The Gimli Glider had its last flight yesterday, almost 25 years after a metric conversion error (along with a few other mistakes) caused an Air Canada 767 to run out of fuel in the air and glide powerless onto a runway at an old military base in Gimli, Man. As the final trip to the Mojave, CA airport (the desert airplane graveyard) took off from Montreal, it flew past the Air Canada hangar to salute the employees who gathered to celebrate its retirement.
For those who didn’t read the book or see the made-for-TV movie about the incident, an Air Canada flight from Montreal to Edmonton in 1983 had a malfunctioning fuel gauge, and ground workers fuelling it manually miscalculated the amount needed through a metric conversion error (the plane was among the first all-metric ones to be flown here). The pilots didn’t find out they were low on fuel until just before the engines died, and ended up landing it without engine power, flaps, half their instruments, a locked nose gear and most of the power assistance for flight controls.
This line from the first article linked below sums it up best:
As Pearson began gliding the big bird, Quintal “got busy” in the manuals looking for procedures for dealing with the loss of both engines. There were none. Neither he nor Pearson nor any other 767 pilot had ever been trained on this contingency.
The story goes on to even more craziness: turning the airplane on its side to lose altitude quickly while on final approach; landing on a decommissioned runway with hundreds of people celebrating a family fun day at the other end (the plane stopped just a hundred feet short of spectators), and the maintenance crew driving up from Winnipeg in a van who got lost and ran out of gas along the way.
But other people recount this story much better than I do. Here are some of the better ones:
- Soaring Magazine, 1997 (a good telling of the story with technical background)
- Flight Safety Australia, 2003 (includes an interview with the captain)
- Damn Interesting, 2007 (tells it like a novel, with colourful dialogue from the crew)
- CBC Archives: Video news report from 1983
It’s one of my favourite airplane stories, and definitely my favourite one that hasn’t yet been featured on my favouritest show ever. (Though they’re planning 10 new episodes this year, so maybe it’s time?)
Amazingly enough, it’s not even the longest recorded engineless glide of a commercial airliner. That honour goes to Air Transat Flight 236, which took off from Toronto and lost fuel over the Atlantic due to a fuel leak. The pilots in that flight had a similar crisis to contend with, only the runway they were headed to was on a tiny island in the middle of a very large ocean.
But the Gimli Glider came first. Before then, nobody had even (seriously) conceived of flying a large passenger jet this way. Its crew instantly became test pilots, and the aircraft itself one giant guinea pig pushed to its limits. After what was sure to be a devastating crash, it required only moderate repairs and left the runway on its own power, going back for repairs and continuing as a passenger aircraft for another two decades.
And for that, we salute you.