LOT polish airlines flight 5055
© Felix Goetting

Saturday 9th May 1987, marks the date of the LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 crash, the deadliest aviation disaster in Polish history, which led to the loss of 183 lives.

LOT Polish Airlines Plane
LOT Polish Airlines is Poland’s flag carrier. © Aero Icarus

LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 – A Brief Introduction

The LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 crash, the deadliest disaster involving an Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft, happened on this day in 1987. It was determined that the crash was caused by the disintegration of one of the plane’s engine shafts as a result of faulty bearings within the engine. This fault led to a cascade of events that would eventually cause the aircraft to crash into a nature reserve south of Warsaw, leaving no survivors.

LOT Polish Airlines was founded in 1928. The airline still operates to this day as Poland’s flag carrier, and it is one of the world’s oldest airlines still in operation.

LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055, charted by Zygmunt Pawlaczyk, was scheduled to depart from Warsaw-Okęcie Airport (now known as Warsaw Chopin Airport (WAW)), Warsaw, in Poland, to travel to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York City, in the United States of America (USA), where the plane would refuel before heading on to its final destination, San Francisco International Airport (SFO), San Francisco, USA.

Warsaw Chopin Airport
LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 departed Warsaw-Okęcie Airport on 9th May 1987. © Vampir2011

The Aircraft And Crew

The plane involved in the crash was an Ilyushin Il-62M, a long-range narrow-body jetliner manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1983. The Il-62M possesses four tail-mounted engines: two on the left side (engines 1 and 2) and two on the right side (engines 3 and 4) in close proximity to each other.

The plane’s captain, Zygmunt Pawlaczyk, had 19,745 flight hours of experience (with 5,542 hours on Ilyushin Il-62 aircraft), and the first officer was Leopold Karcher. The flight crew also included five flight attendants, a flight engineer, a flight navigator, a radio operator and a flight engineer trainer completing a routine progress observation.

The Passengers And Crew Lost In The Disaster

The LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 disaster involved a total of 183 people, including 172 passengers and 11 crew members. Of the passengers, 155 were Polish nationals, and 17 were American. All of the crew members were Polish.

All passengers and crew members died as the plane broke apart and crashed into the ground, and a third of the victims’ bodies were never recovered.

LOT Polish Airlines Plane
The passengers and crew of LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 comprised American and Polish nationals. © Ken Rose

The Lead Up To The Fatal Crash

LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 departed Warsaw-Okęcie Airport at 10:18 a.m. on Saturday 9th May 1987. Shortly after, air traffic control instructed the crew to rapidly climb to 18,000 ft to avoid passing through military airspace. The crew applied maximum thrust; unfortunately, this resulted in faulty bearings inside engine 2 reaching temperatures of 1,000 °C and exploding, causing the shaft to destruct. The engine’s detached turbine disc spun rapidly and then exploded. Debris from the explosion: (1) spread, puncturing the fuselage, damaging the flight controls and the adjoining engine (engine 1), and (2) burst into one of the cargo holds, resulting in a rapidly spreading fire.

Immediately, the crew became aware that the elevator control systems had failed and that two of the engines were disabled. They began an emergency descent, with the nearest possible landing site being Gdańsk Lech Wałęsa Airport (GDN). Due to the short flight duration, the crew encountered difficulty in dumping a sufficient amount of fuel in time, and the plane remained greatly in excess of the II-62 M’s maximum landing weight. A decision was therefore made to return to Warsaw-Okęcie Airport in the hope that the journey would provide adequate time for enough fuel to be dumped. Unfortunately, earlier damage to the electrical system caused further issues for the crew in dumping fuel.

It was reported that the crew had intended to land at a military airport in the village of Modlin (now the town of Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki). At the time, it was unclear as to why the crew had decided against landing in Modlin given the dire situation, with speculation ranging from the crew deeming the emergency equipment in Modlin insufficient to deal with the situation to officials denying the aircraft landing authorisation. It was later determined that the earlier damage to the electrical system had prevented the engine fire warning system from working properly; thus, the crew was unaware of the true extent of the relentlessly spreading fire in the cargo hold and the burning engine. At 10:53 a.m., there was a further explosion in the burning cargo hold due to fuel vapours that had spread from the damaged fuel tanks.

LOT Polish Airlines Plane
The Ilyushin Il-62M possesses four engines to the rear of the aircraft. © clipperarctic

The Final Moments Of LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055

The crew attempted to approach Warsaw-Okęcie Airport from the south and turned the aircraft 180° in preparation. At this point, the in-flight fire had spread to the exterior of the plane, and the remaining flight controls ceased to function, including the previously operating pitch trim. Additionally, the crew was unable to operate the landing gear, and the emergency fuel dumping pumps were only working intermittently.

As the plane passed the village of Józefosław, a mere 6.2 miles from the airport, burnt-out fuselage elements fell out, resulting in local fires starting on the ground. After the plane had passed the town of Piaseczno, the plane entered into a sinusoid-shaped flight pattern in its final seconds before nose-diving, crashing into Kabaty Woods nature reserve at a speed of 295 mph before exploding.

It is believed that as the fire that had started in the cargo hold began to spread into the passenger cabin, panicked passengers rushed towards the front of the plane away from the fire, causing the plane to destabilise.

The last words to be heard on the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) at 11:12 a.m. were “Dobranoc! Do widzenia! Cześć, giniemy!” or, in English, “Good night! Goodbye! Bye, we’re dying!”

