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 US 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."
As President Kaczynski's plane, a Russian-made Tupolev passenger jet, approached the Smolensk airport the morning of April 10, its pilot was worried about the weather. "Not looking good . . . it's unknown whether we'll land," the veteran Polish Air Force commander remarked. He sought the advice of a Russian commercial pilot who had managed to set down at Smolensk a few minutes earlier. "Speaking honestly, it's a bitch down here," the Russian reported.
Running behind schedule and with a planeload of VIPs, the Polish pilot - who had been the co-pilot on Prime Minister Tusk's flight to Smolensk three days earlier - decided to try an approach rather than diverting to another airport.
He told controllers he would abort the landing if visibility was too bad, making the "go-around" at no lower than 300 feet. The jet descended rapidly, with the tower advising that the flight was on course as it neared the runway.
Moments later, the jet's ground collision warning system sounded, its automated voice repeating "Terrain ahead! Pull up! Pull up!" The alert should have triggered an emergency climb. At a height of about 200 feet, the co-pilot said "Go around," apparently urging the pilot to abandon the landing attempt. The plane's "black box" flight data recorder noted that either the pilot or co-pilot briefly tugged the control column to try to gain altitude, but the autopilot, which was still on, overrode the effort. The steep descent continued.
With the jet at about 164 feet, a controller instructed the pilot to level off. Seconds later, someone yanked the control column and shoved the throttles to maximum power for an emergency climb. But it was too late. The cockpit voice recorder captured the sound of the plane striking treetops, the flight crew's curses, a controller shouting "Abort to second approach!" and finally someone's scream as the aircraft smashed to the ground.
Russian and Polish aviation boards each conducted investigations of the crash. They agreed that the primary cause was the flight crew's faulty decision to try to land in bad weather, their rapid descent below a safe altitude, and their failure to make the "go-around" maneuver in time.
The Russian report cited the flight crew for setting the pilot's altimeter improperly (although others were reading correctly); descending too late and too steeply; flying too low; failing to take into account that the terrain dipped, then rose, near the runway; and ignoring repeated warnings from the ground collision system and human controllers.
Another primary cause, according to the Russian investigators, was "psychological pressure" to land from the head of the Polish Air Force. An analysis of the cockpit voice recorder indicated that the Air Force general was in the cockpit during the runway approach and - according to a blood test from his autopsy - was drunk.
The jet was doomed, the Russian probe determined, when, flying 16 feet above the ground and attempting to climb, its left wing struck a foot-thick birch tree trunk. The impact sheared off a third of the wing, which landed 121 yards from the tree, the Russians found. The loss of the wing tip caused the plane to dip sharply left, though it continued a slight climb. As the aircraft rolled, the stub of its left wing plowed into the ground, digging a deep trench. The fuselage flipped upside-down and ripped apart.
The Polish aviation board didn't quibble with the Russian version of the crash dynamics, but it spread blame to Russian ground controllers who hadn't warned the pilot he was off the glide path, and who waited too long to tell him to abort the landing.
Other Polish government investigators questioned the autopsy finding that the Polish Air Force commander was drunk, that he pressured the flight crew to land, and that he was in the cockpit at all. A Polish re-analysis of the cockpit recording determined the voice the Russians had identified as the general's was really the co-pilot's. There also was consternation in Poland that Russia hadn't returned the jet's wreckage and black boxes, and that the crash victims' coffins were sealed before they were shipped home.
With suspicions deepening in Poland, Binienda - in his Akron lab half a world away - began trying last summer to assess what he had been reading and hearing about the tragedy.
"There were more and more questions and there was no one doing any real [follow-up] investigation," he said. "I said maybe it is time for me to see if I can do anything."
The wing-tree impact became the target of his inquiry. It didn't make sense to Binienda that, after a collision that severed a third of the wing, the jet would be able to climb almost 100 feet in altitude before crashing, as the Russian investigators had concluded. Robbed of lift and momentum, the damaged plane should drop like a stone.
Binienda specializes in fracture mechanics, a highly technical field that analyzes how and why materials break under stress. His focus is the lightweight stuff - aluminum, titanium and exotic polymers -used in aviation and aerospace. He often works with NASA and jet engine manufacturers. He is no stranger to aircraft structures.
