Heritage Group meeting of April 18, 2019.
by Leslie Walsh
After Barbara Gluck retired and moved to Sandy Hook in 2004, she joined the respected Gimli Art Club. As the Chairperson overseeing the Gimli Seawall Gallery, she noticed that many visitors asked where they might find the ‘Gimli Glider’ Museum, only to be told there was none. This cemented Barbara’s determination to continue to make a case for a permanent museum to be established within the townsite. As a founding member and current president of the Gimli Glider Exhibit (GGE), she was invited to share with the Heritage Group how the exhibit came to be, and the response over the past three years of visitors keen to learn more about the skilful safe landing of Air Canada flight 143.
Barb began her Gimli Glider presentation by introducing Captain Mal McDonald, an Air Canada pilot and museum volunteer who had flown that very aircraft. Already engrossed with the story boards the first day he came in to the exhibit, Mal had shivers when he saw four of the original aircraft’s components on display.
“My hands were on these throttles.”
(Captain Mal McDonald)
Barb not only came to know the crew of AC 143, but also to understand what they went through for 17 minutes and how they focused on the passengers, trying not to think of their young children and families back at home.
It all began in Gimli, on a warm July evening in 1983. Hundreds of former high school students were holding a reunion in an old air-force hanger, a wedding social was underway in a hall close by, and race cars had just finished racing on a decommissioned runway. Meanwhile, dropping from 41,000 feet overhead was a disabled Air Canada 767 with seven crew and 61 passengers. This was a disaster in the making, with the potential for a large loss of life. Coincidentally, co-pilot Maurice Quintal had trained at the old Gimli airbase [the closest possible landing strip], and knew the runway. Pilots had trained there up to 1971.
Mal explained the mechanics of the incident. There had been a problem with the fuel gauges in Montreal, leading to a mix-up in fuel level calculations. [The 767 had been equipped with metric measures, something relatively new to both crew and maintenance workers as Canada was transitioning from imperial to metric measurements. Because it was believed that the gauges were not working, fuel levels were tested using dipsticks.] En route to Edmonton, the flight stopped in Ottawa, where fuel levels were again checked. Unfortunately, miscommunication and incorrect conversion [in both Montreal and Ottawa] using pounds per litre rather than kilograms per litre meant the plane had only half the fuel it needed.][When both engines died, the 767 lost all its electrical power and hydraulics.]
Mal explained how the plane’s Ram Air Turbine (RAT) [a small fan automatically that deploys upon engine failure, providing backup power to some instruments and the radios, and very limited hydraulic system function] did provide enough hydraulics to manoeuvre the rudder etc. to get into a forward slip [a manoeuvre used to descend more rapidly without increasing airspeed by flying sideways]. Had that component not been on the plane, the pilot would not have been able to perform the slip manoeuvre.
Still, the plane was about to touch down at a speed of 190 knots (351 km/hr) with no flaps or engines to reverse thrust and slow it down. RAT didn’t provide enough pressure to lock the front landing gear into position, causing the nose to collapse onto the guard rail in the centre of the runway. That, together with all the tires blowing out under maximum brake pressure, helped stop the plane with only 500 feet of runway left. The tire marks are still on the runway.
After the incident Glen Hooper went up in a private plane to look at the scene and took 45 aerial photos, some of which ended up in the museum after Barb talked to him.
The Gimli Glider sat on the runaway for 5 days after the incident while being patched up sufficiently to fly to Winnipeg for further repairs. There it was stripped down. And it was discovered that, though Gimli’s car club members had quickly put out a small fire in the nose of the aircraft, corrosive chemicals from their fire extinguishers forced the replacement of all its wiring. Had they known at the time, said one of the mechanics in Winnipeg, they wouldn’t have flown the plane out of Gimli. Four-and-a-half months later, the refurbished 767 rejoined the Air Canada fleet and flew for another 25 years.[Air Canada had disciplined both pilot and co-pilot for allowing the near-tragedy to happen. Captain Pearson was demoted for six months, co-pilot Quintal was suspended for two weeks, and three ground workers were also suspended.] But a year long inquiry not only exonerated Captain Pearson, he was finally complimented on his skill. [A 1985 Transport Canada report blamed errors and insufficient training and safety procedures.]
