From the Avro Arrow to the Gimli Glider

News Article / January 8, 2018

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By Chief Warrant Officer Dan Campbell

The Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering (CFSATE), welcomed two very special guests on November 15, 2017. John Burzynski, a co-founder of Osisko Mining, and Bob Pearson, a pilot of the famous Gimli Glider, travelled to 16 Wing Borden, Ontario, to share their experiences with staff and students.

Mr. Burzynski’s passion for aviation and history started him on his journey to recover the remains of nine Avro Arrow flight models, launched in the mid-1950s from the banks of Lake Ontario and now hidden in its depths.

He spoke about the Avro Arrow Program, and how a RCAF fighter requirement was to make Canada a leader in aviation technologies. The legend of the Arrow lives on to this day primarily because of the way the program was cancelled by the federal government in 1959. All aircraft, tooling and plans were ordered to be destroyed, leaving about 30,000 workers unemployed. The project was worth $400 million – $3.3 billion in today’s dollars.

Mr. Burzynski told the captivated crowd the steps he and his team took to search the bottom of Lake Ontario, a search that led him to the discovery of not one, but two early versions of the Avro Arrow models. But the research will not stop with the discovery of the two flight models; having only covered about 20 per cent of the search area, the remaining 80 per cent is set to be explored as soon as warmer weather returns. Once the other models are found, they will be transported to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, and the National Air Force Museum of Canada at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, Ontario. 

During CFSATE’s annual mess dinner that evening, guest speaker Bob Pearson carried the guests back to 1983 when computers and automated cockpits were new to the airline industry.

On July 23, 1983, Air Canada Flight 143, a domestic passenger flight between Montreal, Quebec, and Edmonton, Alberta, ran out of fuel at an altitude of 41,000 feet (12,497 metres) midway through the flight. At a former Royal Canadian Air Force base in Gimli, Manitoba, which was by then Gimli Motorsports Park, Air Canada Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal safely glided the brand new Boeing 767 aircraft to an emergency landing on a decommissioned runway that had been converted to a motor racing track. The aircraft was landed safely 17 minutes after running out of fuel, saving all 69 passengers and crew.

This unusual aviation incident earned the aircraft the nickname "Gimli Glider".

The subsequent investigation revealed that a combination of company failures, human errors and confusion over unit measures had led to the aircraft being refueled with insufficient fuel for the planned flight. The aircraft ran low on fuel due to a miscalculation. Groundcrew had mistakenly calculated the fuel amount with pounds instead of kilograms before the flight. Canada was in the process of converting to the metric system in 1983. 

Mr. Pearson conveyed to the audience the importance of teamwork, excellence and professionalism in a profound way, and that a lack of training and knowledge can lead to disaster.

When asked if he ever had any thoughts that they might all crash and die, he responded: “It never entered my mind. I had tunnel vision, totally focused on the task at hand. I knew I would land the airplane. I just wasn’t sure where.” 

The Gimli Glider is the only Boeing 767 in history to be glided safely to a controlled landing after fuel starvation, and where all passengers and crew on board survived. The story of the Gimli Glider has been told in a “Mayday” episode, and in a made-for-TV movie, and is now in contract negotiations for a Hollywood blockbuster film.

And, following this landing at Gimli, technicians were dispatched to repair the aircraft – but their vehicle ran out of gas on route to the crash site.

It was a great day of leadership and professional development. These two gentleman, from diverse backgrounds, one an accomplished geologist and the other a career pilot, both leaders in their fields, had significant common character traits. The self-confidence to succeed in any endeavour and the optimism that great things could be achieved – it speaks volumes to what is possible if you believe in success.

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