It was 25 years ago this week that Air Canada Flight 143, en route from Montreal to Edmonton (via Ottawa), ran out of fuel above western Ontario and had to make an emergency no-engine landing on what used to be a runway at a small airport in Gimli, Manitoba.
The Winnipeg Free Press has a story about the captain of that flight, Bob Pearson, meeting the two boys he almost ran down with his barely-controllable airplane on July 23, 1983. The boys were part of a family day outing at an old runway that had been converted into a racetrack. Unfortunately, the captain and his copilot didn’t know that and were shocked to find people gathered on their emergency landing strip. With no engines and no room to change course, they had no choice but to land anyway. The kids, being kids, panicked and pedalled as fast as they could on their bikes away from the plane, not rationally concluding that there’s no way a bicycle is going to outrun a landing 767. As luck would have it, the plane’s nose gear collapsed (without power it hadn’t been lowered properly and wasn’t locked in place), slowing it down and keeping it from running anyone over.
The CBC also mentions a mural that honours the flight being unveiled.
There really isn’t a way to overstate how awesome this story is. This writeup last year at Damn Interesting gives it a shot, though:
After repeated unsuccessful attempts to restart the stalled engines, Pearson and Quintal once again consulted the 767 emergency manual, this time for advice on an unpowered landing. Much to their dismay, no such section existed, presumably because a simultaneous engine failure had been too ridiculous for Boeing engineers to contemplate.
Basically, the story was that the plane’s fuel gauges were non-functional prior to takeoff (apparently a common occurrence at the time which should have been sufficient to ground the plane until it was fixed), and the ground crew measured the fuel load manually (in Montreal and again in Ottawa), figuring that would be enough. Unfortunately, they made an error in the conversion process (the brand new 767 was an all-metric aircraft in an era when people were still using pounds) and ended up thinking they had twice as much fuel as they did.
By the time the crew realized they had insufficient fuel, it was too late and the engines quickly starved to death. This required some quick thinking from the crew, who hadn’t been trained on gliding a jumbo jet without engines because nobody had ever thought it necessary to train pilots how to do so. One never-before-contemplated-much-less-even-tried maneuvre from the captain, a forward slip (where the ailerons were turned in one direction and the rudder in the other, causing the plane to fly sideways and at a nearly 90-degree angle to the ground to lose altitude quickly) is enough to turn one’s stomach.
Still, despite having no fuel (and limited control), despite the lack of an air traffic control tower at Gimli, despite the runway that wasn’t a runway, despite the pants-soiling forward-slip maneuvre a hundred feet above the ground, and despite the collapsed nose gear, the plane landed safely with no major injuries to anyone on the plane or on the ground.
Perhaps most shockingly, the plane was repaired on site and then flown back for further maintenance, and continued in service for Air Canada for another 25 years. It retired this January, just six months before the 25th anniversary of its historic flight.
For those of you who prefer your stories in dramatic re-enactment form, though, my favouritest TV show ever finally got around to profiling the flight this season (the two stills above are from this episode). You can watch Mayday: Gimli Glider on Discovery’s website for free.
UPDATE (July 28): Discovery is replaying its Gimli Glider Mayday episode Wednesday at 10pm (repeats Thursday at 2am and 3pm)