Gliding into history

I just didn’t believe what I was being told. Twenty-five years ago I was thoroughly enjoying a high school reunion when a frantic reporter on the staff of the same newspaper I worked for located me among of a throng of partygoers, shouting above the music that an airliner had made an emergency landing just a quarter-kilometre away.

“You’re kidding?” I said in disbelief.

“No!”  she emphatically replied.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe me, it’s right outside.”

Of course, she was quite correct. The now-famous Gimli Glider had come in for an emergency landing a few hundred metres away from the recreation centre where the Gimli high school reunion was being held. 

My memories of the eventful day —July 23, 1983 — were rekindled by Interlake Spectator editor Jim Mosher, who had e-mailed asking whether a front-page photo in the newspaper, showing the aircraft in the midst of the runway turned drag strip with emergency chutes deployed, had been taken by me. Indeed it had.

The wide-bodied jet made the emergency landing after a harrowing glide without engines just as twilight was looming at the Gimli Motorsport Park drag strip. The spectacular feat of flying followed by an equally spectacular landing became an international media sensation and was reported world-wide using the nickname “Gimli Glider.”

In a telephone conversation with Mosher, I was given some details about the 25th anniversary press conference in Gimli, which included Captain Bob Pearson, the pilot of the Gimli Glider, as well as the three adults who were just young lads when the aircraft made its approach as they biked on the runway. Art Zuke, Kerry Seabrook and Cam Berglund explained they were captivated as the airplane came into view. They saw the Boeing 767 made a steep vertical descent. After touching down, its underbelly screeched while grating metal-to-metal on the drag strip’s middle guard rail. When the aircraft came to a halt, the three boys plainly saw the white of the two pilots’ shirts as well as their unblinking eyes. The pilots and bicyclists were all pleasantly surprised that a potential disaster had been averted.

After my conversation with Mosher, he sent a copy of an article I had written following the emergency landing of the Gimli Glider for the Spectator. Among the people I had interviewed was Remi Paquette, the senior Transport Canada investigator, who credited Pearson with using “extremely good judgement” in making the touchdown. 

According to Paquette, the airplane was reported to have been serviced with 24,000 kilograms of aviation fuel in Ottawa before taking off, but when the tanks were checked in Gimli after the landing only 75 litres remained.  Air Canada Flight 143 had been scheduled to make a non-stop flight from Ottawa to Edmonton when the fuel feeding its left engine ran dry and finally the last engine was starved of fuel over Red Lake, Ontario. Paquette said the aircraft needed another 19,000 litres of fuel in its tanks to reach Edmonton. The absence of fuel resulted from a miscalculation when converting to metric measurements. At the time, the 767s in the Air Canada fleet were the only aircraft requiring metric liquid measurements. It also didn’t help that the fuel gauges on the aircraft were inoperable, necessitating the ground crew to check the fuel level with a dipstick. Paquette in 1983 told me another mistake occurred when a ground crew member read inches for centimetres on the dipstick.

Passenger Robert Howitt of Edmonton told the subsequent inquiry into the mishap that he would never forget his experience aboard the Gimli Glider. “It was silent. No more engines. Then there was a kind of whining, a horrible whining.” He said the passengers were informed 15 minutes after the engines stopped that an emergency landing would be made. “We did not know whether we were going to make it to some airstrip or were we going to crash or die. The worst was the awareness of mortal danger, we thought we all might die.”

A fortunate circumstance for those aboard Flight 143 was that co-pilot First Officer Maurice Quintal was familiar with the Gimli runway layout from his days stationed at the former CFB airport as a member of the armed forces. He knew there was a runway long enough to accommodate the jet, but what he didn’t know was that the runway had been converted into a drag strip.

As the airplane began its descent, Quintal unsuccessfully tried to manually lower the nose wheel. As it turned out, this was another stroke of good luck as the friction created when the aircraft’s nose came into contact with the guard rail helped to slow the 767 down. Looking on in astonishment as the crippled behemoth slid along the guard rail and directly in their path were a group of campers, barbecuing and celebrating after a day of drag racing.

“Once the plane was on the ground, we were told to get the hell away from the aircraft (by sliding down the inflated emergency chutes),” said Howitt.

Although shaken by their experience, no one was seriously injured. Several people were taken to Gimli hospital with minor bumps and bruises resulting from the slide down the chute. One elderly woman was hospitalized for a few days due to trauma.

The unhurt passengers and crew were taken to the Viking Motor Hotel where they received a hot meal. Rick Kalyn, the co-owner of the Viking at the time, said the passengers were extremely agitated when they first arrived, but “most of them seemed quite calm a little later.” Some of the passengers requested blankets and pillows and went to sleep. Most telephoned family and friends to assure them they were safely on the ground.

Several hours later, two buses transported the passengers from Gimli to the Northstar Inn in Winnipeg.

In his final report following the inquiry, Chief Justice George H. Lockwood said it was “thanks to the professionalism and skill of the flight crew and the flight attendants that the corporate and equipment deficiencies were overcome and a major disaster was averted.”

Before the parade and ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Gimli Glider,  Pearson told Mosher, he was happy to have found the “only place that offered them some solid ground to land on.” The other options available were a splash-landing on Lake Winnipeg or on a farmer’s field, which undoubtedly would have had disastrous consequences for all aboard.