THOMPSON: Almost 40 years ago this Air Canada flight ran out of fuel, landing safely with no engines | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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THOMPSON: Almost 40 years ago this Air Canada flight ran out of fuel, landing safely with no engines



I only ran out of fuel once my entire life, driving from Kelowna International Airport to our home in Vernon one Sunday six years ago. The car came to a sudden and unexpected chug-a-lug stop at the traffic light at the intersection of Highway 97 and College Way.

It’s embarrassing - at best - to run out of fuel…cars swerving and people yelling insults as they pass…as if you intended your stupidity. It was the first and last time I forgot to look at the fuel gauge before taking off.

It could have been worse. I could have been Bob Pearson. It was worse for Bob because he took off in a Boeing 767…Air Canada Flight 143. Bob was piloting a flight with 66 passengers and crew on board from Montreal to Edmonton on July 23, 1983.

At almost eight miles above Red Lake, Ontario, at 8 p.m. CDT, the cockpit warning system sounded…a fuel pump on the aircraft's left side failed. Captain Pearson shut off the alarm…knowing that gravity made the pump unnecessary in level flight. Then, the left engine lost all power. Moments later, an alarm sounded again…this time indicating a pump failure on the right side.

Captain Pearson decided to try an emergency landing in Winnipeg - 75 miles away - with one engine. But as First Officer Maurice Quintal tried in vain to restart the left engine, another alarm sounded in the cockpit…this one a "bong" that neither of the experienced pilots had ever heard. The right engine failed…now both of the aircraft’s engines were gone…and neither could be re-started.

Flying without engines is a rare occurrence in large aircraft…the situation wasn’t even covered during training back in the early 1980s. Fortunately, the Boeing 767’s aerodynamics were suited to gliding as long as speed was maintained. By this time Flight 143 was gliding - literally - through 35,000 feet headed toward Winnipeg.

The 767 had electronic flight instruments - an innovation in the early 1980s - that operated on electricity generated by the aircraft’s engines. No engines…no instruments…except the few battery driven for emergency landings. But the vertical speed indicator was out…so Captain Pearson couldn’t determine how long he could keep the aircraft gliding without help from the air traffic controller in Winnipeg.

Once the air traffic controller provided the aircraft’s speed, First Officer Quintal calculated how far Flight 143 could go. He determined it could not make Winnipeg…at least 20 miles short. Quintal suggested landing at RCAF Station Gimli, closed for years…with no air traffic control tower and no emergency crews.

Captain Pearson made a split-second decision to bank the 767 to the right and head toward Gimli…knowing that while it was closer…he would have just one chance to make an approach and land.

Most airline pilots aren’t experienced glider pilots, but Captain Pearson was. He knew that landing a 767 without power would be challenging…and he relied on his knowledge of gliders to guide him.

Captain Pearson executed what is know among gliders as a “forward slip”…a maneuver to increase drag and reduce altitude. A forward slip requires the pilot to apply pressure to the rudder in one direction and the ailerons in the opposite direction.

This technique is commonly used by gliders and light aircraft…allowing a quicker descent  without increasing forward speed. But, could Captain Pearson control a 767…taking it from a crab-like flying position until a last-second straightening for landing? It is something commercial pilots never practice.

Neither the crew nor the air traffic controller in Winnipeg knew that the old Air Force station had been converted to Gimli Motorsports Park…a road race course, a drag strip and a go-kart track.

Adding to the pressure on Captain Pearson was the fact that the Winnipeg Sports Car Club had just finished a day of racing…and a hundred people were camping alongside the old runway…cooking and enjoying the last hours of daylight.

Captain Pearson saw the crowd and two boys riding bicycles where he needed to put down the gliding 767. He was 1,000 feet from touching down with an airspeed in excess of 200 mph. Later, he said he could see they boys’ faces as he guided the wide body jet to the ground. Without engines, Flight 143 was practically silent before a hard landing.

The landing gear underneath the plane was locked…but the nose gear wasn’t and collapsed. The impact blew two tires, but Captain Pearson’s braking…along with the aircraft’s nose scrapping the runway finally brought Flight 143 to a safe stop. All 66 passengers and crew escaped…with a dozen minor injuries from those de-planing from the higher-than-normal rear inflation slide.

Air Canada Flight 143 had gone 17 minutes in the air with no engines…the aircraft had literally run out of fuel.

Some background helps explain how this happened. The reliability of the Fuel-Quantity Indication System (FQIS) and its link with the Flight Management Computer (FMC) were problems since the Boeing 767 was introduced two years earlier. While new FQIS microprocessors were being readied, a manual system of fuelling was employed that required calculations that could - and in fact were - problematic.

In 1983, fuel in trucks waiting on tarmacs to refill aircraft was measured by volume…litres… while aircraft measured fuel by weight…pounds and kilograms. A mistake in calculations for Air Canada Flight 143 resulted in Captain Pearson’s Boeing 767 taking on only 22,300 pounds (10,100 kilograms) rather than the 49,170 pounds (22,300 kilograms). The aircraft had less than half of the fuel needed to make its original destination…Edmonton.

The aircraft was repaired, refitted with improved FQIS and FMC, and flew for Air Canada until Jan. 1, 2008…almost 25 years after it glided onto Gimli’s old runway. Captains Pearson and Quintal - along with three of six flight attendants on the 1983 flight - flew the aircraft’s final flight from Montreal to California’s Mojave Airport on Jan. 8, 2008, where it remained until scrapped in 2014.

First Officer Quintal was promoted to Captain in 1989, and died at age 68 in 2015. Captain Pearson flew for Air Canada for ten years after his famous glider landing…then Asiana Airlines until retiring in 1995. Captain Pearson died at age 75 in 2019.

Running out of fuel is a relative thing. The 66 people who walked away from that improbable 17-minute glide 39 years ago…have had children and grandchildren…and many remain alive today.

My guess is they almost never run out of fuel while driving. It happened to me once, and it never will again.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.

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