Gimli, Man. to mark 40 years since harrowing plane incident Sunday

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Gimli, Man. to mark 40 years since harrowing plane incident Sunday
Gimli, Man. to mark 40 years since harrowing plane incident Sunday – Jul 17, 2023

Its fateful voyage was four decades ago this weekend, but few in the town of Gimli, Man., can forget the story of the Gimli Glider.

On July 23, 1983, the small Interlake community’s racing strip was the site of an emergency landing, when an Air Canada Boeing 767 destined for Edmonton ran out of fuel over Manitoba.

The unusual aviation incident caused only minor damage to the plane — which remained in service until the 2000s — and no serious injuries to any of the passengers or crew.

This Sunday, Gimli is recognizing the flight’s 40th anniversary, with a reunion of key people who were involved in the event, including the plane’s pilot, Capt. Robert (Bob) Pearson.

For the past five years, the corner of Centre Street and First Avenue in Gimli has been home to the Gimli Glider Exhibit, a museum dedicated to the incident and its impact on the community.

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The museum’s Peter Grant told Global Winnipeg that the ‘glider,’ Air Canada Flight 143, was the airline’s first all-computerized plane, but it was another ‘first’ that caused the eventual issue — the switch to the metric system.

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“That’s where the problems arose, because the ground crew, when they were fuelling the plane, were not up to par on converting litres into kilograms. They knew how to convert gallons into pounds. The pilot likes to know how much gas he’s got, but also how much does it weigh,” Grant said.

When the new computers stopped working, the captain ordered a manual fuel-up.

“Mistakenly, they used the same formula that they would use for imperial (measurement), and they ended up telling the captain he had 20,000 kilograms of fuel — but because they used the wrong multiplier, he actually had 20,000 pounds, which is 9,000 kilograms.

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“He needed 18,000 to get to Edmonton, so over Red Lake, Ontario, he ran out of fuel, and they turned into the world’s largest glider.”

When it became clear that the 767 wouldn’t be able to glide far enough to reach the airport in Winnipeg, some quick thinking by first officer Maurice Quintal — who had trained at Gimli’s former air force base — changed the destination to the small airstrip, which was then converted to a race car track, as it remains today.

The Gimli Glider Exhibit includes a flight simulator that recreates the conditions of the July 23, 1983 incident. Gimli Glider Exhibit / Facebook

Despite the fact the plane glided into Gimli for a safe landing, and there were no serious injuries or casualties, the flight must have been harrowing for those on board, the museum’s Gwen Harp said.

“He actually glided for about 17 minutes … that’s about 16 minutes too long for me. I can’t imagine sitting in an aircraft with no noise, gliding to you don’t know where.”

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Museumgoers, however, can get a sense of what it may have been like — without the life-and-death stakes, of course — by trying out a flight simulator that replicates the conditions of that fateful day.

“We’ve set it up so that it’s 10 miles out and slightly disabled, very similar to what Bob would have experienced — that’s kind of our education tool for people to kind of have that experience,” she said.

Sunday’s public events, including the reunion at the racetrack where the plane actually touched down, will include members of the Winnipeg Sports Car Club, the same drivers who were at the track 40 years ago and lent a hand with the nervous passengers.

“(They) were the drivers who received the passengers as they came down the chutes,” the museum’s Barb Gluck told Global Winnipeg.

“Those Winnipeg Sports Car Club drivers took over and took care of the passengers,” she said.

“It’s going to be a really neat reunion to have so many of the people who were so involved in the first couple of hours of the plane landing in Gimli.”

Click to play video: 'Marking 40-year-anniversary of famed ‘Gimli Glider’'
Marking 40-year-anniversary of famed ‘Gimli Glider’

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