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1983: ‘Gimli Glider’ lands without fuel due to metric conversion error

The Story

Twelve kilometres above the Manitoba countryside, the unthinkable happens: a brand new Air Canada Boeing 767 runs out of fuel. The 120-tonne, $40-million plane becomes a glider, dropping at over 600 metres per minute with no hope of reaching Winnipeg. Amazingly, the powerless plane makes a successful emergency landing at an abandoned airbase in Gimli, Man. A week later, Air Canada reveals how the newest plane in their fleet could simply run out of gas.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: July 29, 1983
Guest(s): Ken Johnson, Jean Lepottier
Host: George McLean
Reporter: John Fitzgibbon
Duration: 1:46

Did You know?

• The plane began to run out of gas near Red Lake, Ont., 225 km from Gimli, Man.

• Air Canada flight 143 was saved by a series of lucky breaks. The pilot, Capt. Robert Pearson, was an experienced glider pilot (he co-owned a Blanik L-13 sailplane). First Officer Maurice Quintal had once been stationed at the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Gimli and was familiar with the landing strips.

• The problem was caused by confusion over metric conversion. The Boeing 767 was the first metric plane to fly in Canada. The Fuel Quantity Information System computer on flight 143 was malfunctioning, so ground crew in Montreal loaded the fuel manually using calculations involving the specific gravity of jet fuel. But the factor they used was 1.77 pounds/litre, not the all-metric 0.8 kg/litre required for the new 767. The plane had half the fuel it needed to reach Edmonton.

• Without hydraulic pressure, the nose landing gear of the plane could not be fully lowered, and the nose of the 767 slammed into the ground, shooting out sparks as it dragged along the tarmac.

• The Gimli base had no control tower or fire trucks, and was being used as a racetrack. It had been divided into various courses, including a drag strip with a steel guardrail down the middle.

• July 23, 1983, was "Family Day" for the Winnipeg Sports Car Club. The Gimli base was full of families and campers, and the runway was being used for go-cart races. Spectators and racers had to scatter as the giant plane touched down.

• After the landing, a fire in the nose of the plane was extinguished by go-cart racers with hand-held fire extinguishers.

• The only injuries were to passengers who exited by the plane's rear emergency slide. Because the nose landing gear was not extended, the tail of the plane ended up three storeys in the air.

• The aircraft was fixed at Gimli and flown to Winnipeg for full repairs. It was later put back into regular service. Flight crews nicknamed the plane the 'Gimli Glider.'

• After the landing, the pilot and co-pilot of Air Canada flight 143 were praised for saving the lives of the 61 passengers on board. But on Oct. 4, 1983, Air Canada disciplined them for allowing the near-tragedy to happen. The pilot was demoted for six months, the co-pilot was suspended for two weeks and three ground workers were also suspended. A 1985 Transport Canada report blamed errors and insufficient training and safety procedures.

• Many residents of Gimli credit the incident with putting their town on the map. On July 1, 1986, Pearson, Quintal and the plane's flight attendants were given a place of honour in Gimli's Canada Day parade for making Gimli the site of Air Canada's most famous unscheduled stop.

Also on July 23:
1767: A Prince Edward Island land lottery is held in London, England. The land is divided up for colonization to British military officers to whom the government owes favours.
1908: Hamilton's Bobby Kerr wins the gold medal in the 200-metre race at the Olympic games in London. He won the bronze medal in the 100 metres final a day earlier.
1993: Carlos Costa becomes the youngest man, at age 20, and the first disabled person to complete the 52-kilometre swim across Lake Ontario. As a child, Costa had his limbs amputated due to lack of bone growth in his lower legs.


For Good Measure: Canada Converts to Metric more