In March of 2008, the plane was retired and sent to an aircraft boneyard in the Mojave Desert. Tony Walsh, a retired west coast Air Canada Executive, became aware that Canada was going to lose this historic aircraft when significant operation parts were offered for sale. (His best friend Rick Dion AME had been in the cockpit of 604 when the warnings began, discussing the brand new aircraft with the pilots.) In asking about who in Gimli would take an interest in securing the parts before they were sold, Tony was given Barb as a contact. Barb and Tony had a common determination to ensure parts of the plane, at the very least, would be returned home. When he asked her how much money her committee had to purchase parts, Barb said, “What committee?” That was the day that her life took a dramatic turn.
Frustrated that there had been no exhibit history of the incident for 25 years, Barb, as the Gimli Seawall Murals Gallery Chairperson, was determined to have a Mural painted in tribute to the 25th Anniversary. She invited Capt. Pearson and his crew to return to Gimli and unveil their mural. He was pleased to do so and brought most of the crew with him. Just before coming, Barb asked him what they could do for him. He asked for a cap with the words Gimli Glider, and if the boys on the runway bikes that fateful day, whom he had never met, were still around. That mural unveiling day became world-wide news and the mural started drawing hundreds of visitors to photograph and look at it. People continued to ask where the non-existent museum was.
The phone call from Walsh was the point were the fundraising began in earnest. Barb commented on how the past 10 years of her life took a totally different direction than she could have ever envisioned.
Not able to afford buying the entire 767, Barb developed a one-page facts handout about parts to be retrieved from the Mojave Desert retired aircraft. After Tony had verified selected parts had actually been on the aircraft in 1983 and funds were raised to purchase and take delivery of the throttles, left side underwing fuselage fuel control, yoke (steering wheel) and cockpit fuel panel, the components arrived in Gimli to await the Exhibit opening. Tony asked Barb what else she wanted. She said she wanted to touch the plane, and Tony sent her a satellite picture. When Barb discovered that fuselage panels containing three windows were being removed, she had them shipped to an experienced restorer in Chicago where the section was prepared for display.
Many stories are tied to what they refer to in Gimli as a “safe landing”, not a “crash site”. One is of a homeowner who was repairing and, literally, hit the roof when he saw the plane coming in, thinking he’d be decapitated. Another is of the first van-load of mechanics who ran out of gas en route from Winnipeg to Gimli! Bob Pearson told of the boys on BMX bikes that he spotted in his path as he was about to hit the tarmac. Oblivious to the plane coming down, as it wasn’t making any noise, one of the boys turned around and froze at the sight. Bob said he became robotic. At the moment he saw the boys he had to make a hard decision….the lives of three or the lives of many. In the end the boys were OK, but Bob said he could see the whites of their eyes. Ironically, while driving his pick up truck with furniture on board days after the Mural unveiling, one of the boys, Kerry Seabrooke, was forced off the highway into a ditch by a small plane landing in distress on the highway in front of him.
- HG member Ed Zuke is the father of Art, one of the boys who were biking on the runway. Apparently Art had said to Bob, “Thanks for saving my life.” Bob replied, “Thanks for getting off the runway”.
- HG member Rose is a friend of Stephen Franklin, one of the staff who were in the Winnipeg tower while one of the controllers communicated with Bob that night.
Questions and Answers
After the presentation, Barb related many interesting and funny anecdotes, while Mal provided technical information. Members were riveted to their seats.
- One of the controllers was asked, “What did you think when you were talking with Capt Pearson?” He responded, “I thought I was talking to a dead man. We asked how many souls were on board, and he answered 69.”
- As with the Boeing Max 8 recently in the news, the Gimli Glider inquiry had found the new aircraft model’s manuals to be deficient in proper information for the situation.
- Bob Pearson was employed by Asiana Airlines after retiring from Air Canada. He has observed that many of the pilots do not read English or lack experience in dead-stick landing.
- Bob Pearson was an experienced glider pilot. Would that have helped him? Mal responded that every pilot knows how to glide an airplane but Bob knew how to “forward slip”. This made the difference. Also the robotic feeling and confidence in gliding helps for the slip position. Mal stated he is fully convinced this would have been an aviation disaster if not for Bob’s skill.
Bob is very humble about what he was able to do.
- In 1983, twelve authentic air Canada seats were sold for $500 each. One seat has an acknowledgement plaque for the air traffic controllers in the Winnipeg tower that night.