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Poles Question Why Delegation Used An Old Plane

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Poles Question Why Delegation Used An Old Plane

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Poles Question Why Delegation Used An Old Plane

Poles Question Why Delegation Used An Old Plane

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/125845785/125846508" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A young woman lights a candle among hundreds of others left by mourners outside the Presidential Palace in memory of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Monday in Warsaw, Poland. Sean Gallup/Getty Image hide caption

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Sean Gallup/Getty Image

A young woman lights a candle among hundreds of others left by mourners outside the Presidential Palace in memory of late Polish President Lech Kaczynski on Monday in Warsaw, Poland.

Sean Gallup/Getty Image

Poles continue to mourn President Lech Kaczynski, whose body was returned to home soil Sunday amid questions about the airplane crash that killed him and about the pilot who flew the jet.

The first lady and scores of others from the country's military and political elite also died in the crash in western Russia.

Russian investigators say a preliminary analysis of the flight data recorders indicates that there were no mechanical problems on board. So far, they are pointing to pilot error.

On Monday, Poland's acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, ordered a review of rules governing travel for all senior military personnel. Saturday's crash killed 96 people, including senior leaders of all of Poland's branches of armed forces.

The presidential plane was repaired and overhauled in December. But Wawrzyniec Konarski, a professor of political science at the Warsaw School of Social Sciences, says it's absurd that the president and other top officials were flying in a two-decade-old Tupolev despite several warnings from senior officials and pilots that the aging official Polish fleet desperately needed to be replaced.

"The sources of transport, especially the planes, were perceived as obsolete and bad, should be absolutely replaced by new and modernized machines. This kind of debate, even a technical one, really has to be accelerated," Konarski says.

There was heavy fog before the crash, and the Russians say they advised the Polish pilot several times to divert the Tupolev 154 to another airport. Russian media reports suggest that the pilot made several attempts to land before the crash.

But Col. Tomasz Pietrzak of the Polish air force disputes that. He says sources on the ground at the airport in Smolensk in western Russia near where the plane went down tell him the pilot made one approach and, moreover, the advice to divert was just that — advice. In the end, Pietrzak says, it is up to the pilot to decide what to do.

"It's not mandatory, it's only suggestion. If the weather was really bad in the airport, the decision is only one: The controller must say, 'OK, the airport is closed,' " he says.

The airport was not closed, says Pietrzak, who trained and commanded the two pilots who flew to Russia on Saturday — the one who was flying the plane carrying journalists and which landed safely; and the pilot killed in the crash of the president's plane.

Pietrzak says he has spoken with the pilot who landed safely, and he confirmed that the other aircraft made just one approach to the airport and that the airport in Smolensk is a primitive Russian military post whose control tower lacks modern aviation guidance equipment.

For several years, Pietrzak commanded the Polish air force regiment that was in charge of flying the president and other senior officials. But he resigned two years ago in large part to protest the poor shape of the fleet.

"The technology of these aircraft is too old," he says, adding that he got tired of waiting for aircraft improvements that never came.

A breaking point came in 2003, the colonel says, when a helicopter carrying the prime minister crashed. All of the passengers survived, but Pietrzak says that crash should have been a wake-up call.

"It was a sign from [God] seven years ago that we have to do something, we have to change something. But all of them ignore the situation. Everybody put under the carpet these problems," Pietrzak says.

Some are asking whether the pilot was under pressure from President Kaczynski or others on the plane to land and make the commemoration ceremony on time. In at least one previous instance, the president had reportedly pressured his pilot to land despite warnings.

Polish media report that in 2008, pilots flying Kaczynski to Tbilisi refused the president's order to land in Georgia because of the country's military conflict with Russia. Instead, the plane diverted to Azerbaijan.

Pietrzak says this is speculation, and the flight data recorders would most likely be able to shed light on the question.

He notes that there were four microphones in the cockpit of the president's Tupolev, which he says would probably have picked up any chatter relating to pressure to land.

But, he says, an upgrade for the presidential fleet is still much needed, no matter what the recovered flight data recorders show to be the cause of Saturday's crash.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Poles lined the route from Warsaw's airport to the presidential palace Sunday. Many stood somberly in silence. Some tossed flowers at the entourage carrying the president's casket as it slowly made its way to the palace for eventual public viewing.

Magdelena Udalkowska came out to view the procession with her son.

"I wanted to be here to honor Lech Kaczynski," she said. "He was a great Polish patriot, and it was important to come out and pay our respects."

The president and the other dignitaries were traveling to Katyn, Russia, for a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1940 massacre there of thousands of Polish officers, police and intellectuals by Joseph Stalin's secret police, known as the NKVD. Historians believe Stalin wanted to cripple a postwar Poland by eliminating much of the country's officer corps and key members of the intelligentsia.

Some Poles are now calling the plane crash the "second Katyn." Udalkowska said the fact that the crash occurred in a place already soaked in Polish blood only worsens the confusion and shock.

"The fact that this catastrophe occurred in this place again — and on the 70th anniversary — makes me think it was some kind of act of God. I don't know. It makes it all even more sad," she said.

There is no word yet on a date and schedule for a state funeral for the president.