The Gimli Glider is, despite what its name may suggest (i.e., the dwarf in The Lord of the Rings movies and the "nobody tosses a dwarf!"/"toss me!" scenes), a folkloric name for Air Canada Flight 143, a long flight across Canada from Montreal to Edmonton that flew on Saturday, July 23, 1983.
Flight 143 ran out of fuel over rural Manitoba, about three-fifths of the way to Edmonton, due to a calculation error relating to the amount of fuel required for the flight. Normally, these errors are avoided by having computers perform any needed calculations, but in this case, the flight crew didn't trust the aircraft's computer over some confusion relating to Canada's recent adoption of the metric system. In Montreal, before the flight took off, the pilot, Bob Pearson, and the co-pilot, Maurice Quintal, were performing their pre-flight visual inspection of the aircraft and working out the arrangements for fueling it. Due to a miscalculation that had been worked out with paper and a slide rule, then double and triple-checked, only a little over half of the needed amount of fuel for a flight to Edmonton was pumped into the fuel tanks. As a perfect example of cause and consequence, fuel starvation occurred at 41000 feet (12000 metres).
In 1983, Air Canada was in the process of acquiring and adding to their fleet the new Boeing 767 widebody aircraft, one of the first to feature a "glass cockpit" avionics system; that is, fully computerized. While both Pearson and Quintal were highly experienced pilots, both were relative novices at flying the recently introduced 767. Both were certified to fly it but didn't have much experience with it due to its newness. All the aircraft the flight crew had worked on previously used analog controls, and the "glass cockpit" digital flight system was state of the art. When estimating how much fuel they needed to fly to Edmonton (with a stop-over in Ottawa), both pilots chose to disbelieve the on-board fuel consumption calculator as the fuel load in kilograms, as opposed to imperial tons, just didn't seem right to them, so they calculated the estimate by hand.
After departing Ottawa and a few hours into the flight to Edmonton, the engines began to flame out (run out of fuel) one by one. The flight crew was notified by the flight computer, via a long bong! tone that no one present in the cockpit could recall ever having heard before. It was an alert that the fuel tanks were empty and that both engines had flamed out. At this point, the jet was gliding at an altitude of approximately twelve kilometres above Manitoba. The flight crew contacted Winnipeg and declared an emergency. Winnipeg offered them vectors for an emergency landing at Winnipeg International Airport, but lacking fuel, they couldn't glide anywhere near Winnipeg, and even if they could, gliding a 767 had never been done before and was extremely likely to result in a deadly crash.
Luckily for all on board, both pilots were experienced in flying glider planes, which are unpowered and propelled only by wind. They don't fly very high. The flight crew was able to apply some gliding principles to hope against the odds that they would be able to glide into a smooth landing in a field somewhere. At this point, co-pilot Quintal recognized, from the air, Gimli Industrial Park Airport, a small regional airstrip that had been decommissioned several years prior and was mostly used for auto racing and, occasionally, for handling the comings and goings of light aircraft. Quintal had spent time there when he was serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.
The Boeing 767 was equipped with a ramjet turbine, which is a small propeller that automatically deploys in the event of fuel starvation to provide power to the aircraft's electrical controls, so they maintained a small degree of control over the navigation and attitude, but they were losing altitude quickly. After a few frantic moments of further calculation, Pearson and Quintal flew in circles as the altitude dropped, eventually landing hard but on the centre line, on the runway at Gimli, which was that day being used for amateur auto racing. The ramjet device, while helpful, could not power the entire jet, and as a result, the flight crew could not get the nose landing gear to deploy. The jet touched down smoothly on its rear wheels, but then made an abrupt belly landing down the centre of the runway, crushing a guard rail as it slowed precariously to a stop. As soon as it was clear that the danger had passed, the emergency evacuation slides were deployed and the jet was evacuated in only a minute or two. Racing enthusiasts sped towards the downed jet, bearing fire extinguishers, as a small fire had been sparked in the nose gear bay. It was quickly extinguished.
There were a few minor injuries to passengers, but these were caused by the evacuation and not the hard landing. Every passenger and member of the flight crew survived. What could have been an enormous disaster became nearly a non-event when it comes to aircraft crashes, due largely to the collective experience of the flight crew. Nowadays it's used as an example for performing full due diligence when converting between measurement systems and as an example of a rare, successful recovery from an unrecoverable flight regime.
Air Canada sent a maintenance crew to Gimli to repair the nose gear and the plane's underbelly, which had been scratched open by contact with the paved runway as the jet dragged to a stop. Just two days later, it was flown out of Gimli to an Air Canada maintenance hangar in Winnipeg, where more extensive repairs were made. The 767 returned to service and flew for Air Canada for a further twenty-five years before being retired and mothballed in 2008.
Captain Pearson was demoted to co-pilot for six months and First Officer Quintal was suspended for two weeks for their calculation errors, but both returned to Air Canada in their prior roles afterwards. Pearson retired in 1993 and Quintal was promoted to captain in 1989. Both were invited by Air Canada to fly on the aircraft's last flight, on January 24, 2008, to Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Arizona. Also on board were three of the six flight attendants that had served flight 143 on its fateful flight in 1983. Air Canada attempted to sell the aircraft to budget carriers via auction, hoping to bring in two to three million Canadian dollars, but the highest bidder submitted only $425000, so no sale was made. The aircraft presently sits in storage on a tarmac, with the Air Canada livery removed, at Tucson, its ultimate fate still to be decided.
Similar incidents involving glide flight of widebody passenger jets had occurred before and since the Gimli Glider scared the crap out of a crowd of Manitoban go-carters, with the most notable probably being Air Transat Flight 236, which occurred in 2001 and, like the Gimli Glider, resulted in damage to the aircraft but no fatalities.
In 1985, Pearson and Quintal were awarded the first Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship to recognize their accomplishment in the face of nearly certain death.
Like the Air Transat flight eighteen years later, this incident prompted more and more pilots to learn the basics of gliding, and some information on how to glide large passenger jets has been added to the flight manuals of several aircraft models from various manufacturers. Granted, you've got to screw up pretty badly to end up in a position where you would need to glide a widebody jet, but too much information or training isn't always necessarily a bad thing. Case in point.
CBC news footage from 1983
Footage from the final flight to Tucson
Aviation Safety Network: Gimli Glider
WP: List of airline flights that required gliding
WP: Gimli Glider