Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I was reading a story about the test flights of a new plane today. Like almost always when I am on-line one story leads to another and pretty soon I am in a totally unrelated place from my start. Today I was led to another article about the storage of retired airliners in the desert. This is just another area where I find acute interest. One of the planes featured in the article was the famous or infamous 'Gimli Glider'
Some of you may remember the tale of the almost new Boeing 767 jet that had to land on a dragstrip when it accidentally ran out of fuel on a flight. But to most of you the jetliner registered as C-GAUN was little more than a run-of-the-mill widebody plane.

The incident on the pride of Air Canada jets happened way back in 1983. I remember the actual day it happened. I poured over the news reports and later the official reports trying to learn how in that modern era, a high-tech long-range plane, like a 767 could run short on fuel on a domestic flight in good weather while crossing southern Canada. I am amazed at how it successfully imitated a 173 ton glider.

Even though it was 25 years ago (July 23, 1983) most old timers at Air Canada and around the aviation community remember the details well. It all started with the discovery of a problem with part of the aircraft's flight management system. Basically that is a problem with the fuel gauges. It was a bad electrical connection, a faulty soldering joint.

That by itself is not enough to ground a plane, because the fuel can be measured manually. But this led to several problems.
  • First none of the ground crew trained to do so, but the pilots would recheck the numbers.
  • This introduced the 2nd problem. The pilots used an incorrect conversion method. The ground crew had used imperial measurements to compute the 767's fuel load as was common in Canada. Air Canada & in fact the whole country was just beginning the process of changing over to the metric system. This Air Canada 767 the first plane set up with the new system. The difference between the amounts calculated was huge.
The flight took off and was progressing normally. But as it crossed high over Red Lake, Ontario, a warning signal in the cockpit sounded, and suddenly the flight crew realized the error.

One engine failed, followed soon by the other. As that happened the generators supplying power for the aircraft's glass-panel avionics stopped too. Quickly the battery went dead which left the 195 seat airliners powerless.

With only a few mechanical backup instruments and unboosted flight controls the plane was descending at 2,000 feet-per-minute.

The Good News

Call it fate or just serendipity but one of the pilots on board that day was Captain Robert Pearson, also an expert glider pilot. He enjoyed this hobby on his days off. Still even with that skill there was no hope of keeping the plane in the air all the way to Winnipeg. Fortunately the other pilot, the co-pilot First Officer Maurice Quintal had been a pilot in the Air Force and knew of an abandoned base near their flight path -- in Gimli, Manitoba -- where he had once served.

Using their limited instruments Captain Pearson and First Officer Quintal successfully glided the plane toward the runway at Gimli. But as they neared on their silent approach the crew saw that spectators and campers were spread out, watching go-cart races on the abandoned runway.

There was nothing they could do. They were committed.

Still on a short final the crew realized they were going too fast and were too high to make the field and stop safely. Captain Pearson, making use of his gliding skills did something some pilots thought impossible. He put the plane into a hard side slip. This maneuver would cause the aircraft to lose altitude quickly without increasing the speed. In fact with the nose slightly up it might even help slow them a little.

It was a firm landing and the plane's nose landing gear collapsed. They were now skidding quickly down the runway sending up a shower of sparks. Captain Pearson could see two boys bicycling on the runway, in front of them. They were pedaling like crazy " "My heart leapt into my throat." He remembers. "One of the boys stared straight back at me in the cockpit."

Fortunately, the plane missed the boys and other onlookers coming to a stop 100 feet from where the spectators had set up their campers. Miraculously there were no injuries on the ground, nor to the extra light load of 61 passengers and eight crew on board the plane.

The plane was repaired a few days later, safely refueled and flown out eventually returning to service.

Both Pilots continued to fly and 1985 received the first-ever Federation Aeronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship.

C-GAUN may have been just another jetliner to most people. But when she was retired almost a quarter of a century later in 2008, she was a legend and a "proud lady of the skies".

This story was also told in a book I have owned and enjoyed several times, "Free Fall" and later it was made into a TV movie staring William Devane. I have a copy of that as well. Think I watch it again tonight.

No comments: