Gimli Glider Museum – Celebrating A Miracle Landing

The “Gimli Glider” – Air Canada Flight 143 – crash landed into history on July 23, 1983. Decades later, the Gimli Glider Museum will keep the story alive with a fixed exhibit housed in the Lakeview Resort and Conference Centre in Gimli, Manitoba. The grand opening is on the 34th anniversary on July 23rd from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. CT, and Captain Robert Pearson will be the guest of honour to open the museum.

Gimli Glider after landing in Gimli, July 1983.

The miracles are numerous in what could have been an aviation disaster:

  1. Thanks to Captain Robert Pearson, all 61 passengers and 8 crew members in the Boeing 767 survived even though the plane had run out of fuel.  Captain Pearson had gliding experience, and he used a technique known as sideslipping to cruise the plane to safety since the jet was too high and fast for a safe landing.
  2. First Officer Maurice Quintal trained at the former RCAF air base in Gimli in the 1960s, and knew there was an airstrip.
  3. There was still daylight. If the plane had limped to Gimli an hour later, no lights would have guided the plane to safety.
  4. On the ground, no one was injured.  Three boys were riding their BMX bikes directly in the path of the incoming plane. The 150 frightened race car drivers and family members of the Winnipeg Sports Car Club camping at the end of the runway didn’t die when the plane landed on what was now being used as a drag strip.


This story ran for the 25th anniversary of the Gimli Glider on July 20, 2008, in the Toronto Star:

A picture and a thousand words

Twenty-five years ago, at an out-of-the-way airport in a tiny town in Manitoba, an airplane dropped out of the sky to international headlines. Not only was I in the town when it happened, but at the airport when it landed – yet somehow I still managed to miss the miraculous landing.

Twenty-five years ago, at an out-of-the-way airport in a tiny town in Manitoba, an airplane dropped out of the sky to international headlines. Not only was I in the town when it happened, but at the airport when it landed – yet somehow I still managed to miss the miraculous landing.

While the pilots guided Air Canada Flight 143 to safety after the Boeing 767 ran out of fuel, I was with some family members attending a party in an old RCAF building nearby. The plane made no noise as it glided to the tarmac, so we had no reason to look outside.

By the time I saw the jet, its nose tilting strangely downward, more than half an hour had elapsed since the dramatic landing. It was dusk, and everything looked dim and deserted, like the last scene of Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains walking through the swirling mists on another tarmac.

Until that crash landing on July 23, 1983, few people outside of Manitoba had heard of Gimli, situated on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg about 80 kilometres north of the provincial capital. The town – first settled by immigrants from Iceland in the 1870s – had limited renown for its annual Islendingadagurinn, Manitoba’s Icelandic festival. Still a going concern, it’s billed as the “second oldest continuous ethnic festival in North America” and features the requisite Vikings parading about.

But the crash landing really put Gimli on the map. It was 8:30 p.m. on July 23 when Capt. Robert Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal realized they were running out of gas. En route from Montreal to Edmonton (they had made a scheduled stopover in Ottawa), the eight crew members and 61 passengers were 12,500 metres above Red Lake, Ont., near the Ontario-Manitoba border.

The brand new, $40-million, 120-tonne plane had been in Air Canada’s fleet since March and was its first metric aircraft. The electronic fuel gauges were already on the fritz, so the ground crew had to manually use a dripstick to check the fuel level. The problem occurred when workers incorrectly converted the fuel volume from litres (the way fuel was, and still is, sold) to pounds (used for non-metric planes) – with the result that the jet had only half the fuel it needed to reach its destination.

How the pilots saved the day is the stuff of legend. For the next 200 kilometres, the pair glided the plane without any power.

Pearson had gliding experience and used a technique known as sideslipping, which allowed the plane to descend on a much steeper angle. Quintal knew that Gimli had an airstrip, since he had trained at the town’s RCAF air base in the 1960s. The 150 race-car drivers and family members of the Winnipeg Sports Car Club camping at the end of the runway were unharmed when the plane landed on what was then being used as a drag strip. The nose wheel of the jet collapsed, but the aircraft stayed up on its main wheels. There was still some daylight; if the plane had landed an hour later, no lights would have guided it to safety. The biggest miracle is that everyone in the plane and on the ground survived.

Alas, my immediate family (my mother and I had travelled from Sarnia) and my cousins, aunts and uncles all missed the white-knuckle drama. Half of us were at a reunion for the local one-room schoolhouse attended by my Icelandic-Canadian mother and her siblings, while the others were at the Gimli High School reunion. Both events took place in buildings adjacent to the airstrip.

However, my cousin, Joey Wilkinson, and his wife, Monique Seguin, remember it all clearly since they were the first Air Canada employees on board after the evacuation, and weren’t at the reunions.

As Monique recalls, “I thought there’d be stairs and a ramp to get up the airplane. Wrong. There was a rope, and we had to pull ourselves up. The aircraft was pitch-black, since the power was out, and all the seats were in the forward position with debris all over the place, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. This plane crashed.’ Now when I think of it, it still freaks me out.”

Back at the reunion, it was my uncle, Joe Wilkinson, who had gone outside to smoke, who finally convinced my family to check out the plane sometime after 9 p.m. We thought he was pulling everyone’s leg when he insisted a plane had crash landed. But there it sat, in its clumsy position, with the sky slowly turning to dusk. The passengers and crew had long since escaped down the emergency chutes. The Winnipeg Sports Car Club had already used fire extinguishers on the smoke that billowed from under the nose of the plane.

The RCMP had cordoned off the area, so my brother, Robin, and I were unable to really check out the scene. Of course, we could have stuck around to try to get a better look, but Robin has the exact same memory as I of what happened next: We went back inside and grabbed another beer (the drinking age in Manitoba was, and is, 18). Looking back, I hate that I was such a callow 18-year-old that drink took precedence over curiosity.

Not until I returned home to Sarnia two days later did I realize the significance of the crash, to Canadians and the world. Even The New York Times followed the story. People who had never heard of Gimli at least now knew it was in Manitoba.

A federal inquiry was called. Fingers pointed at the metric system, the pilots, the ground crew and a lack of training for all personnel for the brand new aircraft. A bestselling 1989 book, Freefall: A True Story, was translated into six languages. To this day, when I wear my T-shirt embroidered with “Gimli,” people over a certain age invariably say, “The Gimli Glider.”

And now this famous plane has been retired. It was decommissioned in January. Fittingly, Capt. Pearson and First Officer Quintal, along with three of the six flight attendants, were guests of honour on the last flight of the Gimli Glider, to its final resting place at an airplane graveyard in the California desert.

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