WARSAW (Reuters) - The crew of the plane carrying Poland’s president that crashed in Russia last year killing all 96 on board were poorly trained and ignored crucial safety regulations, a long-awaited Polish government report into the disaster said on Friday.
The 328-page report, which may complicate Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s bid for re-election in October, chronicles a long litany of errors and neglect by both the crew and Russian ground staff leading to the crash, which shook Poland to the core.
“There were serious shortcomings in the organisation of the unit (of the air force responsible for handling VIP flights),” a member of the investigative commission, Maciej Lasek, told a news conference.
“In order for the unit to carry out its tasks, deliberate decisions were made to disregard or break procedures, to conduct training not in line with training regulations... Pilots straight out of flying schools were accepted and no training flights were carried out.”
More experienced pilots had left for more lucrative work in the civilian aviation sector, said Lasek, himself a pilot.
“Of the crew members, only one technician had the proper credentials for the flight. Others did not have proper approval for this flight,” he said.
President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria, the heads of the armed forces and many senior officials died in the crash as their TU-154 Tupolev plane was trying to land on April 10, 2010, in thick fog near the western Russian city of Smolensk.
The Polish delegation had been heading to the nearby Katyn forest to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the murder of Polish officers by Soviet secret police during World War Two.
The crash report, drawn up by a panel of 34 experts over 15 months, said the crew had failed to properly prepare some key equipment on board their TU-154 Tupolev, which hampered their ability to grasp how dangerous their predicament was.
Faulty equipment at Smolensk airport and poor communication by Russian ground staff also contributed to the crash, it said.
“The commission has established that the lighting systems at the airport were faulty and inadequate,” commission member Lieutenant Colonel Robert Benedict told the news conference.
The Russian side gave wrong orders to the plane’s pilots, who he said were making only a trial descent rather than seriously attempting to land when the crash happened after miscalculating their distance from the ground.
“One can even say that the soothing directions from the control tower were misleading. The crew thought it had not committed any errors and that it was on the right approach path,” Polish Interior Minister Jerzy Miller said.
Miller said the adverse weather conditions proved a decisive factor, noting that another Polish delegation led by Tusk had travelled safely to the same airport on the same plane just three days earlier without incident.
The report said there was no evidence that Kaczynski or other passengers had put pressure on the pilots to land against their wishes. Some media and politicians have suggested the pilots had tried to land the plane under duress.
In its own report into the disaster, published in January, Russia put all the blame for the disaster on the Polish crew, infuriating the Polish side which said conditions at Smolensk airport had also been a contributing factor.
The shock of the crash initially helped to accelerate a cautious diplomatic rapprochement between Moscow and Warsaw, long at loggerheads over various issues, but the Russian report complicated bilateral relations.
Kaczynski’s identical twin brother Jaroslaw, who heads Poland’s main opposition party, has accused Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s centrist government of conniving with Moscow to cover up the full truth of the Smolensk disaster.
Tusk, who is tipped to win re-election in October, strongly denies the claims.
Additional reporting by Patryk Wasilewski; Editing by David Stamp and Elizabeth Fullerton