On Wednesday, January 19, 2011 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on just released transcripts of radio communications between Russian air traffic controllers (ATC) handling the doomed Polish Air Force Tupolev Tu-154M carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and top government officials, which crashed on Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 10:56 a.m. local time, while attempting to land in heavy fog at Smolensk North Airport.
Reading the transcripts brings back images from the movies Babel or Lost in Translation, or a conversation between a couple who are not listening to each other, and is a reminder of the importance of language in clear communications, especially between air traffic controllers and an aircraft carrying a Head of State.
The Russian ATC officers were speaking mostly in Russian to the Polish flight crew. They would also sometimes repeat their transmissions in English, the language used exclusively in international commercial aviation.
Responses by the Polish pilots, Captain Arkadiusz Protasiuk and Major Robert Grzywna at times clearly showed lack of comprehension, or unresponsiveness to the gravity of the information being conveyed.
One exchange clearly illustrates that point.
Quoting from the BBC dispatch, “It appears that the Russians have settled on Moscow’s Vnukovo airport as a suitable alternative. But Smolensk ATC is still unable to make contact with the Polish jet. When the silence is finally broken, at 10:23 a.m., the Polish pilot does not seem to be aware of the gravity of the situation. In their conversation in Russian, detailed in the transcript released by Russia along with its final report on 12 January, the Polish pilot appears not to take in what the Russian ATC officer is saying.”
The Russian controller transmits “…fog, visibility 400 meters,” in Russian.
“Understood,” the pilot replies. “What are the weather conditions?”
The ATC officer spells out the visibility in English, then gives temperature and pressure readings, adding, at 10:24 a.m. “There are no conditions for taking you.”
“Thank you,” the pilot replies, “but if possible we will try to approach, but if the weather is bad we will circle around.”
At 10:40 a.m. the Polish Air Force plane sends a message that it has switched on its lights, and will attempt to land. Shortly afterwards it hit the tops of trees and crashes, killing all 90 persons on board, including the Polish Air Force Commander-in-Chief, high level government aides, and President Kaczyński.
Two facts are puzzling, even inconceivable. (1) Why would the Polish equivalent of Air Force One, which carries the President of the United States, attempt to land under minimum visual flying conditions at an airport that is apparently not equipped with the latest instrument landing system (ILS) technology? and (2) Why would the Russian military controllers not simply close the airport, and direct the aircraft to its secondary landing location, Vnukovo International Airport (VKO) in Moscow?
To whatever degree, it sounds like poor communications was a factor. The Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC), the Russian equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), claimed in their 184 page English translation investigative report, found at this link, “…significant shortcomings in the organization of flight operations, flight crew preparation, and arrangement of the VIP flight…” They omitted placing blame on their own flight controllers.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk addressing parliament in Warsaw on Wednesday, January 19 said Polish-Russian relations were “not easy and maybe even more difficult than before. But the duty of the Polish government is to pick the right way ahead for Polish-Russian relations from these crossroads, not to seek fresh arguments to escalate conflict.”
That’s a very diplomatic way of saying “What’s done is done. Let’s move on.”
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