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Hot Shots

The problem with elite pilots.

In the summer of 1996, during my short-lived American legal career, I clerked at a large Washington, D.C., law firm. Within a few days of my arrival, a partner dropped a 5,000-page bomb on my desk—the U.S. Air Force report on the plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others in Dubrovnik earlier that year. As at other law firms in the city, there was interest in whether the crash had any "legal implications" (to employ a euphemism much favored by civil litigators).

I suppose I was picked for the assignment because of my background in engineering (though, then as now, I claim no special knowledge of the science of flight). By the time I was done reading the report, however, I found it had far more to say about human psychology, in particular the alpha-male mindset of elite pilots, than it did about avionics or military flight protocols. That mindset led not only to the crash of Ron Brown's plane, but also, very possibly, to the horrific tragedy that claimed the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other passengers flying into Smolensk on Saturday.

On April 3, 1996, Brown and his entourage were in the midst of hop-skotching around the war-ravaged Balkans on an official trade mission. At Dubrovnik, as at Smolensk, the visibility was terrible: The pilot of the Boeing T-43 Bobcat—a modified 737—couldn't see the runway through the dense fog and rain, and was relying on instruments. But even that was problematic because the airport's instrument landing system had been ripped apart during Croatia's war against Serb remnants of the Yugloslav army. And so Brown's U.S. Air Force pilots were relying on a crude technology known as a non-directional beacon (NDB)—essentially a simple electromagnetic ground-based pulse that tells pilots, "Hey, over here."

In addition, the approved landing protocol erroneously permitted planes to descend to 2,150 feet before sighting the runway. This proved to be a fatal glitch: The hill into which Brown's plane plowed was 2,300 feet high. Had the approach been designed correctly, the plane would have skimmed the treetops.

The biggest problem lay with the pilots themselves—and with their immediate commanders, who'd authorized the use of "non-DoD approaches," like the one into Dubrovnik. The pilots flew too fast, and misread their instruments, resulting in the plane being nine degrees off-course (a mile and a half on the ground) on impact. Like the pilots who crashed President Kaczynski's plane 14 years later, they never received landing clearance from the control tower.

Having passed the missed approach point at Dubrovnik (which they overshot by more than a mile), Brown's pilots were supposed to have executed a missed approach—a standard circling maneuver that every regular airplane passenger knows well. But they didn't. They kept barreling in blind. Thirty-five people died as a result.

A key finding from the Air Force report, summarized in a Pentagon press release, was that "an error in planning the route added 15 minutes to the planned flight time, and may have caused the crew to rush the approach." Former pilots I spoke with used a more compact term: A mental ailment called "get-there-itis." The pilots picked to fly dignitaries such as Ron Brown are proud of what they do—they aren't any old air jockey flying the 5:30 p.m. shuttle to Peoria. And they don't like the mild ego bruising that comes with making late deliveries. Sometimes they bend the rules.

We don't yet know whether get-there-itis played a role in the Smolensk crash. But given the early details—according to a Sunday New York Times report, "A top Russian military officials said air traffic controllers at the Smolensk airport had several times ordered the crew of the plane not to land [and] warned that it was descending below the glide path"—I wouldn't bet against it.

The terrible irony of get-there-itis is that it makes a president's plane more dangerous than that aforementioned 5:30 p.m. shuttle to Peoria. Rank-and-file airline pilots have no choice but to follow every bullet point on their checklists. (And typically, they've flown the same route dozens, or even hundreds, of times.) If they don't, they get demoted or fired. But special people, like the kind who surround presidents and cabinet ministers, tend to get special treatment.

Even when Poland's tragedy fades from the headlines, it's something worth thinking about the next time your pilot tells you he or she has to delay takeoff—or even turn around mid-air—because of some niggling-seeming detail. As the passengers around you groan about the inconvenience, try to think about the alternative.

Jonathan Kay is Comment Editor of The National Post.