Friday, January 25, 2008

Last Flight of the Gimli Glider

It was one of the most famous or more likely infamous Canadian aircraft ever flown. In many ways just one of hundreds of Boeing 767-200 aircraft built since 1982, C-GAUN is special and will always be better known as the "Gimli Glider". As of this moment, C-GAUN is in Tucson AZ, on her way to retirement and an uncertain fate in Mojave, CA.

Flight 143 was a routine flight for Air Canada on the regular route from Montreal to Edmonton. Just 61 passengers paid the fare that day, July 23, 1983, barely 1/3 of the plane's capacity; plenty of room for them to stretch out and enjoy the flight.

C-GAUN had reached a comfortable cruise altitude of 41,000 ft when, just about over Red Lake, Ontario, warning lights indicated a fuel problem in one engine that soon shut down. A second warning followed indicating another fuel problem. Then an ominous warning, all engines down. A cascade of systems failed as the plane ran out of power as the two engines failed. Only a few battery powered emergency instruments remained. The crew initially declared an emergency and diverted to Winnipeg. With both engines out, it was not likely that the plane would make it to Winnipeg.

One of the pilots was thankfully experienced in gliders and knew enough basics of glider flying to keep the now silent airliner in the air. He was able to glide the big Boeing towards Gimli Industrial Park Airport, a former airbase at Gimli, Manitoba. There was one problem with this; the former RCAF Station Gimli was now a public airport and one of its runways was no longer in use for aircraft. On July 23, 1983 the airport was swarming with people for a sports car race being held on the now decommissioned runway. You can imagine the spectacle the race fans got that day!

Incredibly, the crew landed the plane on the runway, albeit the nose gear collapsed as it was not sufficiently locked in place, with no one killed or seriously injured either on the plane or on the ground. Adding insult to injury, the Air Canada maintenance crew being sent to Gimli from Winnipeg ran out of gas along the highway.

C-GAUN was repaired and flown out a few days later. She flew for Air Canada for 25 more years. Air Canada and the government, as is usual in these cases, investigated everything and blamed everyone. The plane simply had ran out of gas due to improper measuring of the fuel load. A recent conversion from English to Metric measurements had compounded the problem.Corporate training was found to be lacking in many areas, including how to handle an aircraft with no power. Many policies and training procedures were changed for the better after the investigation.

Despite being a blot on the safety record, the event and the plane became a celebrated story in aviation, lucky with a happy ending. C-GAUN became the most followed and photographed plane in Air Canada's fleet. She performed her last revenue service on January 8, 2008.

There is talk of selling her and even placing in a museum. Most likely, as with many elderly aircraft, she will be stripped of useful parts and then turned into beer cans.

You done well C-GAUN. Take care now!

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