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UPDATE - 1 JUNE, 2010

Black box recordings of cockpit conversations released.
Clearly the crash was caused by pilot error. The captain, Arkadiusz Protasiuk, disregarded repeated warnings, both from ground controller and the TAWS (Terrain Awareness and Warning System). The reason why he made the fatal decision to attempt a landing will never be known.

    The original story and background were covered in Part 1 of this article.
The full text of the recording of cockpit conversations and sounds during the last 39 muinutes of flight was released on June 1, 2010, by the Polish Prime Minister. The full transcript of the tape is in Russian, Polish and with English phrases in English. It starts at 10:03:20 Moscow Standard Time, when the presidential plane was close to Minsk, on its way to Smolensk. It ends at 10:41:05, at the moment of impact.

    The following excerpts from the 41 pages cover the most important points.

At 10:24:51 Smolensk ground control advised local temperature, barometric pressure and visibility 400m, " condition for landing". Immediately after that, Captain Protasiuk talked by radio with the pilot of a Polish plane that had landed earlier carrying journalists from Warsaw. He confirmed that the conditions had worsened since his landing. Now only 400m visibility, 50m ceiling. Strangely, the other pilot (identified in the transcript as 044) said (at 10:25:24)"...I honestly think you can try ... but, if the second attempt is unsuccessful, you should fly to Moscow, or somewhere else."
Between 10:26:17 and 10:26:47, the captain had a conversation with a person (identified by the Polish investigators as Director Kazana of the Min. of Foreign Affairs, a passenger on the plane). The captain advised that they might not be able to land, and Dir. Kazana responded "Then we have a problem." Then at 10:30:35 he said "So far there is no decision from the President what to do."
At 10:29:40, pilot 044 on the ground advised that a Russian Ilyushin plane had made two unsuccessful attempts to land and had departed to somewhere else.
At 10:32:05, in response to a query from ground control, the captain said "We passed 1000m (3,281ft) and are coming down." At 10:33:47 the captain advised ground control that they were approaching 500m. (altitude)
At 10:35:22, ground control advised him to be ready to start another pass at 100 meters, the captain acknowledged.
At 10:37:02, pilot 044 on the ground advised that visibility was down to 200m and the captain acknowledged.
At 10:39:30 the landing check-list was completed (the Polish investigator identified the voice reading off the check-list as that of General Błasik, commander of the Polish Air Force, whio apparently had entered the cockpit earlier).

    The final dramatic moments now start.
10:39:50, an 845Hz signal sounds, continues for 8 seconds.
10:39:50.2, ground control advises "you are coming to final approach course and path, distance 6."
10:39:57.1 a voice "400 meters"
At 10:40:07 the TAWS sounds (in English: TERRAIN AHEAD
10:40:13.5, ground control "4 on course, path", acknowledged by captain.
10:40:20, voice "300"
10:40:31.2, ground control "turn on headlights", acknowledged by captain 3 seconds later.
10:40:32.9, voice "200"
10:40:48.7, voice "100"
10:40:49.6, voice "90"
10:40:49.8, TAWS PULL UP, PULL UP
10:40:50.0, voice "80"
10:40:50,5, second officer: "Odchodzimy (perhaps meaning we're off course?)",
10:40:49.8, 400Hz Alarm siren lasting 7 seconds (dangerous height alarm),
10:40:49.8, TAWS PULL UP, PULL UP
10:40:51.8, voice "60"
10:40:52.3, voice "50"
10:40:52.4, ground control "level off"
10:40:53.0, voice "40"
10:40:53.7, TAWS PULL UP, PULL UP
10:40:54.5, voice "30"
10:40:55.2, voice "20"
10:40:56.0, 400Hz and 800Hz alarm sirens, lasting 2 seconds
10:40:56.6, TAWS PULL UP, PULL UP
10:40:58.6, TAWS PULL UP, PULL UP
10:40:59.3, loud noise of crashing tree
10:41:02.7, loud voice cursing
10:41:05.4, RECORDING ENDS

    It must be noted that the Smolensk North airport, where the disaster occurred, is not equipped with an international instrument landing system. Until two years ago it was a military base. The limits for a safe landing at this field are horizontal visibility of 1,000 meters and vertical visibility of 100 meters. At the time of the accident horizontal visibility was 400m, reportedly worsening, vertical visibility 50m.

Undoubtedly the political pressure to bring the President, and all the accompanying dignitaries, in time for the memorial Mass for the victims of the Katyn massacre, had some influence on the Captain's decision making, at least to the point of trying to attempt a landing. He has been recorded as stating that he would try, but at 100 meter (328 feet) altitude, if it was not possible to continue, he would divert to Minsk or Witebsk.

Why didn't he abort when the runway was still not visible at 100m? Did he feel intimidated by the presence of the Commanding General of the Air Force, sitting behind him and reading out the check-list? Did he know that his plane was still 1000m (3,281 feet) away from the runway? Maybe he was using incorrect GPS coordinates to determine position?

Was he influenced by his previous experience? In 2008 he was the second pilot on a plane carrying President Kaczynski and numerous guests to a meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia. Because of dangerous conditions at the airport, the first pilot, Capt. Grzegorz Pietruczuk, refused a direct order to land. For this he was severely chastised by the president, but subsequently was awarded a silver medal by the commander of the Air Force for his decision to protect the safety of his passengers above all.

Did he decide to abort, but too late, not realizing how fast the plane was descending? Although the investigating commission has ruled out any mechanical malfunction of the plane, the Russian engines used in the Tupolev aircraft are known to be slow in coming back to full power after being throttled back for landing.

See Map and photos of crash site, provided by Siergiej Amielin of Smolensk,

The full story of the
Katyń massacre

full transcript of the tape is in Russian, Polish and with English phrases in English.
Return to Part 1 of this tragic story.
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Last updated: June 8, 2010.