Lessons from the Polish air tragedy: The pilot is always in command

The Wall Street Journal just had an interesting article about the recent Polish air tragedy that should serve as a reminder to all pilots, especially those who fly for a living, to remember that they, and not the passengers, are in command of the aircraft – even if you are flying your country’s top political leaders. According to the article:

About 15 minutes before the plane crashed, Mariusz Kazana, the Polish foreign ministry’s protocol chief, entered the cockpit and was told by the captain that a landing at Smolensk would be impossible because of limited visibility, saying that "in the current conditions, we won’t make it." The captain then suggested he would try to land the plane, but if it proved too risky, he asked Mr. Kazana what he should do next.

Mr. Kazana replied: "We have a problem, then," according to the transcript.

Four minutes later, Mr. Kazana told the crew: "There’s no decision yet from the president about what to do next." No further conversation between the crew and Mr. Kazana was recorded.

The transcript also showed the pilots ignored repeated automated warnings that they were about to hit the ground and appeared to recognize only in the last seconds of the doomed flight that they would crash.

Certainly there is no excuse for ignoring automated warnings but since the pilots were flying the President and their country’s top political leaders, they must have felt that they were not fully in command of their aircraft. Ultimately though, the decision to takeoff and land always rests with the pilot – no matter who the passengers are.

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