Article: A Famous Forced Landing

  • Image of an Air Canada Boeing 767 landed on an old unused runway at Gimli, Manitoba on July 23, 1983. Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press

    Fall, 2008, Altitude

    Gimli, Manitoba, founded in 1875, is a prosperous, progressive town of some 5,000 people located approximately 80 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the sandy, southwestern shore of Lake Winnipeg, the 13th largest freshwater lake in the world. The town, or at least its name, is well known for many things.

    There was 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.

    From the ridiculous to the sublime, you don’t have to buy bottled water in Gimli; you can make your own. Just turn on the tap. The supply and quality of its water were the reasons for the establishment of the Gimli distillery by Seagram’s in 1968, and now operated by Diageo Canada. It is now the world’s source of Crown Royal Whisky. Sköl!

    There is the annual Icelandic Festival, Islendingadagurinn, held annually on the August long weekend. It is the second oldest continuous ethnic festival in North America. August 2008, marked the 119th Festival.

    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 huge conceptual shift in the way weight, volume and distance were measured. Pounds became kilograms, litres replaced gallons and miles were now kilometres. Therein was the problem that brought Flight 143 to Gimli. Inexperience with kilograms and litres resulted in a miscalculation, in both Montreal and Ottawa, of the amount of fuel on board. There was much less than the math indicated. The plane was running on empty by the time it approached the Manitoba/Ontario boarder. Eventually, with the loss of both engines, Flight 143 was transformed from a state-of-the-art jet into the mother of all gliders.

    Image of an Air Canada Boeing 767 landed on an old unused runway at Gimli, Manitoba on July 23, 1983. Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press

    Unable to make Winnipeg, it headed for Gimli, after airports at St. Andrews and Netley were rejected, and toward a 6,800-foot runaway of a RCAF base, just west of the town, that had been decommissioned in 1971. The base had become a civilian airport and, in part, a popular site for motor sport events. On July 23rd, the area was in use and well populated: there were dozens of cars, campers, kids and families as it was Family Day for the Winnipeg Sports Car Club and one of the Day’s events involved go-cart racing for kids. Added to the ground complications, 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 away 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 reasons other than the skill of the cockpit and cabin crew. The minor injuries to ten of the 61 passengers and eight crewmembers came to those who 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, although three local boys on bikes, in their early teens, came perilously close to being flattened by the plane as they were directly in its path on the runway.

    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.). But two days later the aircraft was sufficiently repaired to leave Gimli and, after further repairs, #604 resumed service and flew, without further incident, until January 24, 2008, when it was retired from service. It is now parked in the Mojave Desert in California.

    On January 24, 2008, AC #7067, call sign Air Canada Glider, left Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport on its last flight, first to Tucson and then to Mojave. Captain Jean-Marc Belanger was pilot. 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 Air Canada Glider call sign was so well known to many pilots who came in contact with the plane on its route south, it was decided to change the call sign to the Gimli Glider. By coincidence, Peter Fournier, First Officer on the flight south, was actually in Gimli the day Flight 143 glided to a stop. He was in Gimli to complete his commercial pilot’s licence and witnessed the event first hand. According to Air Canada Captain Tom Rowan, writing in the ACPA Journal (Spring 2008, #67) the “Boeing 767 Fin 604 now sits quietly in a neat row at Mojave airstrip in California along with our old DC-9s still in their original Air Canada colours. She flew over 83,000 hours as one of our heavy jets and is a very special plane indeed…when she glided safely into an old air strip in Gimli, Manitoba, at the hands of one of our greatest captains along with his outstanding F/O.”

    The “retirement” home for the Glider and other geriatric aircraft is the aviation version of a used-car lot. Both the Western Canada Aviation Museum in Winnipeg and the Town of Gimli had hoped the aircraft would be decommissioned closer to home, to where the action took place in 1983. But resource limitations grounded the dreams.“We would love to have had the aircraft here,” said Shirley Render, Executive Director of the Aviation Museum, “but it would have to have been a gift and we’d have to find free space to store and display it. Right now, we’re full, which is unfortunate, because we are in the business of telling aviation stories and the Glider certainly has a story to tell.”

    Similar enthusiasm but equal resource limitations faced the Rural Municipality of Gimli, which includes the town. Mayor Tammy Axelsson said that neither the New Iceland Heritage Museum, of which she is Executive Director, nor the town were in a position to obtain, display and maintain an aircraft of any kind. Nonetheless, the town embraced the opportunity to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the unscheduled arrival of Flight #143.

    Spearheaded by the Gimli Art Club and under the initiative and leadership of Barbara Gluck, the town gave the returning crew a hero’s welcome. On July 23, 2008, 25 years to the day of the famous landing, six of the original eight crew returned to Gimli for the anniversary – Pearson, Quintal, Desjardins, Jewett, and Flight Attendants Nicole Lovat and Danielle Reindeau. There were two showings of Freefall. There was a well-attended morning media conference, followed by a parade that drew spirited applause and cheers from the crowd of over 1,000 people as the crew passed by in vintage convertibles. Lastly, there was a meet-and-greet event where people could chat with the crew and where, on display, was assorted memorabilia associated with the Glider and its visit. As a permanent reminder of the anniversary, an acrylic mural of the plane, by local artist Dave McNabb, was unveiled on the Gimli Seawall Gallery, a showcase of 60 panels by various artists that enhances the north wall of the Gimli dock, a crooked finger of concrete jutting southeast from the shore into Lake Winnipeg. (Pearson and Quintal had previously been recognized for their heroism by having two streets named after them in the Gimli Industrial Development Park, formerly a part of the Air Force base.)

    And for the first time, Pearson got to meet those boys on their bikes. Two of the three were there. Art Zuke, 14 in 1983, and Kerry Seabrook, then 12, recalled they responded like typical, fearless teenagers, spellbound by the sight of a giant plane bumping along the runway toward them and stopping a mere 100 feet from where they stood. It was awe, not shock. Reality only set in when smoke began to appear, the escape chutes opened and passengers began spilling out onto the tarmac. At that point, pedalling as fast as they could, they headed toward
    the crowd, that had been unaware of the descending aircraft because of the din of the Family Day activities, yelling “Plane crash, plane crash.” (On August 8, 2008, some two weeks after that 25th anniversary reunion, Seabrook once again faced an oncoming plane: he had to drive his truck into a ditch to avoid colliding with a Cessna 207 Skywagon that was making an emergency landing on Highway 8 north of Winnipeg.)

    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, had no control over what was going on, but had to keep going on about their business readying the passengers for an emergency landing.) He 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. However, upon seeing the boys on the runway, his self-confidence was shaken. To avoid hitting them, and just before the craft ground to a stop, he considered redirecting the plane off the runway.

    “I thought I had done a good, professional job that day,” states Pearson, an assessment shared by Zuke and Seabrook (they told him so, to his face, when they met for the first time), the aviation fraternity and the general public. Air Canada, however, had a dissenting view. Its immediate response was to go public. It blamed the miscalculations and subsequent forced landing on Pearson, Quintal and the maintenance crews in Ottawa and Montreal, conveniently or completely forgetting the facts that the plane was not a smouldering pile of twisted steel and that no lives were lost, not usually the outcomes in such circumstances. After this initial knee-jerk 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 the employer. The inquiry found many deficiencies in Air Canada’s staff-training methods. Upper management was criticized for serious communications 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. It passed no judgement on Gimli Goose.

    This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2008 edition of Altitude.

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