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When Airplanes Lose Power

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

From time to time, the engines on airplanes conk out giving pilots very little time to get their craft safely down on the ground. Sometimes, despite heroic efforts, tragedy happens. But, sometimes highly skilled people bring about happier outcomes.

Brilliant pieces of kit so long as they keep working.

Brilliant pieces of kit so long as they keep working.

A Metric Mix-up

Air Canada flight 143 was on a 2,800 km trip from Montreal to Edmonton when its engines started to sputter and die. The flight crew realized the Boeing 767 was running dangerously low on gas and they were only halfway through the flight. How could this be?

It was July 23, 1983, and Canada was still transitioning from imperial measures to metric and the brand new 767 was the first in the airline's fleet to be all metric. Because the fuel gauges in the cockpit were inoperative, due to a sensor failure that hadn't been fixed, it was decided to calculate the aircraft's fuel load manually in Montreal.

Will that be litres or gallons?

Will that be litres or gallons?

Taking information given them by the refuelling crew those on the flight deck worked out they had enough kerosene to get to Edmonton with a scheduled stop in Ottawa.

Everything seemed to be fine when the fuel was re-checked in Ottawa, but the flight crew had made a crucial error. In converting the fuel load from volume to weight they had used a formula involving gallons instead of the litre-formula they should have employed.

There are 4.54 litres in an imperial gallon; when flight 143 took off from Ottawa it was short of fuel by a long shot.

As the aircraft crossed the Ontario/Manitoba border at 41,000 feet the fuel tanks ran dry. Captain Bob Pearson was now confronted with the massive problem of how to get 156 tonnes of machinery with 69 people aboard onto the ground safely.

To compound his predicament, most of instruments went blank. As well, the hydraulic power to flaps, ailerons, and rudder was out; a back-up system called a ram-air turbine kicked in but it made the plane difficult to control.

An Air Canada 767 identical to the subject of this article.

An Air Canada 767 identical to the subject of this article.

Landing at Gimli

Capt. Pearson decided to try to land at Winnipeg. First Officer Maurice Quintal calculated the glide path and found that for every 12 miles (19 km) of travel, the plane dropped 5,000 feet (1,500 m). They wouldn't make it to Winnipeg. There was only one option, a former Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) base Gimli, Manitoba.

Quintal had served at the base when he was an RCAF pilot. And, another stroke of luck, Capt. Pearson was an experienced glider pilot and he now employed the techniques he had learned to get his 767 glider onto the ground safely. They dropped the landing gear, but the nose wheel failed to lock in place.

As the plane approached the old runway, it was clear they were too high and too fast. Pearson used a tricky glider maneuver to slow the plane down; a tactic that is almost never employed by pilots of big, commercial airliners.

It was then that the pilots realized that the abandoned runway was not abandoned at all; it had been turned into a racetrack and there was an event going on at that very moment. Cars and spectators scattered as the huge plane touched down. The unlocked nose wheel collapsed into its housing and that turned out to be a blessing. The increased friction caused by the nose grinding on the tarmac helped slow the plane down before it ran out of runway.

All passengers and crew escaped unhurt except for a few scrapes on the evacuation slides. The aircraft was repaired and put back into service. It was forever known as the Gimli Glider and was retired from service in 2008.

Aircraft Bird Strikes

While the metric/imperial foul up of the Gimli Glider appears to be unique, loss of power incidents caused by bird strikes are not.

(Some writers might stoop low enough to call these events fowl ups, but this writer is above reaching for such cheap giggles).

The Federal Aviation Administration says that “Wildlife strikes with aircraft are increasing in the United States and elsewhere. The number of wildlife strikes reported per year to the FAA increased steadily from about 1,800 in 1990 to 16,000 in 2018.” Fortunately, few of the collisions result in major disasters.

Unaware that the intercom was live in the passenger cabin, the pilot was heard to yell “Flocking birds!” Or, something like that.

Unaware that the intercom was live in the passenger cabin, the pilot was heard to yell “Flocking birds!” Or, something like that.

In August 2019, an Airbus 321 took off from an airport near Moscow and flew into a flock of gulls. Both engines on the Ural Airlines flight caught fire. The left engine failed completely and the right one did not provide enough thrust to keep the plane airborne.

The pilots were essentially trying to control a 205,000-pound (93,000 kg) glider with little height to play with as it had only climbed to 750 feet (228 m). They made what has been referred to as a “crash landing” in a cornfield, with the landing gear retracted about three miles (5 km) from the end of the runway. All 233 people on board survived with only a few injuries.

We are all familiar with the “Miracle on the Hudson” when brilliant piloting skill saved the lives of 255 people. U.S. Airways flight 1549 had just taken off from New York's LaGuardia Airport when it collided with a flock of Canada geese. The engines of the Airbus 320 had ingested some of the birds and shut down.

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger knew he did not have enough altitude to make it back to LaGuardia or any other airport. There was only one desperate thing to try—ditch the plane in the Hudson River.

Ditching a large commercial airliner in water safely is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but Capt. Sullenberger pulled it off. All passengers and crew made it out of the plane to be rescued by boats in the river.

Passengers on the slowly sinking U.S. Airways Airbus 320 wait to be rescued.

Passengers on the slowly sinking U.S. Airways Airbus 320 wait to be rescued.

Bonus Factoids

  • The longest airliner glide without power took place in August 2001. An Air Transat plane was en route from Toronto to Lisbon when it ran out of fuel over the Atlantic Ocean. The Airbus 330 had been leaking fuel since take off because of a bad maintenance issue. Captain Robert Piché, a man with glider experience, glided his plane for 75 miles (120 km) to a safe landing in the Azores. The lives of 306 people were saved.
  • The risk of dying in a plane crash for the average American is about one in 11 million. But, that's for the average person. For people, such as this writer, who never fly, the danger of being killed in a plane crash is considerably lower.
  • According to the flight tracking website FlightAware, there is an average of 9,728 commercial airplanes in the sky at any given moment. In those planes, are 1,270,406 people.

Sources

  • “The Incredible Story of the Gimli Glider.” Linnea Ahlgren, simpleflying.com, March 15, 2021.
  • Aviation Safety Network.
  • “Russia Bird Strike: Plane Crash-Lands after Hitting Gulls.” BBC News, August 15, 2019.
  • “The Miracle Plane Crash-Landing on the Hudson River.” William Langewiesche, Sunday Times, February 7, 2010.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

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