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Pilot who glided 767 to miraculous Gimli landing returns to scene, hailed as hero

July 23, 2008, (Canadian Press, By Steve Lambert), Winnipeg, MB - Art Zuke can still picture the huge Boeing 767 barrelling straight at him and his two young friends, its nose grinding along an abandoned airstrip in Gimli, Man., firing off sparks and smoke.


July 23, 2008
By Carey Fredericks

July 23, 2008, (Canadian Press, By Steve Lambert), Winnipeg, MB – Art Zuke can still picture the huge Boeing 767 barrelling straight at him and his two young friends, its nose grinding along an abandoned airstrip in Gimli, Man., firing off sparks and smoke.

Twenty-five years later, he will finally get a chance to thank
the plane's pilot, Bob Pearson, whose heroic actions, he says,
prevented dozens of people from being killed.

“The plane really couldn't have gone 300 feet farther than it
did without mowing down things, myself included,'' Zuke said this
week in an interview with The Canadian Press. “People would have
been killed for sure.''

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the emergency landing of
what has become known fondly as the Gimli Glider, an Air Canada 767
that had left Montreal and Ottawa for Edmonton with 69 passengers
and crew on board.

The jet ran out of fuel 40,000 feet over northern Ontario _
partly thanks to a mix-up over the newly adopted metric system _ and
lost engine power.

With no chance of making it to Winnipeg, Pearson was left with
one option _ try to glide the massive aircraft to the little-known,
abandoned airstrip in Gimli, about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg,
which had been converted to a drag strip for race-car enthusiasts.

“We were airborne for something like 20 minutes without engine
power,'' Pearson recalled this week from his farm in eastern
Ontario.

Both engines were dead and only a limited number of flight
instruments were functioning on backup battery power. One of the
instruments that wasn't working was the vertical speed indicator,
which tells a pilot how fast a plane is dropping.

On the ground, 14-year-old Zuke and two friends were riding
bicycles at the far end of the drag strip. He was the first to see
the plane approach and he knew immediately that something was wrong.

“Just to see that sort of an airliner coming into the Gimli area
was surreal, and to see it come in completely silently … was an
amazing sight,'' he said.

“We were fixated on this plane coming in, like a deer fixated on
the headlights of a car coming at it.''

The plane was coming in too high to land safely at the drag
strip, which was roughly one kilometre long, so Pearson reached back
to his days as a glider pilot. He used a manoeuvre called a side
slip to increase the aircraft's drag and bring it down more quickly.

“It was falling out of the sky much like you see the space
shuttle coming out of the sky, losing altitude very quickly,'' Zuke
said. “We didn't move. It was … an unbelievable thing to see.''

The plane passed over a golf course. One passenger was reported
to have said he could read the writing on people's golf clubs.

Seconds later, the rear wheels touched the runway. Pearson
slammed on the brakes, blowing out two tires. He wasn't at all sure
he could bring the jet to a halt before he ran out of runway.

Then, as the front of the plane touched down, things got worse.

“The nose gear collapsed and the nose hit with quite a thump,
and I looked up and there were these boys pedalling frantically to
the side of the runway,'' Pearson recalled.

“I knew I couldn't take the airplane into them, so I was
prepared to take it off (the runway) into the eastern side.''

The teenagers had clued in that they were in danger and were
starting to rush to get out of the way.

“It was heading directly at us,'' Zuke said.

The boys scrambled as the plane skidded toward them, grinding
against the pavement and sending off a shower of sparks.

In the cockpit, Pearson was close enough to see the lads' faces
as he struggled to halt the plane.

“Looking up and seeing, especially two boys, I remember the look
of horror. It must have been pretty terrifying for them.''

Suddenly, it was over. The aircraft had screeched to a stop 100
metres from the boys and the end of the drag strip.

“The emergency chutes popped out of the plane and people were
leaping out, horrified,'' Zuke said. “There was some fire at the
nose of the plane, just from the friction of the nose pushing itself
along the tarmac.''

Incredibly, no one on the plane or the ground was injured.
Pearson was hailed as a hero for the landing, and for stopping the
plane before it could crash into buildings and trailers beyond the
end of the drag strip, where people had gathered to watch cars race
on nearby tracks.

In the ensuing chaos, as people ran to and from the plane, Zuke
and Pearson didn't cross paths. That will change Wednesday, when the
two will take part in an anniversary ceremony in Gimli.

“I'm looking forward to shaking (Pearson's) hand and thanking
him, because had it not been for him and for the copilot and their
amazing skills, certainly nobody would have survived this, on the
plane or on the ground,'' Zuke said.

The crash was blamed on a series of errors, including a faulty
fuel measurement processor that didn't work before takeoff. It
forced crews to rely on manual calculations for the plane's fuel
requirements. There was a computation error, as someone converting
imperial gallons to the new metric system used the wrong formula. As
a result, the big jet was loaded with only about half the fuel
required to make it to Edmonton.

The event led to a federal public inquiry, which cited
deficiencies in airline procedures.

Pearson, who retired in 1993, was initially disciplined by Air
Canada along with co-pilot Maurice Quintal. The disciplinary
measures were withdrawn following a union grievance.