Polish president plane crash: Why so many Tu-154 crashes?

The Polish president plane crash this weekend will intensify scrutiny of the Tupolev Tu-154, a Russian-made jet that has been involved in several high-profile crashes in recent years.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Rescue workers inspect the debris on the site of the Polish president's plane crash near Smolensk, western Russia, Sunday. The Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 jet crashed as it came in for a landing in thick fog.

The plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and a wide swath of the country's political elite this weekend is bound to intensify scrutiny of the plane, the Tupolev Tu-154, which is Russia's ubiquitous aviation workhorse and a mainstay of many airlines around the developing world.

Russian investigators have been swift to give a clean bill of health to the aircraft that was carrying Mr. Kaczynski and 95 others when it crashed in heavy fog near the Russian city of Smolensk on Saturday.

They insist that the 26-year-old Polish Air Force plane was in excellent technical shape, and that "pilot error" was the most likely cause of the crash.

The Russia-24 cable news channel on Sunday quoted Alexei Gusev, director of the Aviakor factory in Samara, Russia, as saying the plane had flown "quite normally" during its regular full checkup at the plant last December.

"No problems appeared during the testing of this aircraft," he said. "I recall that the [Polish] pilots who came to pick it up after its repairs, and did their own checks, were very happy with it."

But the Tu-154, which was, ironically, code-named "Careless" by NATO during the cold war, has been involved in almost 40 fatal crashes during its service life, which began in the early 1970s. Most of those have been ascribed – like this weekend's catastrophe near Smolensk – to "human error."

Russian experts are fond of comparing the Tu-154, which can carry up to 180 passengers, with Western counterparts like the Boeing 737, the world's best-selling airliner, which has been around for a similar length of time and also was associated with scores of fatal accidents.

But according to calculations made by the London-based aviation consultancy Ascend, which have been cited in several news reports, the Tu-154 has suffered a fatal accident for every 431,200 flights, compared with Boeing 737s record of one fatal crash for each 2.68-million flights.

More than 900 Tu-154s of various models were built, and exported to 17 countries in addition to Russia, before the manufacturer, Aviakor, ended production in 2006.

Several of the plane's fatal accidents have occurred in Iran, leading some to blame US-inspired sanctions rather than the Tu-154 for its spotty record.

Other Tu-154s have gone down in bizarre circumstances, including a terrorist attack, a Swiss air traffic controller's mistake that led to a fatal midair collision over Germany, and an accidental shootdown of a plane carrying vacationers by Ukrainian air defenses over the Black Sea a year earlier.

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