Hero pilot is guest for Gimli Glider 25th anniversary

The town of Gimli, Man., held a ceremony Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the miraculous arrival at a local airstrip of the out-of-fuel Air Canada jet known as the Gimli Glider.
The Boeing 767 landed on a runway at an unused military airstrip in Gimli, Man., on July 23, 1983. ((CBC))
People cheered, a few wiped away tears and retired Air Canada pilot Bob Pearson shared memories Wednesday of the first time he dropped into Gimli, Man., unannounced.

On the harbour wall of the Lake Winnipeg port, a mural was unveiled by local dignitaries to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the "Gimli Glider."

It was July 23, 1983, and Pearson was at the controls of Air Canada flight 143 from Montreal to Edmonton via Ottawa. There were 69 passengers and crew aboard.

Due to an instrument malfunction and a mixup between imperial and metric fuel measuring dipsticks, the brand new Boeing 767's engines conked out well short of Winnipeg, the nearest major airport.

The plane had been carrying only half the fuel needed to reach its destination in Alberta.

Pearson and first officer Maurice Quintal treated the big jet like a glider and flew silently towards the nearest runway, which was at a former airbase near Gimli, then being used as a drag strip.

Glide was 'cold, robotic,' says pilot

An Air Canada Boeing 767, nicknamed the Gimli Glider, dwarfs race cars on an abandoned air strip in Gimli. ((The Canadian Press/Winnipeg Free Press/Wayne Glowacki))
Speaking Wednesday, Pearson said he really didn't have time to panic as the aircraft sagged lower and lower and approached the runway much faster than its usual landing speed.

"Up to the point where we touched down, for me it was a very cold robotic experience," Pearson told CBC News. "I really had tunnel vision and just controlling the aircraft and trying to aim for the piece of cement at Gimli airport."

On the ground watching the 767 makes its eerie silent approach, were several young boys who had been riding their BMX bicycles on the tarmac. They saw Pearson's plane but he didn't notice them, not at first.

"I didn't see these boys until we had touched down the main gear and when I looked up and saw these boys, that's when my heart starting beating. That was the traumatic part for me," Pearson said.

One of those standing, gaping at the airliner bearing down on them was Art Zuke, who was then 14 years old.

Wednesday in Gimli, he told CBC News he's never forgotten what he saw on that day a quarter century ago.

"We were completely fixated on the aircraft, like deer in the headlights," Zuke said, "We just couldn't believe what we were seeing."

In Pearson's words at the time, once the aircraft had touched down, he "stood on the brakes." Usually a jetliner has to use reverse thrust on its engines to slow down when it lands, but that wasn't an option.

The 767 careened down the Gimli runway towards Zuke and his friends, but began to slow down when its front landing gear broke and the nose of the plane hit the pavement, sending sparks flying in all directions.

Pilots expertise saved lives: witness

None of the passengers was hurt during the landing, although some sustained minor injuries while using the plane's emergency slides. ((CBC))
Twenty-five years later, Zuke said there's no doubt the flight crew's expertise saved many lives that day.

"If it weren't for their quick thinking and for Captain Pearson's skills in the cockpit that day, certainly the aircraft would have been lost and everybody on it. And people on the ground, one of the first persons to go would have been myself, right in the path of the plane," he said.

When the plane screeched to a halt not far from where Zuke and his friends stood, emergency chutes deployed and passengers emerged and slid gratefully to the ground. Not a single person suffered more than minor injuries. Those who'd been on the flight began praising their cockpit and cabin crew within minutes of the local media arriving to do a story.

Air Canada demoted Pearson and suspended Quintal but a Transport Canada investigation found senior management responsible for some of the blame for the incident. The two were national heroes and many Canadians demanded the national airline reinstate them without penalty.

In 1985, the pilot and co-pilot of the Gimli Glider were honoured by the Federation Aeronatique International for an outstanding feat of airmanship.

The Boeing 767 went back into service for Air Canada after some repairs and flew all over the world until it was sent to an airliner junkyard in California last January.