By John Mangels
The 2010 jet crash that killed Poland’s president, first lady and dozens of dignitaries during a politically sensitive visit to Russia couldn’t have happened the way official investigations say, a University of Akron engineering professor’s analysis shows.
Wieslaw Binienda’s findings, based on computer modeling software that NASA used to analyze the space shuttle Columbia’s destruction, are causing ripples in his native Poland, where there is simmering distrust of the formal rulings that the crash was accidental.
Russian and Polish government teams determined that errors by the jet’s Polish military flight crew caused the aircraft to clip a tree, lose part of its left wing, flip over and crash short of a runway at fog-bound Smolensk Airdrome two years ago. The April 10 incident killed all 96 aboard.
But the tree impact that supposedly precipitated the crash wouldn’t have caused enough wing damage to down the plane, said Binienda, a well-regarded expert in fracture mechanics who heads the university’s civil engineering department.
Instead, Binienda’s computer model shows the wing would have lopped off the tree top “like a knife.” The collision would have caused relatively minor damage to the wing’s leading edge – not enough to seriously impair its lift capability and flip the jet.
“It’s absolutely impossible that the wing sheared and then it crashed the way [government investigators]described,” Binienda told The Plain Dealer in his first U.S. interview.
The soft-spoken engineer has become a key player in the international drama swirling around the crash.
Binienda has testified about his findings before the Polish and European parliaments, where politicians skeptical of the government probes are conducting their own inquiries. His analysis, coupled with the work of two other scientists who contend there is evidence of explosions aboard the jet just before the crash, has fueled speculation of a conspiracy and cover-up.
“We try to show that hasty judgment has been made, and the case should be re-opened and re-examined properly, without any conflicts of interest,” said Mateusz Kochanowski, a spokesman for European Conservatives and Reformists, or ECR.
Kochanowski’s father, Poland’s human rights ombudsman, died in the crash. The ECR, a political coalition within the European Parliament, organized a March 28 parliamentary hearing in Brussels at which Binienda and several other researchers testified. The organization’s petition urging a new investigation has collected half a million signatures, Kochanowski said.
The planeload of Polish VIPs, including President Lech Kaczynski, other senior government officials, military officers, clergy and the head of Poland’s national bank, was traveling to Russia on a somber, emotionally charged mission: to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre.
The series of World War II executions carried out by Soviet secret police in April and May 1940 left more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war dead, many of them members of Poland’s elite.
The Soviet government blamed Nazi Germany for the mass killings. Only in the last two decades have Soviet and Russian officials begun to acknowledge the country’s responsibility for the massacre, slowly declassifying records, though still refusing to call the killings genocide or authorizing reparations. “There’s no crime in Polish history that’s been as covered up and falsified as that one,” said Padraic Kenney, who directs Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute and the Polish Studies Center.
Though the massacre remains painful to Poles, relations between Russian and Poland have improved since the Cold War’s end and the rise of Polish democracy, said Kenney, “despite the fact that the president [Kaczynski] did tend to make somewhat aggressive statements about Russia.”
As president, Kaczynski was the Polish head of state. The country’s prime minister runs the government. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin invited his Polish counterpart, Prime Minister Donald Tusk – but not President Kaczynski – to attend the first joint commemoration of the Katyn Massacre, on April 7, 2010, near Smolensk, Russia. Three days later, Kaczynski and other Polish dignitaries were supposed to attend a separate ceremony, also near Smolensk.
There, the president planned to deliver a speech that was both combative and conciliatory, with harsh criticism for the killings and cover-up under the Communist regime, praise for recent Russian actions, and a demand that the Putin government continue to release documents and acknowledge “the innocence of the victims.”