Airplane Black Boxes Can Reveal or Conceal a Crime

Poland’s new conservative government, elected in October and about to take office, is already showing its colors. The minister of foreign affairs-designate, Witold Waszczykowski, told the Polish broadcaster TVN24 on Tuesday that Poland will sue Russia at the European Court of Human Rights for the return of property connected with the crash of a Polish plane near Smolensk, Russia, on April 10, 2010. The crash killed 96 people, including the president of Poland, his wife, and numerous senior political, military, and church dignitaries. The group were on their way to ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre -- the murder by Soviet secret police (the NKVD) of some 22,000 Polish officers and other officials in 1940. A sore point with the Soviet Union and long denied, the murders were finally admitted by Gorbachev in 1990.

The Smolensk crash decapitated the pro-Western Polish leadership. In its place, the pro-Russia government of Donald Tusk came to power in Warsaw. It was, many suggested, for Russia a convenient accident. But international attention needed to be swiftly deflected from the crash, and Russian president Vladimir Putin was ready to make that happen.

Shortly after the crash, Russia produced an official report, without Polish participation, known as the MAK (Interstate Aviation Committee) report. Drawn up under Putin’s oversight, the report identified pilot error during a landing in bad weather as the cause of the crash. It claimed that the airplane struck a birch tree, severing the left wing, which caused the plane to veer into the ground short of the runway. All aboard perished.

Russia’s actions after the crash were odd -- more like those of a criminal sweeping a crime scene than a concerned nation seeking answers. As doubts grew and calls for an investigation were heard, Russians bulldozed the crash site, confiscated the airplane’s black box and wreckage, and refused to allow outsiders to examine them, though they did return one computerized device to the Poles. The control tower operator vanished, somehow beyond the reach of investigators. The recovered bodies were sealed in locked caskets, and, with pro-Russian officials firmly in place in Poland, not opened for autopsies or viewing by family members even after their return. To Russia, the case was closed.

Not so fast. Poland’s parliament decided to establish its own investigation, drawing on local experts and others from the United States, the EU, and Australia, as well as the testimony of individuals who heard and saw the airplane seconds before the crash. The device to which the Polish investigators did gain access is similar to a cockpit voice recorder. While it did not contain the critical technical data needed for an investigation contained in the black box, it did prove conclusively that the plane was never low enough to strike a birch tree; that the pilot had initiated a go-around with full throttles, clearly having decided not to attempt the landing given the weather; and that as he was climbing, two nearly simultaneous explosions occurred onboard. They tore the plane apart.

This investigation was led by Antoni Macierewicz, at the time vice chairman of the Law and Justice party -- and today defense-minister-designate in the new pro-Western Polish government of prime minister-designate Beata Szydlo. As her government prepares to sue for return of property from the Smolensk crash, it is interesting to note that Russia isn’t always so jealous of evidence that might explain a suspicious plane crash. After the Russian Metrojet passenger flight over Egypt exploded and crashed on October 31, killing all 224 onboard, the Russians were happy to share the black box with Western experts. That time, of course, the downed plane was theirs and they had nothing to hide.

Gene Poteat is a retired CIA senior scientific intelligence officer and president emeritus of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. 

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