Last weekend’s crash of a Polish registered Tupolev 154 aircraft on the approach to Smolensk airport has sparked plenty of comment, and a host of theories as to its cause, principally because the flight was carrying more than 90 Polish Government representatives, including the President.
The usual early leader in the theory stakes was that the Tupolev was not the newest of aircraft, and that many similar planes have been involved in fatal accidents over the years. Both assertions, although true, should not delay investigators unduly: this 154 had been well maintained and recently renovated (maintenance lapses in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union have been thought to have contributed to some Tu154 crashes).
Nor should the accident be put down to the aircraft’s design: the Tu154 is a three engine craft with all its powerplants at the back, in the same configuration as the de Havilland Trident or Boeing 727. Over a thousand have been built and it has an average safety record.
The cause of this accident looks more and more likely to be down to human factors: the pilots appear to have been attempting a landing in dense fog and to have deviated from the glide slope, thus striking trees on the approach as the plane’s altitude was too low.
Had the approach to Smolensk not been equipped with Instrument Landing System (ILS), then the landing, given the conditions, should not have been attempted. ILS would, if functioning and used correctly, have put the plane on the runway at approximately one third along its serviceable length. That the Polish Tu154, recently refitted, did not have ILS is unimaginable.
But the most disquieting development has come with the news that Russian Air Traffic Control (ATC) were communicating with the Polish flight deck in Russian, despite the crew’s apparently poor grasp of it. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has stipulated one common language, and that language is English. English must be used on request for communication between aircraft and controller.
So if there was any problem with the Polish crew’s knowledge of Russian, they could, and should, have requested that Russian ATC used English. The obvious corollary is simply this: did they, and if they did, why wasn’t English used?