Tuesday, January 5, 2010


They don't normally teach this stuff at pilot's school, but some recent near misses in the news have brought the issue of airline safety into the forefront. We have seen Capt. Sullenberger safely landing his plane in the Hudson river in New York City after all four engines conked out, using his training in gliders to bring the plane down safely. Then those two pilots overshot the Minneapolis airport by 200 miles. Didn't they know to ask for directions? Now, we have this clumsy Nigerian guy trying to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day, apparently sneaking an easily detectable explosive into his underwear. Fortunately for everyone concerned, he was only able to start a small fire but not detonate the explosive. But he probably won't be able to sit down for awhile.

To me, the best story of all was the so-called Gimli Glider incident which occurred on July 23, 1983 high above the wilds of Manitoba in Canada. Air Canada Flight 143 was flying from Montreal to Edmonton by way of Ottawa. Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal were at the controls with 69 people aboard. Shortly after dinner, flying high over Red Lake, Ontario, in an uneventful flight, the cockpit warning system sounded, indicateing a fuel pressure problem in one of the two engines. Not overly concerned, the pilots switched off the fuel pump because the engines could be fed by gravity. Shortly thereafter, the second fuel pressure alarm sounded. The pilots decided to divert to Winnepeg, the capital, for an emergency landing. In quick succession, both engines went out and all was quiet.

The pilots' simulator training did not prepare them for this. Not only were they out of gas, but the instrument panel didn't work. Did you ever try to start your car with a dead battery? You can't even get the radio to work. This 132 ton aircraft was hurtling through the air at 400+ mph at 41,000 feet. You can't pull over to the side of the road. The passengers can't get out and push. Capt. Pearson was attempting to glide the plane without power steering while Quintal was frantically rummaging through the manuals seeking the procedure for dealing with no power in the engines. Boeing had never considered that situation. One thing was certain--they were coming down--and soon!

The logical question is, "Why didn't they fill up the tank before takeoff?" Answer: They thought they did. A computer manages the fuel loading process. It controls the fuel pumps and drives the fuel gauges. The computer wasn't working properly on Flight 143. The later investigation revealed the problem was a poorly soldered sensor. In any event, there were no working fuel gauges. Instead of grounding the plane, (duh!) the maintenance crew decided to calculate the fuel by hand (i.e. using a dipstick). Essentially, the dipsticks who read the dipsticks confused the calculations between the metric system and the Imperial system. The airline had recently switched over to the metric system. The ground crew couldn't correctly figure out the conversion between pounds and kilos of fuel. The net effect was the plane had about half as much fuel as it required for the trip. They screwed it up twice--at takeoff in Montreal and again at the refueling stop in Ottawa.

With all power out, except for a few battery powered instruments, and the plane rapidly losing altitude, making it to Winnepeg, the nearest major airport, was now out of the question. Although the flight crew was in radio contact with the air controllers, the 767's radar transponder was dark, so nobody was quite sure where the plane was and at what rate it was sinking. The sun was setting low in the West, and the pilots had to visually find a place to land the craft. As you probaly know, parachutes are not standard equipment on commercial airliners.

Pearson and Quintal discussed other nearby airports. Quintal racked his brain and remembered an abandoned Royal Canadian Air Force Base at Gimli where he had once been stationed. Gimli was not in the Air Canada manuals, but it was only about 12 miles away. It had two 6800 foot runways, It would be their only chance!

Neither the pilots nor the controllers knew Gimli was now being used as a 2-lane dragstrip with a steel guardrail down the center of a portion of it. The runway had a big faded "X" at the approach, indicating that it was out of service. To further complicate matters, that particular day was "Family Day" for the Winnepeg Sports Car Club. Lining the straightaway were cars and campers, picknickers and tailgaters. Go-kart races were being run on another part of the runway.

Meanwhile, on the plane, there was no stopping or changing course. We're comin' in on Runway 32L! As they approached they realized the plane was too high and too fast. With no divebrakes to slow down, the pliot had to put the plane into a sideslip with one wing pointing straight down. This is common in gliding, but not with commercial airliners because passengers can get thrown around and injured. Gliding in over a golf course, passengers could literally make out what number clubs the golfers were using.

Although by now the pilots could see the people and the activity, it was too late to change runways. What's more, the landing gear didn't work properly. There was no hydraulic pressure to the rear landing gear, so Quintal hit the button to release the gear door pins and drop it by gravity. Fortunately, the main gear fell into place. The nose gear didn't lock however. Without power, they couldn't raise the flaps to slow down the plane on the runway. This was going to be a hot landing!

The plane leveled out, and the people on the ground saw the huge craft silently barreling down on them. They scattered in all directions. I don't know if a 767 has a horn, but it wouldn't work anyway. The main gear touched down as Pearson stood on the brakes. Instantly two tires blew out with a loud explosion, shaking the passengers violently. The defective nose gear hit the ground in a shower of sparks for 300 feet. The right engine assembly hit the ground. The plane took out a few of the guardrail's wooden support poles. Miraculously, all the sports car fans got out of the way.

The huge craft came to a stop less than 100 feet from the tailgaters and campers. All was quiet on the plane. The passengers erupted into cheers and applause. They weren't safe yet. A small fire broke out in the nose of the aircraft as smoke poured into the cockpit. The plane was resting nose down with the rear end up. The rear emergencuy slides were nearly vertical. Several passengers were injured when they landed on the tarmac. The sports car people put out the fire with portable extinguishers.

Amazingly, although the 767 suffered some damage, it was quickly repaired and flown out several days later. The plane, Air Canada #604, became forever known as the "Gimli Glider". It continued in service until 2008 when it was flown to the airplane graveyard in the Mohave Desert where it will be used for spare parts. Passengers on that final flight included Pearson and Quintal and 3 of the 6 flight attendants from Flight 143.

Pilots are highly trained to deal with emergencies and handle themselves under pressure. In this case, it was Captain Pearson's extensive experience flying gliders that saved the day. The pilots' resourcefulness wasn't part of the training. But if you're a frequent flyer like I am, you should always thank the pilots for getting you there safely.




Blogger Neb said...

It certainly has been an interesting few weeks for pilots!

January 19, 2010 at 10:18 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Who ya gonna call? GHOSTBUSTERS? :0)lol
Liked your post

January 24, 2010 at 5:14 PM  

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