I was sitting in a regional meeting of the International AOPA in Friedrichshafen, Germany last week when the Polish delegate quietly approached me early Saturday morning to report that Lech Kaczynski, President of Poland, many of the top government officials, and military leaders had been killed in an approach accident. The 20 year old Tupolev jet was landing in heavy fog when the pilot apparently decided that the VIPs on board would be disappointed beyond measure if the flight diverted. According to the news reports, which must be taken with a grain of salt, controllers had advised the pilot against landing.
Unfortunately, this type of mishap remains all too common both for GA and the airlines. My speculation is that the official probable cause will be “The pilot’s improper decision to descend below landing minimums.” The real probable cause, barring a mechanical problem, might be the captain’s fixation (possibly due to external pressure) to deliver his valuable cargo at the appointed place and time. This normally laudable objective is an incredibly dangerous mindset for pilots of all aircraft.
Again, relying on news sources, there is speculation that another pilot was pressured by President Kaczynski two years ago for not landing at the primary destination due to weather. That pilot resisted and while the president was presumably not happy, he lived to fly again. It took far more courage for the pilot to resist the president than to execute a dangerous approach.
Some of us have difficulty understanding the responsibility of Pilot-in-Command and the risk-reward equation. If a vote had been taken on board and the risk explained by a knowledgeable and neutral third party, the outcome would likely have been nearly unanimous (maybe discounting the president) in favor of diversion and blast the inconvenience. Mission mindset is to be carefully guarded against in GA, airline, and civilian transport – Safety Pilot: Aspen Arrival. Next time you’re pressuring yourself, or a passenger is insistent on getting somewhere, figuratively step outside for a moment and take a vote. In the calm, clear air of self reflection, perspective often returns and is frequently life-saving.
You’ve heard it many times – there’s no place you have to be. We all need to develop that independent view that as self-important as we or our passengers think we (they) are, Newton’s second law of physics is absolute. Aircraft, big and small will always lose. My sincere condolences to the Polish people and the families of the souls on board. They deserved better.