Recent political changes in Polish government are causing that new information about circumstances surrounding Smolensk crash is emerging. This information was previously restricted from the public view. In March 2016 new official investigation committee (as part of the Committee for Investigation of National Aviation Accidents) was formed with involvement of international experts from the US, UK, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The sole purpose of this committee is to fully explain Smolensk crash. The committee was formed by decision of Minister Antoni Macierewicz – chief of Polish Ministry of Defence. Reasons for forming this committee were omissions and failures in the previous investigation therefore – in the lights of new findings – the investigation must be resumed. Here, we discuss two of the newest findings: firstly, previous commission hid the fact that soon after Smolensk crash, when investigation was still on-going, Russian manufacturer of the airplane engines used in Tu-154 officially recommended to all customers checking of engines in all Tu-154 planes in use in order to rule out possibility of structural failure or material fatigue. Remains of engines of Tu-154 which crashed in Smolensk were never investigated and analysed with respect to this.
Secondly, previous commission also hid the fact that recordings of flight parameter recorder (FDR) were longer than publicized in the final report. Moreover, flight parameters recorded on Polish quick access recorder differ from parameters recorded on Russian recorders despite fact that both devices use exactly the same input data. Flight parameters recorded on Russian recorder KBN-1-1 for the same flight were shorter and with several discontinuities compared with the parameters recorded on the Polish device. We will look into those two issues in more details.
Possible structural failure of the engines
In July 2009 Tu-154 Caspian Airlines (Flight 7908) crashed in Iran killing all onboard. Iranian investigation committee proved that the crash was caused by structural failure in one of the disc in the low pressure compressor inside one of the engines. This failure caused in turn violent fracture of the fuselage by fragments of engine rotor, sudden decompression and catastrophic loss of all flight control systems. Russian side accepted those findings admitting material fatigue as the cause of the structural failure and the manufacturer of engines (Saturn company) decided to issue to all customers a recommendation in order to perform ultrasonographic and visual inspection of the some components of the engine. This recommendation was known to Polish investigation commission in autumn 2010 (few months after Smolensk crash) when the investigation was still ongoing, yet there was no attempt whatsoever to investigate remains of the engines in order to rule out possibility that the crash was caused by this very issue.
That was a massive sin of omission, especially in the context of the plane trajectory in the last phase of the fatal flight. Namely, according to the official report, on the altitude over 100 meters (330 feet) above the ground the plane levelled the flight and started to climb. This is in perfect agreement with “go-around” command issued by pilots near this moment. Yet, the plane few seconds later started sudden descend with rate of sink much greater than during controlled descend. Below this graph from the official report :
Those facts and reasons why the plane was not able to perform go-around manoeuvre were never discussed in the body of the report. The same as multiply versions of recordings from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and strange history of the quick access recorder.
Recordings from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR)
History of this recorder is unusual indeed. Original device and tape are still kept in Moscow and were never returned to Poland for analysis. Former Minister and head of investigation commission Jerzy Miller in April and May 2010 few times had to travel to Moscow in order to obtain copies of the record from the original cockpit voice recorder tape. The reason for that was that each copy differs from another in terms of length and content. Below summary of differences for several copies made for different institutions :
Even worse, according to the expertise of the Polish Institute of Forensic Research in Krakow the earliest copy of CVR, made in April 2010 cannot be verified in terms of authenticity and even a date when this recording was made cannot be establish. In their report experts from Institute of Forensic Research stated that for the earliest copy of CVR (from April 2010) there is no information about frequency of the mains (power line) hum. That implies that a date when this copy was recorded cannot be verified. Experts from Institute of Forensic Research stated that in such circumstances they did not attempt to verify authenticity of this copy.
More confusion was brought by a group led by Andrzej Artymowicz who worked for Polish Chief Military Prosecution Office. In 2014 in Moscow Artymowicz made another copies of CVR and announced that all previous copies are invalid anyway due to major errors in methodology of recording procedure. In short, according to Artymowicz, all previous copies were recorded with insufficient sampling rate what caused loss of information. This surprising announcement is the first case in history of airplane investigations where several copies of CVR recorded by few different professional bodies for official investigation committees were classified as invalid.
Soon became clear that new copies from Artymowicz group are no better though. In his own report Artymowicz admitted that:
- he could not obtain from the original track a time signal which must be an integral part of the recording
- quality of sound was much worse compared with previous "invalid" copies
- range of recorded frequency was much greater compared with manufacturer specification
- and even the original tape itself was not in agreement with manufacturer specification, namely passive and active sides of the tape were inverted.
Differences between versions of CVR were never discussed in the official reports. Neither causes of those differences.
Flight data recorders (FDR)
What about recordings of flight parameters? There is a peculiar story behind it as well. Polish quick access recorder (QAR) was found on the crash site by Russians 12th April (two days after crash). By 15th April QAR was transported to Warsaw where it was found that Russians instead of QAR supplied different device - computer of Flight Management System (FMS). QAR was sent to Warsaw the following day, 16th April. Mistake in identification is highly unlikely as those devices are different in function, appearance and description. So, why Russians delayed return of the Polish quick access recorder? One of the possible reasons is that they needed more time to read data from it first. According to the Russian MAK committee report flight parameters recorded on the original black box were in very poor quality: there was no single frame of correct data. During the investigation Russians used mainly flight parameters recorded on another quick access recorder KBN-1-1. This device uses the same input data as Polish QAR. What MAK report failed to mention was that recording from KBN-1-1 device was 2 minutes shorter compared with corresponding recording from Polish QAR and the record of flight parameters did not cover last seconds of the flight. Moreover, record on KBN-1-1 consists several discontinuities. This is particularly odd as both devices use the same input data. There is a splitter that diverts the same data stream and supplies it to both devices thus recorded parameters should be exactly the same, including timings.
Those "inconsistencies" raise the question whether record of flight parameters could have been manipulated. Original FDR black box and KBN-1-1 recorders are still in Russia and never were subject of any independent analysis to rule this possibility out. Polish quick access recorder was kept for few days by Russians, then sent for a short while to Poland and soon after was sent back to Russia. Report from data readout in Poland explicitly states that possibility of intervention in the record kept on QAR was never investigated and ruled out. Investigators simply assumed that recorded on the QAR data is intact on the premise that this device was design and manufactured in Poland. Yet, even though QAR was manufactured by Polish company, this device is widely used in Russia and other former states of Soviet Union so technology it utilizes is not unknown to Russians. Moreover, flight parameters recorded on this device are not encrypted in any way.
Now, when the new official investigation committee was formed within the Committee for Investigation of National Aviation Accidents many Polish people hope that this and several other questions will be gradually answered.
About the Author: Piotr Kublicki is an engineer with more than a dash of writer. He graduated in Poland with a degree in humanities and worked few years as journalist, editor and freelancer in the subjects of politics, social, religious and science. In 2000s he moved to the United Kingdom where he graduated with a degree in computing at the Plymouth University. He works in the areas of systems analysis and integration as well as software engineering.
1. Profil podejścia do lądowania samolotu Tu-154M nr 101 na lotnisko Smoleńsk Północny w dniu 10.04.2010 r. (od 3500 m) według czasu UTC, Załączniki do raportu końcowego, p. 2.
2. Kto odpowie za Smoleńsk? (2015) Raport Zespołu Parlamentarnego, p. 39.
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