Was it communication error that led to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński and many other Polish VIPs in a deadly crash in Smolensk?
Russian aviation laws dictate that, when traveling to a non-international airport, at least one member of a foreign crew should speak Russian. It is unclear whether any of the eight crew members aboard the ill-fated Tupolev-154 spoke the language fluently.
“It made understanding difficult,” the air traffic controller said. “Initially, when the plane followed the normal course, talks with the crew were calm. But pilots did not report [their intentions], although they should have. The controller should not only inform the crew about the situation, but also receive a response about all maneuvers, [and] flight altitude. The pilots did not do this.”
Polish pilots are generally fluent in English. An air traffic controller who preferred to remain anonymous told the Warsaw Business Journal that the English language skills of their Russian counterparts were “notoriously bad.”
The recordings of the final moments of the crash, which will be released on the 22nd, should shed some light on the fog of speculation that surrounds the last moments onboard the aircraft.
If it turns out that flight instructions were lost in translation, the Smolensk flight will join a long list of plane crashes caused by communication error.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a pop-anthropological approach to plane crashes. In a chapter titled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” he describes how some cultures are better at having plane crashes than others.
In a Q&A with Fortune magazine, Gladwell opines:
“Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s… What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
“But Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren’t as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.”
Personally, I think this power-distance stuff is fantasy. Cultural differences do lend themselves to statistical measurement, but this power-distance stuff is so crude a measure as to be useless for anything but cartoon criticism.
Mitigated speech ― when a subordinate plays down his or her concerns when communicating with a superior ― is pretty much culturally universal. It lay behind the series of events that lead to the death of 583 people aboard two 747s in the worst air disaster in history at Tenerife airport in 1977.
The crash of an Italian HH-3F in France in 2008 may have been caused by out-and-out translation error. Aviation expert David Cenciotti reported that the inquiry found that the chopper lost a blade due to bad maintenance and an incorrect translation of the aircraft manual. The crew put down when they saw a warning light, but after landing in Dijon for further checks, they continued on because the manuals they were using contained a translation error that lead them down the wrong path to address the problem.
There’s no room for error in the cockpit, since communication failure can ground you all too quickly.