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News, Thoughts

Tragedy And Butterfly Wings

Now that speculation has begun on the cause of Saturday’s tragic plane crash in western Russia that killed Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and many of the government’s leaders, it’s tempting to imagine that the pilots were pressured into landing against their better judgement.

Investigators examining the crash appeared to be focusing on why the pilot did not heed instructions from air traffic controllers to give up trying to land in bad weather in western Russia on Saturday morning. [And] whether the pilot had felt under pressure to land to make sure that the Polish delegation would not be late for a ceremony on Saturday in the Katyn forest, where more than 20,000 Polish officers and others were massacred by the Soviets during World War II.

… attention has been drawn to the pilot’s state of mind because of a previous incident involving the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, who died along with numerous other senior Polish government and military officials in the crash. In August 2008, during Russia’s brief war with Georgia, Mr. Kaczynski got into a dispute with a pilot flying his plane to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, according to reports at the time. Mr. Kaczynski demanded that the pilot land despite dangerous conditions, but the pilot disagreed and diverted to neighboring Azerbaijan.


We all have a tendency to ‘simple’ answers, and it’s tempting to lay the blame on Lech Kaczynski and the pilot, even though we may never know the truth of the matter. Certainly many aircraft accidents are caused by the pilot’s frame of mind, where stress or the desire to achieve a certain goal clouds judgement.

Unlike the Butterfly Effect where a single event can lead to many different seemingly unrelated outcomes, aircraft accidents are invariably the result of multiple small mistakes that cascade into a final tragedy. And whereas the Butterfly Effect leaves us powerless in the face of random events, in this case any one of a number of small changes in the situation would probably have prevented the crash.

Like everything else in life, we try to learn and move on. So the next time I’m on a flight about to take off and in a hurry to get home, when the pilot comes on and says we have a mechanical problem, patience will be my middle name. I will also remember the victims of the Katyn Massacre, whose story I would not have known except for this tragedy.

Note: As a private pilot with an instrument rating, I do have a dog in this hunt when it comes to affixing blame before the facts are known.

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