Would the mystery of the crash of the Polish presidential plane be solved thanks to a simulator?

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Pablo Edronkin

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The usefulness of flight simulators is not limited to pilot training or the entertainment and joy of flightsimmers; simulators can be used very effectively in aviation and other activities to solve accidents and other disasters.

I had in mind something different for today. I planned to write about the latest advances in the Nerkabtu project, but the accident suffered by the Tupolev Tu-154 that carried the Polish president and a significant number of government and military officials near Smolensk yesterday morning, added to the fact that I have double nationality (Argentine - Polish) prompted me to change the scope.

I was told about the accident yesterday, at noon, after flying my own plane for quite a while. It was a windy day with fair weather, very good for practicing landings, so I was at the airport where my Piper Cub Special has its home, taking advantage of the morning weather to do some exercises, taking off, landing, trying different climb profiles using the wind and so on. Despite that it is fall now here, I got sun tanned and even fed the cats that live in the hangar. Then someone told me about the fate of the Tupolev.

When an accident like this one happens, if you feel somehow touched by it, it becomes a shock. I am Polish, I am an aviator, I was coming from a pretty intensive morning training session with an airplane, I know the Tupolev Tu-154 and of course, I know and have seen the presidential plane. Besides, there are only a few examples in the world's history in which an organization is beheaded as it happened yesterday with the Polish government; I can only think now of one similar occurrence, as it was the crash where almost all the Manchester United team died near Munich, some decades ago.

And after the surprise, comments and hypotheses begin to spread. In this case, being the plane made in Russia and a few years old, we Westerners tend to see the issue with some prejudice. People tend to assume that Russian-made planes are less safe than those made in the West, but there are no solid bases to sustain that. Statistics prove that Russian planes are no less safe than others per se.

Those planes received bad publicity for a number of things like plain-old propaganda as well as some facts that people tend to incorrectly associate with the design of aircraft: During the communist era it is true that airliners within the bloc were not fitted with the same goodies as in the West, plus, after the fall of communism maintenance became an issue in those countries. But if you take any western-made aircraft and put it in the same conditions, you will get similar results. The Tupolev Tu-154, quite on the contrary, is an excellent plane; there have been, indeed, a number of accidents, but then, many Tu-154 were built and that is to be expected. In fact, statistics prove that the Boeing 727 - a very similar, Western design - suffered more accidents than the Tupolev.

The Tu-154 is now considered obsolete because technology has advanced since it was first rolled-out of the factory, and they are being slowly replaced by newer designs like the Tu-204 and its variants, designed specifically as a replacement of the old 154 and in order to compete with the Airbus A320 family and the Boeing 757. Plus, the Tu-154 is the fastest commercial airplane in the world since the Concorde was taken out of service.

The, you have to take into account that maintenance and technological issues in the case of a presidential transport would be less of a factor since such planes usually receive far better equipment and preventive maintenance than most jetliners. It is also unlikely that the accident was caused by a design defect since the first Tu-154 units began flying in the sixties and the plane was manufactured and used in large numbers until production ceased around 2001.

Before anything else, investigators will have to gather all the evidence available from the crash site, interview witnesses and sift thorough the data to check the testimonies. Then, a simulator becomes a fundamental tool in order to understand what happened by reproducing the conditions found by the crew, which apparently, did not declare an emergency so either a disastrous failure took them completely by surprise or no emergency occurred and the accident was caused by other factors.

Facts so far - and this could change indeed - seem to point to the aircraft flying too low and accelerating. The dangers of flying too low are easy to understand for almost everybody, but for pilots, an acceleration during descent and almost on the runway threshold might indicate an abnormal flying condition because instrument approaches usually are initiated about twenty kilometers away from the runway in order to have plenty of time to stabilize the aircraft into the glide path. Sometimes corrections have to be made, but at that late stage during the approach they are very unusual.

So, after listening to witnesses, putting all the components found at the scene of the tragedy under different sorts of metallurgic and forensic tests, and reviewing the information of the "black boxes" (the cockpit voice recording and the flight data recorder), it will be the time for flight simulators and different crews to reproduce the conditions found o that approach. It is very likely that in this way, a simulator will give us the clues to find out how where the last moments aboard the Polish presidential plane.

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