Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gimli Glider would fly at aviation museum -- or downtown

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The attitude expressed by Shirley Render, executive director of the Western Canada Aviation Museum, toward the idea of making the Gimli Glider part of its collection reveals what can be wrong with the thinking of museum officials.

"It's too much of what people fly today," said Render, meaning the Gimli Glider is still too new for their collection.

So what? Does she mean an old crop-duster nobody ever heard of is more interesting just because it is older?

Render justifies her argument by stating the WCAM prefers planes people "don't know too much about."

All well and good to provide people with new information, but my guess is that most Manitobans under the age of 35 know very little about the Gimli Glider, and the story, now 30 years old, is the most fascinating in Manitoba's aviation history.

The incident is steeped in the row over conversion from imperial to metric, which used to polarize Canada and still befuddles the United States. Failure to properly calculate how much fuel went into the planned flight from Montreal to Edmonton caused it to run out of gas at 12,500 metres.

The fact this story has a unique Manitoba connection now comes into play, because this plane and all souls on board may have perished if first officer Maurice Quintal didn't happen to have connections with this very province.

The story is rife with fate. First of all, pilot Bob Pearson had 15 years' experience flying gliders. Not all pilots have this type of training and, as things turned out, there is no way the plane would ever have landed safely if the pilot didn't have experience flying engineless planes.

And Quintal just happened to have been stationed at the former air force base in Gimli. When it was calculated the plane could not glide as far as the airport in Winnipeg, they were able to quickly find another option, and time was of the essence.

As things turned out, the plane was going a mite too fast to land safely on the runway in Gimli and the time and distance it would take to perform a 360-degree stalling tactic so it wouldn't overshoot the runway would have put them down short in a farmer's field.

The only way to slow the plane down was to perform a slip-slide -- a gliding technique in which you turn the aircraft sideways and at a 60-degree angle to create drag. Pearson had never performed this technique in a glider, let alone a wide-body Boeing 767, but he managed miraculously to pull it off.

More good fortune happened as the front wheel did not come down on landing, which caused the nose of the plane to scrape along the ground and slow the plane before it crashed into some drag racers who were having a picnic on the converted airstrip.

In the end, the only serious injuries the passengers incurred came from sliding a greater length to the ground because the plane ended up at an unusual angle without the front wheel.

It is a fascinating story, and many Manitobans do not know the full details. Certainly tourists, who are supposed to be a major part of a museum's audience, will most likely not be familiar with it.

Perhaps the Gimli Glider is just too big and will take up too much space at the museum. That's OK because a better use for the huge aircraft, which is now up for sale, might be what they do with most old memorabilia such as this.

Convert the interior into a restaurant and park it downtown. And if you want the real experience air travellers had in 1983, you can have crabby Air Canada stewards serve overcooked steak that has no discernible taste.

And suffocate from the pollution wafting forward from the smoking section.

Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 A17

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