Kabaty Woods, Poland
Kabaty Woods, the site of the crash, is located south of Warsaw. © Adrian Grycuk

Crash Investigation Conclusions – Profits Over Safety

The crash was investigated by the Polish investigatory commission, which concluded that it had been caused by the disintegration of one of the engine shafts due to faulty bearings in engine 2. These faulty bearings seized and were subsequently damaged by the excessive heat generated. As a result, engine 1 became damaged, there was then rapid decompression of the hull, a fire began in the cargo hold, the elevator controls ceased working, and the electrical system progressively began to fail. At this point, the crew could not regain control of the plane, and consequently, it crashed into Kabaty Woods nature reserve, a short distance from Warsaw.

The faulty bearings in question were roller bearings, which use cylinder rolling elements to transmit loads and minimise friction. It was discovered that supply delays for the rollers at the factory where the components were being produced led to orders being rushed through to meet looming contract deadlines. The manufacturer’s decision to prioritise profits over safety meant that instead of the 26 rollers that the bearings had been designed to include, they were built with only 13. As a direct consequence, this meant that more friction would have been produced due to the increased speed at which the rollers would have to operate to compensate for the missing rollers.

Roller Bearings
The Ilyushin Il-62M aircraft’s roller bearings contained an insufficient number of rollers. © Silberwolf

Crash Investigation – Link To The LOT Polish Airlines Flight 007 Crash

The cause of the LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 crash was very similar to the cause of another LOT Airlines crash, LOT Polish Airlines Flight 007, which took place in March 1980, with the aircraft involved also crashing near Warsaw-Okęcie Airport. The 1980 crash investigation determined the cause to be engine shaft disintegration owing to metal fatigue. In addition, improper alloy preparation and the substandard design of the engine shaft were cited as contributing factors.

During the 1980 inquiry into the crash, concerns about the engine’s poor design were addressed by the Polish government’s Special Disasters Committee; however, the findings of the inquiry were disputed by the plane’s Soviet production and design team, who portioned the disintegration of the turbine to engine failure.

The inquiry into the 1987 crash also resulted in a similar report being sent to the Russian government; as with the 1980 crash report, the findings were dismissed by government officials and Soviet engineers, the latter of whom produced their own report and, this time blamed pilot error for the crash. The Polish investigatory commission stood by its findings in the face of threats from Moscow, and the Soviet engineers and government officials eventually took responsibility for the crash, albeit reluctantly.

Polish Flag
Poland stood firm in the face of threats from Moscow over its crash investigation findings. © mrozku

The Aftermath Of The Crash

Following the crash, owing to the fact LOT Polish Airlines was unable to purchase non-Soviet aircraft and the need for enhanced safety protocols, several improvements to the Il-62 M’s construction were implemented, including:

  • Doubling of the flight control systems (following recommendations from the 1980 crash report).
  • Installation of an advanced system of engine shaft vibration detectors in every engine.
  • Installation of more advanced smoke detectors in the cargo holds (deemed more reliable than the fire detectors already in use) and advanced fire detectors in the engine nacelles.
  • Replacement of all flammable components in the cargo holds with non-flammable components.
  • Mandatory laboratory testing of engine lubricating oil following every flight (providing vital assistance in the detection of damaged bearings).

While significant changes to the design of the Ilyushin Il-62M were implemented to improve the plane’s safety standards, the aircraft is now in limited service owing to its significant operating costs compared to newer, current-generation aircraft.

Following the disaster, a significant clean-up operation took place in Kabaty Woods, with thousands of new trees being sown, and today, a stone monument stands at the crash site with the names of the victims engraved.

In addition, members of the crew received military and civil honours, and the country observed two days of national mourning following the crash. Graves symbolising the crew members lost lie in Powązki Military Cemetery, whilst Wólka Węglowa Cemetery is the location of a collective grave for the unidentified victims of the crash.

Kabaty Woods Monument
A stone monument now stands in Kabaty Woods to honour the victims of LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055. © sokole oko

Recent Plane Crash Tragedies

The deadliest aviation disaster of 2023 (to date) took place on Sunday 15th January, when Yeti Airlines Flight 691 crashed into a gorge of the Seti Gandaki River near the resort town of Pokhara, Nepal; the crash left no survivors. In February, a preliminary report into the crash was released, which stated that the plane’s propellers may have accidentally been feathered, thus leaving the aircraft with insufficient power to continue flying. The full version of the report will be released at a later date. Nepal’s mountainous terrain and variable weather conditions have also been cited by aviation safety experts as problematic factors for safe flying within the country.

Yeti Airlines Crash Nepal
Not one of the passengers or crew members of the Yeti Airlines Flight 691 crash survived. © Bhupendra Shrestha

In November 2022, two deadly crash incidents occurred: one in Peru and one in Tanzania.

At Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM) in Lima, Peru, a LATAM Airlines aircraft attempting to take off crashed into a fire engine that was on the airport’s runway. None of the passengers on board the plane were fatally injured; unfortunately, two firefighters seated in the fire engine lost their lives. At the time, it was not clear why the vehicle was on the runway; however, the vehicle was later revealed to have been taking part in an authorised accident training exercise. The crash is believed to have been triggered by miscommunication between the Peruvian Corporation of Commercial Airports and Aviation (CORPAC) and the local air traffic control authority.

In Tanzania, a Precision Air plane that had taken off from the country’s capital Dar es Salaam and was en route to the lakeside town of Bukoba crashed into Victoria Lake, Africa’s largest lake. The aircraft’s route had been subjected to deteriorating weather conditions, including intense rainfall, and those who survived the crash noted that the plane shook violently before the fatal event. The aircraft’s pilot and first officer were killed in the crash, and of the 43 passengers, 19 sadly lost their lives. The other 24 passengers and the two flight attendants survived. Emergency services were criticised at the time for their delayed response to the crash, with the country’s Ministry of Transport stating that had their response been more prompt, more lives could have potentially been saved.

Do you remember the LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 disaster? Let us know in the comments.