Boeing 767 flight deck a passion project for Perry Van Veen
If you’re playing a word association game with an aging Baby Boomer and mention Gimli, Manitoba, you’re likely to get two responses. One is, “the home of Crown Royal Rye Whisky.” The other, “the Gimli Glider.”
The Gimli Glider was an Air Canada Boeing 767 with 60 passengers onboard that ran out of fuel on its Montreal-Ottawa-Edmonton route 39 years ago this Saturday, on July 23, 1983. A series of errors led to the mishap, including a mixup in converting between gallons and litres of aviation fuel.
Captain Bob Pearson couldn’t nurse Flight 143 to the nearest major airport in Winnipeg, so he set the 80-ton, powerless plane down on an abandoned military airstrip-turned-drag strip in Gimli, chasing hot-rodders and kids on bicycles from the asphalt runway in the process. Pearson was an experienced glider pilot, and was able to calculate on the fly, so to speak, the ideal speed and descent ratios required to reach the field. The Boeing was slightly damaged on its glider landing, but all passengers and crew emerged unscathed.
The twin-engine aircraft was repaired and put back into service. It was retired from the Air Canada fleet in 2008, and today sits forlornly in an aircraft “bone yard” in California’s Mojave Desert.
The event has always intrigued Perry Van Veen, of Welland. A former pilot and flight instructor himself, he works in human resources training and development, and has been selling aircraft parts as a sideline, a hobby, for the past decade.
“Back in 2014, I put a bid in for the actual stripped-down Gimli Glider cockpit, but the owner wanted a ridiculous amount of money for it,” said Van Veen. “I had contacts in the aviation industry, and ended up getting my 767 cockpit in 2017 from a retired Delta Airlines plane, being stored in the Arizona desert, at a really good price.”
The Gimli Glider has a place in Canadian aviation folklore because of the nature of the mishap, and the skill of the flight crew in landing the aircraft safely under dire circumstances.
The Boeing 767 piloted by Captain Pearson was only four months old, with a crew that was still learning the new fly-by-wire system of the Boeing 767. In 1983, Canada was transitioning from the imperial system to the metric system of measurements, which was the crux of the near-catastrophe.
The aircraft was fueled in Montreal, but with an inoperative fuel quantity indication system. A misunderstanding led the captain to believe that the flight was safe to depart without the fuel gauges working. Instead, a dipstick measurement was performed in both Montreal and Ottawa, with the data entered into the plane’s flight management system.
At about 41,000 feet, somewhere over Red Lake, Ontario, a cockpit warning light alerted Captain Pearson to a low-fuel problem, which was later found to be an error of the ground crew in Montreal, which had used imperial rather than metric measurements for their manual fuelling calculations.
Shortly thereafter, the aircraft lost its electrical and hydraulic systems, which are powered by the engines, and began dipping earthward at 2000 feet per minute. Luckily for all, Pearson’s experience as a glider pilot almost certainly saved the day. Having been informed by his first officer that Winnipeg was too far given their glide rate, he opted to set the plane down in Gimli. Unbeknownst to Pearson, the abandoned airport had been converted to a drag strip for racing, and his heavy landing and braking blew out all the aircraft’s tires, with the jet coming to a stop only 100 feet from incredulous locals on the ground.
I’m hoping that, when completed, the cockpit will be a static display of interest to museums, or perhaps private collectors
An air traffic safety investigation was convened, which concluded that Air Canada should implement better training in the new aircraft for ground handlers and pilots, and commended Pearson and his crew for their skill and professionalism.
“My cockpit is from exactly the same type of bird as the Gimli Glider,” said Van Veen. “A lot of these Boeing 767s are still flying today. Many have been converted to cargo carriers.”
Van Veen was able to get a number of parts and interior panels from the original Gimli Glider.
“They were parting it out, selling it for scrap essentially, and I was able to negotiate a deal with the owner to retrieve instruments, crew seats, a steering yoke, and other parts.”
The aluminum cockpit shell, which weighs about 3000 pounds, just barely fits in Van Veen’s suburban garage, next to a Skidoo. It sits on wheeled dollies, with a couple inches to spare below the ceiling.
“I had it in storage up on Highway 20 for a few years, and brought it to my house last August,” he said. “I took lots of measurements. The last thing I wanted was to have this thing delivered to my driveway only to discover it was too big to cram into the space.”
Van Veen’s goal is to have the cockpit fully restored by next year, which is the 40th anniversary of the incident. But it is time-consuming work.
“I’m always looking for people that have an aircraft mechanic background, or some kind of work in aviation, who might be able to spare some time to help me out with re-assembly,” he said. “I had a guy helping me two years ago, who worked with WestJet, and had some down-time.”
All of the electrical components are still intact, said Van Veen, and simply need to be connected to a power supply. He has a design to connect the rudder pedals such that they move as on a functioning 767.
He has also started a GoFundMe account, https://gofund.me/3be740a3, which he hopes will cover $15,000 of his reconstruction costs.
“I’m hoping that, when completed, the cockpit will be a static display of interest to museums, or perhaps private collectors.”
After the incident, accident investigators tried to duplicate Captain Pearson’s glide on full-motion flight simulators used to train pilots. The simulated aircraft crashed every time. Similarly, Van Veen is also a personal computer flight simulation hobbyist. Asked if he had ever tried simulating Air Canada Flight 143, and succeeded in gliding into Gimli, Van Veen’s luck proved no better.
“I have tried a few times landing it, and was unsuccessful each time.”