As It Happens

As it Happened: The Archive Edition - The Flight Time Episode

Captain Bob Pearson pulled off the impossible, when he safely glided a Boeing 767 onto an abandoned airstrip that was serving as a track for drag racing — after running out of fuel at 12,000 metres.
The Air Canada Boeing 767, a.ka. the Gimli Glider, on the abandoned RCAF airstrip-cum-race track. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press via Canadian Press)

Captain Bob Pearson pulled off the impossible, when he safely glided a Boeing 767 onto an abandoned airstrip that was serving as a track for drag racing in 1983 — after running out of fuel at 12,000 metres. It's just one of the stories pulled from the archives for the Flight Time Episode. Here's a bit of Carol's conversation on the 30th anniversary of the landing in Gimli, Man.

Carol Off: I know it's been 30 years since that Saturday in July, 1983. But will you ever forget the moment when you realized that you were 12,000 metres up and out of fuel?

We didn't have time to think about it. After leaving 41,000 feet, the left engine failed. And not long after, the right engine failed.- Retired Air Canada pilot, Capt. Robert Pearson

Bob Pearson: Well, I'll tell you, at 12,000 metres up we didn't — at least I didn't — realize we were out of fuel, because our flight management computer, until the second engine failed, still showed we had lots of fuel. Actually when I made an announcement to the passengers [I said] we'd be diverting the flight to Winnipeg — where Air Canada had a main maintenance base — 'cause we had some kind of a computer problem that we didn't understand. And we were gonna be prudent, and sorry for the delay. And then we didn't have time to think about it. After leaving 41,000 feet (12.5 kms) the left engine failed. And not long after, the right engine failed. 

Retired Air Canada pilot Robert Pearson waves to the crowd in Gimli, Manitoba, on July 23, 2008, on the 25th anniversary of the incident. (Joe Bryksa/Winnipeg Free Press via Canadian Press)

CO: And this happened over Red Lake, Ontario. At what point did you realize you weren't going to make it to Winnipeg?

BP: Well, as we made the descent, the first officer was making calculations using our backup altimeter, and distances given to us from Winnipeg given to us by Air Traffic Control. He drew a profile and figured there was a chance we wouldn't make it. And by that time, we were over the south end of Lake Winnipeg, and we now could see the ground. The cloud was only over the water. At that point we were — as I recall — 28 nautical miles (52 kms) from Winnipeg, and 14 (26 kms) from Gimli. Of course, we were heading away from Gimli, so we had a big turn to make. But [we] took [First Officer] Maurice's calculations and said "Well, let's not take any chances. So we turned northbound up the shoreline of Lake Winnipeg and found Gimli.

When the nose hit the runway, that's when I saw people further down, and that was a little traumatic.- Retired Capt. Bob Pearson
From the Globe and Mail, July 30, 1983.

CO: And what was at Gimli — 'cause that wasn't a functioning airport?

BP: It was. When the Air Force had it, there were — and there still are — two parallel runways, they're both the same length. The left one that we landed on is 200 feet (61 m) wide, made of cement. And the old approach lights are still in place. The other one's 150 (45.7 m) wide, and asphalt. There were DC-3s operating from the north and the right runway. [I was] not aware of anything on the runway. I'd asked Air Traffic Control for the runway to be cleared, and he said 'I can't assure you of that.' He sent an RCMP officer to clear anybody off the runway if anyone was on it. And he just arrived as we touched down, so...it was a bit of a shock when I touched down and applied firm main-gear break pressure, and the nose simply collapsed. Nothing broke, it just hadn't locked yet. When the nose hit the runway, that's when I saw people further down, and that was a little traumatic. 

'I almost took the airplane off on the right side, onto the grass. Couldn't have run into these boys.' -  Retired Capt. Bob Pearson
(National Geographic)

CO: 'You saw people further down.' What were they doing on the runway?

BP: [laughs] Well, it was a Saturday evening. We touched down about 20 to nine (o'clock) at night. The Winnipeg sports car club just finished their drag races. There were three boys on bicycles just in front of the airplane — and as a matter of fact, I almost took the airplane off on the right side, onto the grass. Couldn't have run into these boys. But they pedaled fast enough, and got off on the other side. We stopped at only 3,000 feet (914 m) on the 6,800-foot (2 km) runway. 

CO: But the thing is, about your landing, is that it was extraordinary! There are not very many people — as they later found out when they tried to do simulations — there are not many people who could have pulled that off. You did an amazing job.

BP: Well, thank you. I guess it worked out OK. It was one day we just had to work a little harder, that's all. 
From the Globe and Mail, November 19, 1983.

You can hear more of Carol Off's February 26, 2013 interview with Capt. Bob Pearson — as well as the following stories, on this week's 'Flight Time' episode of "As it Happened: The Archive Edition":

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