Amazing Feat of Flying: Visiting the Gimli Glider!

Gimli is the cultural heartland of Icelanders in Manitoba and the country as a whole. Gimli’s first European settlers were Icelanders who were part of the New Iceland settlement in Manitoba.  In Norse mythology Gimli is known as the most beautiful place in the after life, where only the worthy will be transported after death.

Other than being a lakeside community, Gimli is known primarily for two things:  

  1. its annual Icelandic festival and;  
  2. the Gimli Glider

I love avionics.  I’ve been obsessed since I was in my early twenties, mainly out of fear on account of heights and watching way too many episodes of Mayday/Air Disaster.  I was obsessed with flights gone wrong, not out of morbidity, but out of wanting to learn everything I could about planes and flying so I could be more “aware” for when I flew.  A bit neurotic, but instead of freaking me out more, it actually calmed me, the more I understood, the more in control I felt.  I eventually tackled my fear of flying by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and then 2 years later registering to get my PPL (personal pilots license).  

I love the show Mayday, I’ve pretty much watched every episode, twice. Season 5 Episode 2 is the one about the “Gimli Glider”: Air Canada 143. Which is why I am sooooo excited to visit the Gimli Glider Museum in Gimli, Manitoba.

It’s July 23, 1983, I’m 9 years old, it’s a calm Summer evening and Air Canada flight 143 is on its way to Edmonton from Montreal (with a stop in Ottawa). Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal are both veteran pilots, and they’re flying a newly automated Boeing 767.  

Captain Bob Pearson’s uniform of the day

Up in the cockpit in the observers chair (jump seat)  is Air Canada Maintenance Control Supervisor, Rick Dion.  Dion is not a member of the crew on this flight, but rather he’s on the flight as a passenger with his wife and young son.  Dion is up in the flight deck to observe and discuss the brand new airliner with electronic flight equipment.  

Screen Shot 2021-10-15 at 10.32.04 AM

The chair above is the original chair, and was reupholstered to a 1983 appearance, but, the arms, belts and base are as they were on flight 143, and upon recovery from the airplane graveyard.  

Midway through the flight, things begin to go horribly wrong. The system alerts the pilots to a problem.  The plane is in danger of running out of fuel. Cpt Pearson decides to land as soon as possible and heads for Winnipeg. As he descends he loses one engine, then another. As First Officer Maurice Quintal performs crucial calculations, Captain Bob Pearson, an experienced glider pilot, takes manual control of the 767. Working with minimal instruments and hydraulics, and without flaps and spoilers, the crew nurse their crippled plane, the huge Boeing is falling from the sky.  They won’t make it to Winnipeg.  First Officer Quintal had been at Gimli during his military service, so he knew the nearby air base at Gimli and it was likely the closest landing strip … but … they don’t know that it’s been decommissioned. 

Meanwhile on the ground along the shores of Lake Winnipeg the day’s events at a race car strip alongside the Gimli airport were winding down.  Families sitting alongside their campers and trailers after the final race was held.  Barbecues had finished, cottagers were on their decks relaxing when one by one groups of people spotted a very large, very silent aircraft coming in.  It did not take long to realize something was terribly wrong. 

The only way for Cpt Pearson to get his plane safely down is to try a manoeuvre that only glider pilots would know about. Thankfully, Cpt Pearson knows a lot about aerodynamics, in the 1960’s he was a glider pilot and instructed and knows how to force the plane into a sideslip. 

As he comes in for landing, Cpt Pearson notices three boys on the runway, they pedal and try to outrun the plane, but Kerry Seabrook, 11 years old, was frozen. The jetliner slid to a stop just a couple of hundred feet in front of him.

Kerry Seabrook’s original bike

As Cpt Pearson touches down, his front landing gear collapsed, his rear tires blow. It is the first-ever 767 to land without engines does so without so much as a single serious injury.

What caused this plane to have a twin engine flame out?  The accident is blamed on a mistake in manually converting pounds to kilograms, which resulted in the aircraft carrying only 45% of its required fuel load.  Because there was a problem with the flight management computer, and it was intermittently inoperable, it meant that fuel for the flight would have to be measured and calculated manually. The crew needed to enter the fuel quantity into the flight computer in kilograms, but they mistakenly did the calculation with the density of jet fuel in pounds/litre. 

Board of Inquiry documents

The Board of Inquiry found Air Canada at fault for the near disaster and commended Cpt Pearson and his crew for how they handled the potentially deadly situation. In 1985, Pearson and Quintal were awarded the first ever Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship.

Several attempts by other crews who were given the same circumstances in a simulator at Vancouver resulted in crashes. 

Cpt Pearson’s amazing feat of flying changed airline flying around the world! It is said that those new procedures also saved the lives of those on board the 2001Air Transat flight that ran out of fuel and glided safely to the Azores. And that even Captain Sully (of the Miracle on the Hudson) called Captain Pearson to thank him. This feat of flying was so well revered back on the day that it forever changed the training pilots received, no doubt that Captain Sully wouldn’t have landed that plane safely in the Hudson, had flight training not been altered to learn gliding procedures.

The Boeing flew passengers for another 25 years before ending her service with Air Canada, without incident.  She was retired from the Air Canada fleet in 2008 and is now located in the Mojave (California) desert airplane boneyard.  As you can see from a recent satellite photo, it is being pieced off for parts.

Air Canada 143 at her resting place in the Mojave desert, being parted out

The little museum has also been able to obtain other parts of flight 143 …

The last thing I was able to do while at the museum was fly a flight simulator of the same air path that the Gimli Glider would have come in on. Had I had passengers aboard, they would definitely have needed to make use of the paper barf bags, but, I was able to land at Gimli, after sliding off the runway, making my way back on and losing my nose gear (it’s set up to do that, but not slide of the runway lmao). The museum has also been able to obtain other parts of flight 143 …

Trying to lock onto the runway
My flight path into Gimli

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