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Poland and Russia Deadlocked Over Report into Causes of the Polish Air Force One Crash

The government of Poland announced it will publish its own, independent report into the causes of the Polish Air Force One disaster.

The accident, which occurred in the territory of Russia, claimed the lives of the President of Poland, his wife, 8 crew members and 86 members of the official state delegation, in April of last year.

Poland's announcement comes a week after Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) published its final report into the causes of the crash without including 148 pages of comments submitted by Polish investigators.

According to some Polish aviation experts, this is in violation of the rules of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) convention on which the Russian investigation is based.

Chapter 6.3 of Annex 13 to the ICAO convention states:

"If the State conducting the investigation receives comments within sixty days of the date of the transmittal letter, it shall either amend the draft Final Report to include the substance of the comments received or, if desired by the State that provided comments, append the comments to the Final Report."

Polish investigators submitted their comments to the Russian Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) December 16, two days before the sixty days' deadline.

Aleksei Morozov, who heads Technical Committee at MAK, says the comments submitted by Polish investigators "were not technical in nature" and that only less than 25 comments were. They mostly pertained to the issue of responsibilities of the air traffic controllers on Russia's Smolensk airport. "These issues will be analyzed by the Russian prosecutor's offices conducting a criminal investigation into the case," Morozov said.

A veteran aviation pilot and safety consultant, Captain John Cox, agrees: "I do not think MAK is in conflict with Annex 13. As the state of occurrence, MAK has the right to include or exclude comments. An accredited representative does not have a "right" to force comments to be accepted," Cox says.

The Polish investigators, in their comments to the Russia's final report, point among other things to the lack of the presence of technical detail at Smolensk airport to accept an Air Force One type aircraft. They also claim that the air traffic controllers in Smolensk used a poorly calibrated radar to monitor the last minutes of the fatal flight.

"This mislead the pilots by telling them that they were "on course" and "on the glide path" while in fact they were "off course and off the path"," say the investigators.

Other Polish complaints also include a loss of a videotape from the air control tower documenting the last minutes of the flight. The Russian authorities claimed that "the tape got stuck in the VCR."

"The loss of the video tape is unfortunate, but not contributory to the accident investigation," says John Cox, who has flown over 10,000 hours in command of jet airliners.

"The difference in the calibration was not, in my opinion, a major contributor to the accident and certainly was not causal. A descent rate of 8 meters per second recorded by the digital flight data recorder, (1488 feet per minute) is significantly higher than normal (700 feet per minute is considered typical). A descent rate in excess of 1000 feet per minute can be considered an unstable approach and requires a missed approach," adds Cox.

The Russian report blaming the pilots of Polish Air Force One for the crash came almost a month to the day after a thaw in Poland and Russia relations reached its peak. Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev paid a state visit to Warsaw promising a fair investigation into the crash.

Two days later in Washington, the President of Poland, Bronislaw Komorowski, supported Russia's efforts for the ratification of the START treaty by the US Congress even though Russia managed to successfully include in the preamble a controversial clause tying the treaty to the United States missile defense shield.

Russia's final report into the causes of the biggest disaster in Polish modern history fired up the Polish political scene, shaking the position of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk in the polls and dividing the nation more than the tragedy itself which the report deals with.

The Polish press scolded prime minister Tusk for skiing in Italy on the day when Russian the report was published.

Poland considered it an act of malice that the Russians revealed the presence of a third party in the cockpit, the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Air Force, Andrzej Blasik, who allegedly had a blood alcohol level of 0.06 %.

The message was quickly picked up by the foreign media. "The number of serious errors committed by pilots dramatically increases at or above concentrations of 0.06 percent, lower than Blasik's level", said an Associated Press report while the Polish media indicated that Blasik was not steering the plane and had "zero point zero" influence on pilot's decisions.

Poles are afraid that the message from the press reports, "the pilot is guilty and the crew was drunk," hurts the image of Poland.

Polish leader of the opposition party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (a twin brother of the late President Lech Kaczynski) called the Russian report "a mockery of Poland". Prime Minster Tusk had to face a divided parliament and an angry public who called him "a traitor". Current polls indicate declining numbers for Tusk's liberal Civic Platform and significantly increasing Kaczynski's conservative party's standing in the polls.

Expecting a one-sided outcome of the Russian investigation, Polish conservatives signaled problems with the Russian investigation since day one. Among other things , they pointed to the lack of access to the documents including the lack of access to the original flight data recorders which Poland still does not have.

In November, in an attempt to alert the international community, a former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Poland, Anna Fotyga, and a member of the Law and Justice party, Antoni Maciarewicz, paid a visit to the United States. The two met with Republican congressman Peter King, California representative Dana Rohrabacher and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to whom they presented a list of over 330,000 signatures in support for an independent international investigation into the crash.

Last week, Michal Kaminski, chairman of European Conservatives and Reformists group, the fifth-largest group in the European Parliament, urged the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso for an intervention into the investigation. "There are no merits for the EC to intervene, answered Barosso, and the Polish government did not officially request such intervention. The PLF101 flight was in our opinion a military flight," Barosso added.

Similarly, a spokesman for the ICAO rejected calls for re-examination of the Russian report, saying that ICAO considers the Polish presidential plane a military, government aircraft not a civilian one.

It is still not clear how the investigation into the Polish Air Force One crash became an investigation based on the convention regulating civilian aviation crashes.

Tatiana Anodina, head of the Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK), did not answer inquires into that matter by the time of the publication.

"In my opinion ICAO Annex 13 was the proper methodology to use for this accident investigation," says John Cox. "It is a recognized standard worldwide, it is designed to be an objective gathering of facts to prevent reoccurrence."

Would the same procedures be applied to the U.S. Air Force One crash in the territory of Russia?

"Legally if the U.S. Air Force One is outside the US airspace it still has to comply with ICAO regulations," says Lt. Col. Robert "Buzz" Patterson, a former military aide to President Bill Clinton who carried The Football, a black briefcase with launch codes for nuclear weapons.

"I don't imagine, however, that the U.S. would allow the Russian authorities to get their hands on the black boxes, the wreckage and the computer systems that are on board our Air Force One. Our military assets would be very quickly on location to recover whatever's left in the wreckage," adds Patterson.

The US State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, has voiced hopes that the recent release of the final Smolensk report on the presidential plane crash by the Interstate Aviation Committee (MAK) will not affect Polish-Russian relations.

A poll conducted Polish television news channel TVN24 indicates that 63% of Poles believe that relations with Russia in the aftermath of the crash will turn worse.

The Polish government proposed 250, 000 zlotych (less than $100,000) in the compensation to the families of the victims of the fatal flight, a compensation which Bartosz Kownacki, attorney representing six of the victim families, called a "cover up".

The average compensation for the 2,198 people killed in airplane crashes between 1970 and 1984 was $363,000, an average of $32 million for each accident, according to the Rand Corp.

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