To study the wing-tree impact, Binienda created a computer model using a software program called LS-DYNA. He and other engineers routinely use LS-DYNA to simulate complex fracture situations with lots of rapidly changing conditions, like when a loose, high-speed chunk of insulating foam bashed into the space shuttle Columbia's wing during a 2003 launch, fatally damaging the orbiter.
With LS-DYNA and information from the crash reports, Binienda could input the strength, density and other properties of the wing and the tree. That allows a computer to calculate the impact forces and create a second-by-second, realistic 3-D animation of what happened.
Even when Binienda intentionally under-represented the wing's strength and over-estimated the tree's, the simulations still showed the wing slicing off the treetop while suffering only minor damage. The tree impact couldn't have broken the wing, his model showed. Something else must have done that, and something else must have snapped off the treetop. (For the latter, Binienda suspects it was the powerful backwash from the jet's engines as they passed overhead.)
Binienda's simulation also showed that, for the wing tip to have landed where it did, the break must have happened at a higher altitude and closer to the runway than where the birch tree was located.
That seemed to fit with a more sinister crash scenario being advanced by two other Polish researchers who also are working with the Polish parliament inquiry - that two explosions during the landing attempt brought down the jet.
Kazimierz Nowaczyk, a University of Maryland physicist, and Gregory Szuladzinski, a mechanical engineer and expert in blast effects, base their theory on several pieces of evidence:
-Two sudden, sharp changes in the jet's altitude, as recorded by its ground-collision warning equipment. The violent jolts, according to Nowaczyk's analysis of the ground-collision readouts, took place when the plane was 226 feet past the birch tree. That position coincides with where Binienda, working independently, calculated that the wing tip must have come off. An explosion could explain the wing separation, Nowaczyk has testified.
-The contrasting positions of the jet's fuselage pieces. The front portion landed upright while the rear was upside-down, suggesting an internal explosion that separated the pieces in mid-air.
-The large amount of debris and dismemberment of passengers' bodies. "Shrapnel equals explosion, and there was plenty of it," Szuladzinski said in an email, declining to comment further until his report to the parliament committee chair is released in May.
Both the Russian and Polish crash investigations determined that the crash would have subjected the plane and its occupants to severe G forces, which could account for the fragmentation. And Russian investigators said they detected no traces of explosives on the wreckage.
The US manufacturer of the collision-warning system, Universal Avionics Systems Corp., working with the National Transportation Safety Board, analyzed the flight data for the Russian crash investigation. Neither the company nor the NTSB would comment on whether the readouts shows evidence of explosions, as Nowaczyk claims. The Russian aviation board and the Polish prime minister's office did not respond to interview requests.
Binienda's computer modeling of the tree impact is an unconventional approach to an aircraft crash analysis, said Greg Phillips, a veteran former NTSB investigator who's now an aviation safety instructor at the University of Southern California. Still, "it sounds like the guy has all the credentials that would certainly set off the alarms that we really need to listen hard to this."
Whether the birch tree fractured the wing or not is a moot point, said Paul Czysz, an aircraft design expert and professor emeritus at St. Louis University's Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology. "If that tree didn't do it, there are about 50 others in front of it that could have," said Czysz, who thinks pilot over-confidence caused the crash. "The fact that he hit the tree that far from the end of the runway means that unless he got that airplane up right away, he was dead. And very few pilots have the reactive skills to get that airplane up."
The larger question of whether someone engineered the plane's demise is a matter of debate. The dead president's twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's conservative Law and Justice party and the country's former prime minister, said in March he suspects the crash was an assassination.
Retired CIA intelligence officer Eugene Poteat thinks Russia downed the planeload of leaders to wipe out Poland's pro-NATO, anti-Russian government.
"They had the means, the will, the knowledge, the background, the assets," Poteat, who's president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers and served in the CIA during the Cold War, said in an interview. "Everything it takes to commit a crime like that, they're past masters at it."
Binienda knows his high-profile position raising doubts about the crash's official cause could jeopardize his professional reputation.
"If they show that I made an obvious error, it would be a tremendous blemish on my career," he said. But "if I would hesitate to look for truth just because of my career, that would be a pretty bad scientific approach. I hope at a minimum I can bring people to ask questions, and at the end they will do the investigation and show that my work was incorrect or correct. Either way, I don't mind."