Russian authorities yesterday insisted that pilot error was behind the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, as Polish investigation teams arrived at the crash scene to carry out their own inquiry.
Igor Levitin, the Russian Minister of Transport, said the “black box” flight recorders had been recovered from the crash site in good condition.
“A group in Moscow has begun the decoding of the recorders. The quality of the recording is good, and there is every chance that we will be able to gain all information about the flight,” Mr Levitin said. All the deciphering work is being done in collaboration with Polish officials.
Alexander Alyoshin, deputy chief of the Russian Air Force's general staff, said the pilot had ignored several orders from air-traffic control not to land at Smolensk because of thick fog.
“The head of the air-traffic control group gave a command to the crew to put the aircraft into the horizontal position, and when the crew did not implement this order, several times gave orders to divert to an alternative airport,” he said.
“Despite this, the crew continued the descent. Unfortunately this ended in tragedy.”
The airport is a small military facility that does not usually accept civilian craft. Aviation experts speculated the pilots may have been ordered to land by the Polish President. “It's a clear case of VIP-passenger syndrome,” flight safety expert Viktor Timoshkin said.
“Air-traffic control told him to take the plane to Moscow or Minsk. I'm certain that the pilot will have told the President about this, and got a firm reply that the plane must land in Smolensk.”
Russian authorities have agreed to a request from Polish colleagues not to begin the clean-up at the wreckage site until the middle of the week.
Officials in Moscow said two Polish delegations had arrived in the capital to carry out their own probe. One set of 27 experts was headed for Smolensk to study the wreckage of the plane, while another 35 would remain in Moscow, where the bodies of all the victims except the President have been sent.