Monday, June 2, 2008

Ode to the Gimli Glider

Occasionally, an airliner with a lot of fame (or noteriety, as the case may be) is retired to the sunny climes of Mojave...planes like Continental's Concorde-killing DC-10, the research testbed B-720 known as Embraceable Annie, the oldest DC-9 in the world, Virgin's Spirit of New York, the Los Angeles Dodgers' last team plane and others. A few months ago, a Boeing 767 which gained fame as Air Canada's "Gimli Glider" joined the silent Mojave ranks.

Air Canada's C-GAUN, fin number 604, came about as close to disaster as possible without actually killing anyone, and because of how the story turned out, its pilots were hailed as heroes and the plane came to have a cult-like following.

The plane, crew and its passengers were the victims of simple human error, brought on by a plane built in the U.S. being operated in a country that was trying to get used to the new metric system.
The fateful day was July 23, 1983, and GAUN, flying as ACA Flight 143 left Montreal for Edmonton, with a brief stopover in Ottawa. Because the computerized Fuel Quantity Indicating System (FQIS) in this four-month-old Boeing was on the fritz, fuel quantity was determined visually on the ground by using the aircraft's dripsticks (which isn't so different from checking the fuel quantity on a Model T Ford). This isn't so bad, and is actually a reliable system...except when you do the math wrong. As this was one of the first aircraft delivered to ACA with the fuel measured in litres and kilograms rather than the traditional gallons and pounds, it was ripe for error. On top of that, it was one of the first to be manned with only a two-man crew, and the now-extinct Flight Engineer was the one who'd normally be doing the math. Instead of calculating the weight of a litre of Jet-A in kilograms, the crew accidently did it in pounds, and as a result, the plane had less than half the fuel on board that they thought was there. And as a result, what fuel was there was soon jet exhaust, and the plane became Boeing's big glider.

The closest airport was a partially closed airfield at Gimli, Manitoba. Captain Robert Pearson and FO Maurice Quintal had to fight an airplane with minimal hydraulics for the flight controls and battery power for the electronics. Fortunately, Pearson was a trained glider pilot. When they dropped the gear, they only got two green...the nose gear hanging limply under the plane. They had checked the aircraft's emergency checklist for the correct procedures, and found to their dismay that there was none - no one at Boeing ever thought that a double engine failure was a possibility, and so no procedures had been written. To add to the woes, part of the runway at Gimli had been closed, and was being used as a race course, with hundreds of barbequing race fans on hand as the plane quickly dropped to a committed landing.

On touchdown, braking was limited because there were no spoilers or thrust reversers available, but this deficit was more than made up for by the collapse of the nose gear, which sent up a nice shower of sparks behind the plane (at least the #1 danger in a crash, a fuel-fed fire was not a worry!). The crew's max-effort braking managed to blow out a couple of the mains, and the plane came to a stop on the centerline less than 100 feet from the race crowd. A small nose wheel well fire was quickly extinguised by race course workers. Damage to the plane was minimal, and after some field repairs, it was flown out two days later. Though blamed for the mistake which caused the incident, the flight crew was also honored by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale with their first-ever Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship in 1985.

Fast-forward to January 31, 2008, and the announced final flight of the Gimli Glider, from Montreal to its new home in Mojave...from the Great White North to the Great Brown South, or as the Vancouver Sun put it, "airplane heaven". Pearson and Quintal, as well as several of the original cabin crew, were onboard for the final flight, complete with a low pass down Montreal's runway, and a full tank of gas. To top it all off, as the plane flew to first Tuscon and then to Mojave, its call-sign to air traffic control was "Gimli Glider".

Farewell to the Maple Leaf!

YouTube has a video of the final flyby of 604 as it left Montreal for Mojave.

A detailed account of the incident

CBC news article on final flight

CBC news story from 1 week after the incident


Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,

Thank you for showing us aircraft 604 in storage.

One thing that keeps being missed in many accounts of the incident of July 23 1983 is the fact that the airplane had landed in Montreal perfectly serviceable with one fuel management computer channel u/s and the associated circuit breaker pulled. As a result of maintenance personel trying to trouble shoot the snag, the said circuit breaker was reset and left in, resulting in blank fuel quantity gauges. In the rush to get the flight out the flight crew was lead to believe that it was OK to leave (MEL was silent) with blank fuel gauges. They ordered a stick check ex Montreal and again during the station stop in Ottawa. The metric conversion mistake was missed at least 3 times.

I had the privilege to fly the Glider to MHV for storage on it's last flight. Having the original flight crew with me was a moving experience. Both of them (Bob Pearson and Maurice Quintal) are now retired from Air Canada. You are right about the call sign that we used. We started out of Montreal using the call sign '' The Air Canada Glider '' then as we flew close to Chicago a UAL pilot suggested that we used the call sign '' The Gimli Glider ''. The Chicago Center controller reinforced that and after consulting with our guests, we agreed to the change. We then used that call sign the rest of the way to Tucson then on to Mohave. We did not hang around much after landing in MHV. It was a crappy day (actually raining and low ceilings in the desert that day), we just took a couple of pictures then got in the car that was taking us to LA for a layover. An emotional goodbye for sure.

In fact today is the 25th anniversary of the incident. The town of Gimli, Manitoba is holding a celebration to mark the anniversary. The whole crew (cockpit and cabin) was invited and is participating in the celebrations.

As a coincidence I was flying today with the First Officer that was with me on the Glider's last flight on January 24th, 2008. His name is Peter Fournier. Peter and I were flying another B767-200 (fin 621) today just north of Gimli around 11AM on our way to Vancouver. It was a fine day on the shores of lake Winnipeg to hold a celebration. We looked down and thanked the folks of Gimli for inviting the crew of the Gimli Glider back to commemorate their skill and professionalism. A number of the original passengers were on hand as well as the kids who were riding their bikes on the de-commissioned runway just ahead of the landed glider.

Thanks again,

AC Captain Jean-Marc Bélanger

Anonymous said...

I dont have much to add except its so good to see such nice people showing respect to all in the Gimli incident, and even myself not connected with the aircraft still get a bit of a lump in my throat when I read about this. Andto see that its not such a bad world afterall.Would be a shame to see the glider be subjected to anything other than a retirement in aeroplane heaven.
Richard Martin Melbourne Australia.

SteveInOregon said...

Facinating, I just watched the full documentary. I have passed by Mojave plane storage many times when I was much younger ( I am 49 in 2013 ) and often wondered if those jet's have a story, but this is the story of stories.

Thanks You, Steve