|Cockpit of a Boeing 767 in the 1980s (Wikipedia image)|
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon on July 23rd 1983, Captain Pearson said. At Dorval airport he met his crew whom he knew well, having played hockey with them. He would be sharing the cockpit on Flight 143 to Edmonton with Maurice Quintal as First Officer. Recently there'd been some controversy over the compliment of crew and since the 2nd Officer's work in larger Air Canada planes was now automated, the pilot contingent had been reduced from three to two people, although they were still having 3 person workouts in the simulators. Flight computers in the cockpit were a new concept, the only "computer" they really knew and trusted being a Jepperson E6B. Furthermore, the metric system was just coming into use.
That day, there was an electronic fault on the Boeing 767-233. Captain Pearson had met with the mechanics and though the wing (fuel) gauges on his aircraft were deemed inoperable, or unreliable, he determined that the drip sticks were probably OK. Crews in those days used a "drip manual" to calculate the mass of fuel being carried. The flight management computer indicated that there was still sufficient fuel for this flight, so the decision was made: "Aircraft serviceable!" They took off.
However, the fuel load had mistakenly been measured in pounds instead of kilograms. Not realising this, after requesting an en route altitude of 41,000ft and having done fuel checks over Timmins and Red Lake, the crew concluded that they were "ahead on fuel" and put this down to lighter than expected headwinds. They crossed a cold front and thought all was well for the remainder of the flight. Then the low pressure fuel warning lights came on.
They couldn't understand it. It had to be a pump failure on the right wing. Neither Pearson nor Quintal had much background knowledge of the new electronic systems with their more than 100 microprocessors. They diagnosed a computer malfunction and, disconnecting the autopilot, announced a diversion to Winnipeg. Then the left engine failed, and "... that changed the dynamics of the problem."
As they descended through 25,000ft, "the starboard engine went black" as did most of the instruments on their electronic panel. "The darkest place on earth!" thought Captain Pearson, now in a situation for which he and his co-pilot had had no training. The drill for retraction of the undercarriage took more than 5 minutes to read. Don't worry, they told themselves, we'll bring her in high and won't land short. "Maurice really kept his cool," Captain Pearson told us. "I had something to do, which was better."
They never saw Lake Winnipeg. They had no VSI, but the horizon and compass were working and they could use their backup altimeter. Maurice then said, "We shan't make Winnipeg!" As they reached 10,000ft, time was of the essence. Gimli airport, 12 miles ahead at 4 o'clock, was one option. Maurice had done his training there with the RCAF and knew it had a 6800ft runway, 150ft wide. The gear would not come down; they heard no reassuring clunk and couldn't find the reference to the correct procedure in the emergency handbook. Now at 210 knots indicated airspeed there were only 4 or 5 miles to go, and the nose gear was never going to come down. The Captain decided to do a steep sideslip. It was "a bit of a hindrance," he said, "not having a VSI for this," and he was afraid it must have been "quiet uncomfortable for the passengers in the back." He slowed the plane to 180 knots indicated and touched the ground 800ft down the runway.
He jumped on the main gear brakes; the nose collapsed and the cabin depressurised. It was all a "cold, unemotional experience" until he spotted boys on bikes riding on the runway. The pilots had not realised that part of the airport had been converted to a race track. A sports car race was being run by the Winnipeg Sports Car Club that day and the area around the decommissioned runway was crowded with spectators. The aircraft scraped to a halt just in time to avoid the three cyclists, and then the cockpit began to fill with smoke. The pilots did their shutdown drill.
"Get the passengers off, down the chute ... Let's make good and sure!"
Being at an abnormal angle, the rear chute was "almost vertical" which resulted in "a few scrapes and bruises." The purser sprained his ankle. Bob Pearson "just walked off." He was scared then, with a $60-million 'plane about to burst into flames. At first there was no fire extinguisher to be found, but soon the race course people came rushing up to help.
The passengers were bussed to the Viking Inn in Gimli and later flown on to Winnipeg.
In the aftermath, Captain Pearson came home to find his front yard full of journalists. For a moment he hesitated to speak to them, but then ..."All right, I'll answer the questions ... and I haven't stopped talking since!" He has written a book about his experience that has been translated into seven languages. It's called "Freefall."
The restored "Gimli Glider" aircraft gave 25 more years of service and was finally flown to retirement in the Mojave desert, with Captain Pearson and Maurice Quintal themselves on board, as well as three of the six original flight attendants.
Captain Pearson remained in service with Air Canada until 1993, flying aircraft to and from Korea and Japan. He said that the public enquiry into the incident "had exonerated and praised us, which I guessed would happen."