It was July 23, 1983. Dave Brown was tending to the grill with a beer in his hand after a day at the Gimli Motorsports Park in Gimli, Man.
It was a Winnipeg Sports Car Club family day and campers hung out behind the strip – once a Royal Canadian Air Force base.
As Brown eyed his barbecue, two boys on bikes came barrelling down the road exclaiming there had been a plane crash.
“All of the sudden there was a 767 right there,” he said at the track 40 years later to the day.
Unsure of what was happening, and with smoke rising from the plane’s nose, Brown sprung into action and ran toward the plane to assist, hoping for no casualties.
It’s been four decades since Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel midway through its trip between Montreal and Edmonton and made an emergency landing at the converted air base.
Pilot Bob Pearson calculated the plane wouldn’t make it to Winnipeg for an emergency re-fuel and saw his only chance at keeping the flight’s 61 passengers and eight crew members safe was to glide the plane to the runway in Gimli.
“This was, like, one in a million that this guy landed this plane because people with double engine failures usually don’t make it back,” said Al Marcoux, a volunteer at the track who, too, was at the site the day of the emergency landing.
A conversion error during his pre-flight routine left Pearson with half the fuel needed to get from Quebec to Alberta, but Capt. Pearson, an experienced glider pilot, sailed the aircraft for 17 minutes before landing it in the town of less than 2,000 people.
Soon after Flight 143 became the Gimli Glider, and today the story is as popular as ever.
“It put Gimli on the map,” Marcoux said.
The drag strip is now looked at as somewhat of a historical site, and spray paint marks the spot where the plane’s nose landed on the tarmac. A museum about the tale with memorabilia from the summer’s eve landing was opened in town, and to mark the anniversary a flight simulator is set up at the exhibit. Marcoux and Brown still get questions about the story to this day.
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Brown looks at the story as one of technology making up for the limitations of man, but even technology has its limits, too.
“Technology allowed a 767 to glide for 17 minutes from 40,000 feet, but it was human beings that landed it,” he said.
Marcoux, who lives in Winnipeg, said the event prompted him to come back to the track every year.
“Because I wanna see the next one.”
— with files from Katherine Dornian
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