The emergency landing in 1983 is etched in pilot Robert Pearson's mind, the moment he pushed firmly on the brake pedals with both feet to slow Air Canada's new Boeing 767 jet after it touched down on an airstrip in Gimli, Man.
The plane with 61 passengers and eight crew had run out of fuel around the Ontario-Manitoba border, and for the next 200 kilometres, the airline captain and his first officer, Maurice Quintal, glided the plane without any power.
With the sun setting on Gimli, the nose gear collapsed with a loud thud on the runway, sending up a shower of sparks. Mr. Pearson could see two boys bicycling on the runway, part of a group of 150 people who gathered for go-cart races on the abandoned military airstrip.
"One of the boys stared straight at me in the cockpit. They were both pedalling like hell," Mr. Pearson, now 72, recalled in an interview yesterday. "My heart leapt into my throat."
Fortunately, the plane missed the boys and other onlookers by 300 metres. On Saturday, July 23, 1983, the jet landed safely and a legend was born. The "Gimli Glider," a Boeing 767 that has become a cause célèbre in aviation circles, will be retired to the desert today by Air Canada as the airline spruces up its fleet.
Mr. Pearson and Mr. Quintal will board the plane on a special flight this morning, departing from Montreal to oversee the jet's retirement at the Mojave Airport in the California desert. Besides the two co-pilots, three of the six flight attendants are also expected to make the journey, which will include a stopover in Tucson, Ariz.
Today's flight will be captained by Jean-Marc Bélanger, a former head of the Air Canada Pilots Association, with a fly-past scheduled after the plane leaves Air Canada's Montreal maintenance hangar.
Plane spotters and aviation buffs have elevated the jet to legendary status, with sightings of the plane - its registration marking, C-GAUN, on the body and FIN number "604" on the tail - considered an A-list highlight. The jet's comings and goings have been a source of conversation for nearly 25 years as avid plane watchers post their prized photos on aviation websites.
The tale of the Gimli Glider has circled the globe, boosted by a 1989 book titled Freefall: A True Story, which details the flight that departed from Montreal, made a scheduled stopover in Ottawa and landed in Gimli, instead of its intended destination of Edmonton. After being published in English, the book was translated into six other languages: French, German, Swedish, Dutch, Italian and Japanese versions spawned worldwide interest in the jet. Mr. Pearson has a copy of all seven versions on the book.
Air Canada Flight 143 only had half the fuel that the pilots thought it carried, due to a metric conversion error on the ground that went undetected in both Montreal and Ottawa.
"Wrong information was given by the refuelling company to the mechanics," said Mr. Pearson, who was originally threatened with a six-month demotion for allegedly not taking enough care. But he doesn't hold any grudges, relieved at the safe landing and escaping disciplinary action.
Mr. Pearson had gliding experience from 1964 to 1970, so he recalls that instead of panicking as the Boeing 767 cruised at high altitude, his mind switched to directing the plane as best he could with Mr. Quintal.
"It was like I was a robot, devoid of emotion. I was just focused on getting the bloody thing down accurately," the great-grandfather said yesterday over the phone from the Alexandria Curling Club, where he curls as a break from his 100-acre hobby farm with horses, sheep, turkeys and chickens in Eastern Ontario.
Mr. Pearson retired from Air Canada in 1993 after a 36-year career with the airline. He still plays old-timers' hockey and goes downhill skiing, undaunted by the prospect of a sports injury, emboldened to take some risks in life after the close call at Gimli. "The go-cart races were over on the night we landed, and people were cooking on their barbecues beside their tents and trailers," Mr. Pearson said. "Their mouths were wide open as our plane went sliding by. But the go-cart races went ahead the next day."
Officials at Air Canada, which is organizing and paying for today's reunion aboard the Gimli Glider, declined comment. "I don't think any airline likes publicity about accidents, even if they work out okay, like it did in this case," said Mr. Pearson, who was invited by Air Canada last Thursday to show up for today's flight.
After the Gimli accident, he would pilot the plane another 30 times, including several trips paired with Mr. Quintal, now 60, who retired last year from Air Canada. "One time, we called the mayor of Gimli as we flew overhead, and he ran outside and watched our contrail in the sky," Mr. Pearson said.
It's unclear how long the jet will stay in the California desert. Aircraft maker Boeing Co., Mount Royal College in Calgary, engine maker Pratt & Whitney and the Canada Aviation Museum in Ottawa have expressed interest in acquiring the Gimli Glider, Mr. Pearson said.
After nearly 25 years, the landing still seems surreal to him. Just enough pressure had to be applied to the brakes because pushing too hard would have blown all the tires. As it was, two tires blew and smoke billowed from a fire inside the nose of the jet, a fire that Mr. Pearson helped put out after evacuating the plane.
"Maurice and I have retired from flying, and now the plane will be retired," Mr. Pearson said. "It's the end of an era."
'Sideslipping' to safety
Air Canada's new Boeing 767 jet ran out fuel in 1983 near the Ontario-Manitoba border on a flight destined for Edmonton. The aircraft's captain, Robert Pearson, used a gliding technique known as sideslipping to guide the jet's descent and then land safely in Gimli, Man.
-Runs out of fuel. Electronic flight instrument system unable to function without electricity generated by the jet engines.
-Pilot initiates sideslip to reduce altitude.
-Aircraft loses altitude.
-Aircraft straightens at an altitude of 40 ft.
THE SIDESLIP TECHNIQUE
1. Small air turbine automatically deploys, using the passing airstream to generate power for ailerons and rudder.
2. Left wing lowered...
3. ...opposite rudder applies simultaneously.
4. Horizontal component of lift forces airplane sideways toward low wing.
SOURCE: FLIGHT SAFETY AUSTRALIA