash and had alcohol in his blood, Tatyana Anodina, chairman of the Interstate Aviation Committee, or MAK, told reporters in Moscow. The April 10 disaster in Smolensk, Russia, wasn’t caused by mechanical failure, and the pilots bear sole responsibility for the decision to land, she said.

“The presence of the air force commander, the president and top officials on the flight by itself created psychological pressure,” Alexei Morozov, head of the MAK technical commission, said at the briefing. “The principle of a sterile cockpit was violated.”

The investigation has sparked tensions in Poland, where Prime Minister Donald Tusk previously said a draft report on the crash was “unacceptable” because it didn’t discuss areas of Russian responsibility. Tusk cut short a winter vacation to return to Warsaw, where he will meet with Interior Minister Jerzy Miller, who is supervising an independent investigation, before speaking to the media, spokesman Grzegorz Szymanski said.

The crash resulted from a “complex” series of errors and shortcomings on both the Polish and Russian sides, Miller told reporters today in Warsaw. Miller said he will brief Tusk on the Russian report, and Poland’s investigation will continue.

Pushing Their Luck

The disaster, which also killed central bank Governor Slawomir Skrzypek and four top military commanders, touched off weeks of public mourning in Poland. The Tupolev-154 crashed as Poland’s leaders traveled to Russia to commemorate 22,000 Polish prisoners killed by Soviet secret police in 1940.

The pilot “didn’t want to let anybody down,” said David Learmount, operations and safety editor at Flight Global in London. “He thought he could push his luck a little bit and get away with it. Aviation history is littered with people that do exactly this.”

Poland submitted a 148-page document to the MAK on Dec. 19 pointing out inadequacies in the draft report. Among the issues listed were a lack of precise information on equipment at the Smolensk airport and missing records of phone conversations between air traffic controllers and their superiors in Moscow.

Report ‘Incomplete’

Investigators took the Polish comments into account before releasing the report, Morozov said. Russian and Polish officials examined 370 pieces of evidence and reviewed 20,000 pages of documents before reaching their conclusions, Anodina said.

Edmund Klich, Poland’s envoy to the MAK investigation, said publication of transcripts of conversations between air traffic controllers in Smolensk would show the controllers were under pressure to let the plane land and avoid a diplomatic incident.

“It’s always easiest to pin the blame on the pilots,” Klich said in comments broadcast on TVN24. “The report we have is incomplete.”

According to the Russian report, one mistake was the crew’s use of the radio altimeter, rather than the barometric unit. This resulted in incorrect altitude readings as the plane passed over a ravine near the airport, according to the report.

The Russian report isn’t the first to raise the idea that the pilot was under pressure to land regardless of conditions.

Presidential Pressure

Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza reported in April that a pilot flying Kaczynski to Georgia in 2008 refused an order to land in Tbilisi because of the country’s war with Russia, diverting instead to Azerbaijan. Kaczynski later criticized the action, saying that someone who decides to be an officer “cannot be timid,” the newspaper reported.

Morozov said the conclusion that the crew on the Smolensk flight was under psychological pressure was reached by a team of Russian and Polish psychologists and was borne out by cockpit transcripts.

“The navigator’s remark, ‘He’ll go crazy,’ is evidence that the aircraft’s captain and the whole crew were in a psychologically difficult position,” Morozov said. “It’s clear that in the event of an unsuccessful approach and a landing at an alternative airfield, the captain expected a negative reaction from the main passenger.”

Investigators listening to the cockpit recordings “didn’t hear a direct command from the president” to land the plane, Morozov said.

‘Soviet Mentality’

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the late president and head of Poland’s largest opposition party, Law & Justice, said MAK’s findings were “speculation.”

Russian investigators’ mention of Blasik’s blood alcohol reading of 0.06 percent, below the legal limit for drivers in the U.S. and U.K. but above the Polish and Russian thresholds, drew criticism from Kaczynski’s party colleagues.

“Today we’ve seen the Soviet mentality in all its clarity,” Karol Karski, a lawmaker who accompanied Jaroslaw Kaczynski to Smolensk to identify the president’s body, said by phone. “This report did nothing but shift the responsibility as far as possible from the Russians and put the blame on the dead.”

Relations between Russia and Poland began to improve after the disaster, with Russia opening its files on the 1940 massacre as a sign of goodwill.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attended Kaczynski’s burial in Krakow. Medvedev met Kaczynski’s successor, Bronislaw Komorowski, last month in Warsaw during the first official visit of a Russian head of state to Poland since January 2002.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lyubov Pronina in Moscow at lpronina@bloomberg.net

David McQuaid in Warsaw at dmquaid1@bloomberg.neet

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Willy Morris at wmorris@bloomberg.net

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