Today saw another air disaster that killed the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria and many other senior officials and passengers (132 in total). One must ask many questions as to the reasons why this accident occurred and clearly shows flaws that keep occurring in many airlines and airports around the world.
I would be bold enough to say that the reason for this unnecessary disaster was as a direct result of pilot error. However, one cannot always point a finger at the crews for such on going disasters. Some airlines have very old antiquated operational training and procedures with, in some cases, too much flexibility in the airline operational manuals.
In this case the aircraft (a Tupolev TU-154M) was military and assigned to the Polish 36th Special Aviation Regiment. Only last week the Polish President had flown to Vilnius, Lithuania for a very short visit (as shown in the picture above). It is normal for aircraft that fly in this region to encounter the worst possible weather conditions but one must ask questions as to how this particular aircraft ended up crashing into the forest short of the runway at Smolensk (Russia) in foggy conditions.
From my perspective (as and ex Airline Senior Operations Controller) this accident should never have happened and so I feel compelled to pass my own opinion in the hope that someone may read it and change their operational procedure or operations manuals to stop this tragic accident from happening again.
So what is considered to be the normal procedure for any aircraft landing in bad weather conditions and who is responsible for enforcing those procedures. This is rather a long story but many factors normally come into existence to ensure that aircraft can fly around the world in safety. Some of the more important factors are:
• Civil Aviation Authority Standards for Aircraft Operators
• Air Traffic Control Procedures and Navigational Aids Available
• Aircraft Operators Aircrew Management Training
• Aircraft Operators Operational Manuel
• State Aviation Weather Forecasting
The ultimate control of aviation standards both in the operational and mechanical sense rests with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the country to whom the aircraft is registered. Air Traffic Control (ATC) have set safety standards for respective regions and airports. In most cases many airports operate with what they call “State Minima.” If this exists at a given airport then it is very clear to both the operators and the crew what they can and cannot do in extremes of weather.
As an example the approach restrictions for a given airport may limit an approach based on the cloud base and the visible runway distance available…..this is referred to as the Runway Visual Range (RVR). Basically this means that if the weather at the time of your estimated arrival is below the “State Minima” you are obliged to divert to another alternative airport that has suitable weather conditions for you to land.
If the airport concerned does not have in operation “State Minima” then this allows the airline to stipulate its own “Minima” based on the aircraft concerned and the topography of the area around the airport such as mountains, hills, building and any other obstacles such as masts and trees etc. This is then written in the aircraft operator’s operational manual as a guide to aircrew and operational staff.
In relation to landing in bad weather conditions many aircraft and airports are equipped for “Auto Land” which allows them to land at places such as Heathrow when the fog is down on the deck.
When I was carrying out my duties it was team work that got us through the daily hazards of flying. The Captain always has the final say no matter what but also the airline operations staff also play a vital role in the safe arrival of an aircraft to its destination. In other words, in my case, most of our destinations had no “State Minima” (as this can be very restrictive). We had a policy in bad weather of allowing the Captain to make two approaches in bad weather and then if unsuccessful divert to the nearest alternative safe airport.
Before aircraft arrived overhead in bad weather we would pre warn the nearest available alternative airport of a pending diversion. After the first attempt to land had failed we would put that alternative airport onto full standby ready to receive our aircraft. As one can see the above procedure is perfectly safe and yet in the case
of this tragedy in Russia things really were not acceptable in so many ways and some serious questions have to be raised:
• Was State Minima in existence at destination airport?
• Did the aircraft have sufficient fuel to divert if required?
• Why was the aircraft allowed to commence its 4th approach without diverting?
• Was the crew sufficiently rested prior to this flight?
• Was the aircraft well maintained?
As you can see aviation is extremely complex but by applying simply logical rules there should be no reason for such accidents to occur. Sometimes it may be a combination of events but at the end of the day it should never have happened.
Obviously when we are talking about military aircraft the strict safety regime is waived due to operational requirements but in this case one should not put such a high profile passenger list at risk. Therefore I have to say that subject to the above question being answered sincerely one must sadly point a finger at the crew.
I would also add to this disaster another event back in 2008.When another aircraft belonging to the Polish Military (CASA C-295M military transport) with twenty members of the Polish military onboard were killed when their plane crashed on the way back from a flight safety conference. This surely must add serious questions as to the state of Polish Aviation.
It would give me great pleasure to be given the opportunity to review the build up to these tragedies and at the same time help put in place procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Peter Eyre – Middle East Consultant – 10/4/2010