‘VIP passenger syndrome’ to blame for Polish tragedy

Lech Kaczynski coffin poland

Polish president did not want to miss Katyn memorial. But did Russians collude to prevent him attending?

BY Jack Bremer LAST UPDATED AT 10:19 ON Tue 13 Apr 2010

Amid the many theories still swirling around the Smolensk air crash in which Polish President Lech Kaczynski (above) and 95 others died on Saturday, one is gaining ground: that the crash was the result of 'VIP passenger syndrome' and that the VIP responsible was the president himself.

'VIP passenger syndrome' means simply that a very important passenger uses his or her clout to influence the pilot and/or crew to make a bad decision under pressure.

Fingers are being pointed at the late president after it was disclosed that he had done something like it before.

In August 2008, Kaczynski reportedly "shouted furiously" at a pilot who, for safety reasons, disobeyed an order to land his plane in Tbilisi during Georgia's war with Russia (Kaczynski was a great supporter of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili).

Kaczynski later tried to have the Polish air force pilot, Grzegorz Pietuczak, removed from his job for insubordination, but Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister intervened. Capt Pietuczak was later given a medal for carrying out his duties conscientiously, despite the presidential pressure to ignore the risks.

Russian aviation experts looking into Saturday's crash are convinced the same thing happened again and this time the captain, Arkadiusz Protasiuk, another Polish air force pilot, bowed to the presidential command.
Kaczynski was visiting Russia to attend a 70th anniversary memorial for the 15,000 Polish officers massacred at Katyn by Soviet secret police during World War Two. He was eager to be there for symbolic reasons, and if the plane had been unable to land at Smolensk he would have missed the ceremony.

Viktor Timoshkin, a Russian aviation expert, said: "It was quite obviously 'VIP passenger syndrome'. Controllers suggested that the aircraft's crew divert the plane to an alternate route. I am sure that the commander of the crew reported this to the president. But in response, for whatever reasons, he had a clear order to land."

Needless to say, Polish authorities are keen to quash this speculation.
Poland's chief prosecutor, Andrzej Seremet, said there was no information from the investigation to suggest that Kaczynski had put undue pressure on Capt Protasiuk.

Others in Poland are questioning why their president's Tupolev Tu-154 plane was ordered not to land at Smolensk. And some are convinced it was a ploy by the Kremlin to prevent Kaczynski from attending the Katyn massacre memorial.

Artur Gorski, a member of the Law and Justice party founded by Lech Kaczynski and his surviving twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, claimed the Russians came up with a series of excuses to divert the plane to Moscow or Minsk. He said: "One version of events says that the plane approached the airport four times, because every time the Russians refused it permission to land...

"They came up with some dubious reasons: that there was fog over the airport, that the navigation system didn't work as it was under repair, and that the airport had a short landing strip."

Gorski said the Kremlin had two reasons for preventing President Kaczynski from attending the memorial: first, they did not want him to upstage a similar event hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a few days earlier; second, they feared Kaczynski might use the occasion to publicly criticise the Russians for not issuing a proper apology for the 1940 massacre.

Putin, meanwhile, continues to insist that he will take personal charge of the investigation into the air crash, promising an "objective and thorough" investigation. · 

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