One of the first things we’re taught in driving school is to make sure that the car has enough fuel in it to ensure that you’ll be able to arrive at your final destination. In fact, for most people, it’s a matter of basic intuition. This makes running out of fuel while on the road a particularly embarrassing inconvenience, but usually not a dangerous one. Running out of fuel while flying a plane, however, is a matter of life and death.
This is exactly what happened to Air Canada Flight 143 on July 23, 1983. Flight 143 was a routine flight between the two Canadian cities of Montreal, Quebec and Edmonton, Alberta; with a stopover in the nation’s capital—Ottawa, Ontario. The pilots on board that day were Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Stephane Quintal, two very experienced pilots. The aeroplane was a brand-new Boeing 767, a widebodied jet which had only been in worldwide commercial service for a short period of time.
As Flight 143 prepared to leave Montreal, the two pilots were tasked with preparing the plane for the long trip to Edmonton. This included filling up the big Boeing with enough aviation fuel to take the plane over halfway across the continent. Normally, this would be a simple process - order the correct quantity of fuel at the airport, and check the gauges to make sure that there was enough fuel in the tanks.
However, filling up Flight 143 would present a challenge to the pilots. Normally, pilots would be able to determine the quantity of fuel on board using the plane’s Fuel Quantity Information System (FQIS), which is a fancy term for the plane’s fuel gauge. However, the FQIS on Flight 143 was not working properly, so the ground crew had to use a dipstick to check how much fuel was in the tanks. The dipstick reading was in litres, and would need to be converted into kilograms so that the pilot could order the correct quantity of fuel for the journey.
As it turned out, Canada was going through the painful process of converting the country’s official units of measurement from Imperial units (pounds, feet, etc.) to metric. What nobody realised was that Cpt. Pearson had accidentally converted the dipstick reading into pounds of fuel instead of kilograms. Since one pound is equal to just under half a kilogram, Cpt. Pearson believed that he had over twice as much fuel in the tanks as what there actually was. As a result, the flight crew didn’t put enough fuel in the tanks.
The two pilots realized their critical error near the Manitoba-Ontario provincial border. First came a fuel pressure warning, and then came the failure of the left engine. Instinctively, the pilots wisely planned to divert the flight to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the nearest city that was capable of handling such a big airliner. As they began to divert, the other engine suddenly failed.
Flight 143 was now a glider, and the pilots knew they wouldn’t be able to make it to Winnipeg. Worse still, at the time, every other commercial jetliner in history to run out of fuel mid-flight was unable to land safely. It looked as though everyone on board was doomed.
Then, First Officer Quintal remembered something from his days in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He remembered that there was an Air Force base near the small town of Gimli, Manitoba, which was closer to Flight 143’s position than Winnipeg. Rather than risking a fatal crash on approach to Winnipeg International Airport, the flight crew decided to divert again to Gimli. This came with its own risks, as Flight 143 was gliding too high and too fast to make a standard landing at the much closer Air Force base. The pilots could not use their flaps in this situation, as the lack of engine power rendered them inoperable.
The only thing Cpt. Pearson could do was something that is almost never done in widebody jets, but is a common technique among glider pilots. Cpt. Pearson tried to execute what’s known as a side slip, which involves banking the aircraft and flicking the rear end of the aeroplane at an angle to the front in order to generate drag and slow down the plane.
In other words, Captain Bob Pearson essentially ‘drifted’ one of the world’s biggest passenger jets in mid-air. To the amazement of the entire aviation community, he was successful. Flight 143 was now in position to make an emergency landing at the Gimli Air Force base.
There was just one problem. What Cpt. Pearson and F.O. Quintal did not know was that the Royal Canadian Air Force had decommissioned the Gimli base. It had since been converted into a motorsports park, including a road course and a drag strip. And it was race day at Gimli Motorsports Park.
Fortunately, most of the races on the drag strip were finished that day. However, as Flight 143 approached the drag strip, there were two young boys on their bicycles racing each other down the track. Since the engines weren’t running, nobody heard Flight 143 on its final approach. Cpt. Pearson would later recall that he could see the look of fear on the boys’ faces as they realised that an Air Canada flight was about to land behind them. Fortunately, the friendly bike race was one that both boys won, as Flight 143 would miss them by mere metres.
Flight 143 was about to touch down, but the runway was far too short for a 767 to land without crashing. In a stroke of luck, the front landing gear failed to lock into place. This caused the front of the plane to slam into the guard rail of the drag strip, which tore into the fuselage of the big jet and helped to come to a stop.
The pilots of Air Canada Flight 143 (by now, known colloquially as the ‘Gimli Glider’) had made the first ever successful landing of a commercial jetliner with no engine power. What’s more, they did it without any resulting fatalities. The handful of passenger injuries were attributed to a rough evacuation of the aircraft. All 69 of the plane’s occupants were alive.
Despite the lifesaving actions of the flight crew, both Cpt. Pearson and F.O. Quintal received job sanctions from Air Canada for causing the fuel emergency to occur in the first place. Nevertheless, both pilots were hailed as heroes throughout the aviation community and the general public. Pilots and aviation experts around the world praised the flight crew for their bravery and leadership in such a dire situation. They were also praised for their flying skills, which had resulted in an outcome that few pilots would have believed was possible.
Today, Gimli Motorsports Park is still a popular place for racing enthusiasts of all styles, and has recently become a popular venue for local drifting events. However, even if you brought Keiichi Tsuchiya himself to Gimli, it’s unlikely that the track will ever see something as daring and awesome as the landing of the Gimli Glider.