Out of Fuel, Out of Time: the Gimli Glider

Gimli is well known to Manitobans for many things: it’s the distillery home of Crown Royal Whisky; the Icelandic Festival, Islendingadagurinn, held annually on the August long weekend and — for those old enough to remember, a cheap sparkling wine called Gimli Goose, popular in the 1970s (along with a menagerie of other brands such as Baby Duck, Fuddle Duck and Pink Flamingo), that could, if you were desperate, also double as makeshift ice cream topping.

But Gimli is internationally known for the unexpected arrival of Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767, C-GUAN, Fin 604, on July 23, 1983.

En route from Montreal to Edmonton via Ottawa, the aircraft ran out of fuel at 41,000 feet over Red Lake, Ontario. The 767s were brand new members of the Air Canada fleet. They came equipped with metric measures. The metric system had recently been introduced in Canada to replace the imperial system. For most Canadians, including Air Canada employees, this switch involved a conceptual shift in the way weight, volume and distance were measured. Therein was the problem that brought Flight 143 to Gimli. Inexperience with kilograms and litres resulted in a dramatic under-calculation, in both Montreal and Ottawa, of the amount of fuel on board.

Eventually, with the loss of both engines, Flight 143 was transformed from a state-of-the-art jet into the mother of all gliders.
Unable to make Winnipeg, it headed for the decommissioned RCAF Airbase just west of Gimli. The base had become a popular site for motor sport events. On July 23rd—the height of summer—there were dozens of cars, campers, kids and families as it was Family Day for the Winnipeg Sports Car Club. A steel guardrail had been installed down most of the runway’s southeastern portion, thus dividing it into a two-lane drag strip.

The landing had no control-tower assistance. There were no emergency vehicles on hand, no fire trucks idling at the ready and no way to warn the people on the ground. But Flight 143 did have Captain Bob Pearson and Co-Pilot Maurice Quintal in the cockpit. Pearson was an experienced glider pilot and this gave him experience in techniques unknown to most commercial pilots. Quintal had some familiarity with the Gimli base as he had been stationed there during his time with the Canadian Air Force. He was, however, unfamiliar with the changes that had taken place since he left.

Between the two of them, Pearson at the controls, employing sideslip manoeuvres to slow the plane, and Quintal doing sideslip calculations, they landed the plane. The main gear came down but the nose gear did not. As the aircraft landed, two tires blew, the unlocked nose gear gave way and the giant aircraft sprayed a shower of sparks as the nose skidded and the plane scraped and screeched along the tarmac.

It was a near disaster that turned into a triumph and glided into Canadian aviation history for no other reason other than the skill of the cockpit and cabin crew.

Ten of the 61 passengers and eight crew members incurred minor injuries when they used the rear emergency slide to vacate the plane. It was at a near vertical angle because of the nose-down position of the plane. No one on the ground was hurt either.
The landing of Flight 143 has been said to be “the greatest “dead-stick” landing in history.” (A deadstick landing, or forced landing, occurs when an aircraft loses all of its propulsive power and is forced to land.) Much later, the event spawned a book (Freefall: A True Story by William and Marilyn Mona Hoffer) and a made-for-TV movie (Freefall: Flight 174, Out of fuel, Out of time).

Two days later the aircraft was sufficiently repaired to leave Gimli and, after further repairs, C-GUAN resumed service and flew, without further incident until it was retired from service.

On January 24, 2008, the aircraft left Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport on its last flight, first to Tucson and then to a resting place in the Mojave Desert. Four of the Glider’s original crew were passengers – Pilot Bob Pearson, Co-Pilot Maurice Quintal, Flight Service Manager Bob Desjardins and Fight Attendant Susan Jewett.

The “retirement” home for the Glider and other geriatric aircraft is the aviation version of a used-car lot. Both the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada and the Town of Gimli had hoped the aircraft would be decommissioned closer to home. But resource limitations grounded the dreams. “We would have loved to have had the aircraft here,” says Shirley Render, Executive Director the Aviation Museum, “but it would have had to be a gifted to us as we certainly couldn’t afford it. We are in the business of telling aviation stories and the Glider certainly has a story to tell.”

From Pearson’s point of view, the descent was controllable, not taxing. It was the cabin crew, the point people with the passengers, who he felt had the most difficult job. They knew what was going on but had to ready the passengers for an emergency landing. Pearson went into a type of auto-pilot. ”It really meant working harder for about 40 minutes and doing what was necessary to land the plane safely,” he said.

“I thought I had done a good, professional job that day,” states Pearson, an assessment shared by the aviation fraternity and the general public. Air Canada, however, had a dissenting view. Its immediate response was to blame the miscalculations and subsequent forced landing on Pearson, Quintal and the maintenance crews in Ottawa and Montreal. After this initial kneejerk reaction and immediate attempts by Air Canada senior management to dismiss Pearson and Quintal, saner heads prevailed. And, contrary to what many have thought, Pearson states that neither he nor his co-pilot were reprimanded or disciplined by their employer even though he went public to counter Air Canada’s charges and to protect his reputation. “We were held out of service,” he told the Interlake Spectator, the weekly newspaper that services Gimli and the surrounding Interlake area of Manitoba. “I was paid for full-block flying and held out of service for six to eight weeks.” Then he went back to work for another ten years.

Later, the report of a government inquiry into the matter completely exonerated all of the employees of any wrongdoing. Not so their employer. The inquiry found many deficiencies in Air Canada’s staff training methods. Upper management was criticized for serious communication failures. The report concluded that producing manuals and procedures for personnel was a “corporate responsibility” not being adequately fulfilled by Air Canada management. It made several recommendations to correct the problems.

In April 2013, the Gimli Glider was offered for sale by a company called Collectable Cars at auction with an estimated price of $2.75–3 million. However, bidding only reached $425,000 and the lot went unsold. According to the websites dedicated to saving the aircraft, it was dismantled in mid-2014, allowing it to be sold for parts. 
Joanne Simonis of the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada.

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