'VIP syndrome' and pilot error blamed for crash

President's anxiety about missing ceremony may have led to doomed landing

Russian authorities yesterday insisted that pilot error was behind the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, as Polish investigation teams arrived at the crash scene to carry out their own inquiry.

Igor Levitin, the Russian Minister of Transport, said the "black box" flight recorders had been recovered from the crash site in good condition.

"A group in Moscow has begun the decoding of the recorders, the quality of the recording is good, and there is every chance that we will be able to gain all information about the flight," Mr Levitin said during a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. All the deciphering work is being done in collaboration with Polish officials.

Alexander Alyoshin, deputy chief of the Russian Air Force's general staff, said the pilot had ignored several orders from air-traffic control not to land at Smolensk because of thick fog. "The head of the air-traffic control group gave a command to the crew to put the aircraft into the horizontal position, and when the crew did not implement this order, several times gave orders to divert to an alternative airport.

"Despite this, the crew continued the descent. Unfortunately this ended in tragedy."

The airport is a small, military facility that does not usually accept civilian craft. Aviation experts speculated that the pilots may have been ordered to land by the Polish President. "It's a clear case of VIP-passenger syndrome," flight safety expert Viktor Timoshkin told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "Air-traffic control told him to take the plane to Moscow or Minsk. I'm certain that the pilot will have told the President about this, and got a firm reply that the plane must land in Smolensk."

Russian authorities have agreed to a request from Polish colleagues not to begin the clean-up at the wreckage site until the middle of the week. Officials in Moscow said that two Polish delegations had arrived in the capital to carry out their own investigations. One set of 27 experts was headed for Smolensk to study the wreckage of the plane, while another 35 would remain in Moscow, where the bodies of all the victims except the President have been sent. Yesterday afternoon, the coffin carrying Mr Kaczynski was placed aboard a Polish military jet in a solemn ceremony at Smolensk Airport. Mr Putin saw off the coffin, which was draped in a Polish flag, as a guard of honour was formed and a military orchestra played. Relatives of the dead began arriving in the Russian capital last night, where they would begin the task of identifying the bodies of those who died. Russian authorities were able to identify 24 of the victims, but for some DNA tests will be required.

The ageing Tupolev 154 plane plunged into forested land just short of the runway at Smolensk Airport on Saturday morning, killing all 96 on board, including Mr Kaczynski, his wife, and dozens of top political and military officials. They had been travelling to Smolensk to attend a memorial service at nearby Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers and others by Soviet forces.

Last Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin invited his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to a memorial service at Katyn, but not Mr Kaczynski, who has been a strong critic of Russia in recent years. Saturday's event had been organised to allow Mr Kaczynski to mark the anniversary also, and it is possible that Mr Kaczynski ordered the plane to land in Smolensk as any diversion would have meant that he and all the others on board would miss the ceremony.

The Polish press reported that just 36 minutes before the crash that would take his life, Mr Kaczynski called his twin brother Jaroslaw from aboard the plane, to tell him that everything was going to plan and he would soon arrive in Smolensk. The few locals who had witnessed the crash said the Tu-154 plane came in at a strange angle through the fog, with one wing tipped towards the ground. The wing clipped trees as it came in far too low, and as a result ended up crashing into the ground around 200 metres short of the runway.

One of the policemen charged with guarding the crash site shortly after the accident said it was a scene of unspeakable horror. "I didn't see anything so horrific, even in Chechnya," he said. "Everywhere there were parts of the aircraft, fragments of bodies. I only saw a couple of whole bodies. The rest was just bits of human bones caught up in the trees."

There have been more than 60 crashes involving Tu-154s in the last 40 years, six of them in the last five years. But the head of an aviation plant in Russia that overhauled the Polish presidential plane last year said it had been refitted with new electronic and navigation equipment and repairs were carried out to its engines. Alexei Gusev yesterday insisted on Russian state TV that the aircraft had been safe to fly.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power