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.)
The Aviation Safety Board of Canada (predecessor of the modern Transportation Safety Board of Canada) reported that Air Canada management was responsible for “corporate and equipment deficiencies”. The report praised the flight and cabin crews for their “professionalism and skill”. It noted that Air Canada “neglected to assign —clearly and specifically— the responsibility for calculating the fuel load in an abnormal situation”. It further found that the airline had failed to reallocate the task of checking fuel load (which had been the responsibility of the flight engineer on older aircraft flown with a crew of three.) The safety board also said that Air Canada needed to keep more spare parts, including replacements for the defective fuel quantity indicator, in its maintenance inventory as well as provide better, more thorough training on the metric system to its pilots and fuelling personnel. The final report of the investigation was published in April 1985
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.
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
Photo Credits/credits: Air Canada, Canadian Press, Wikipedia, Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada