When A Plane Ran Out Of Fuel At 41,000 Feet, Its Pilots Were Faced With A Stomach-churning Decision

On July 23, 1983, the pilots of Air Canada Flight 143 don’t dwell too much on the warning light that starts blinking during their journey. Having calculated the amount of fuel they have left, the airmen simply conclude that they’ll make it to their destination with ease. But then another bulb lights up – and this one tells them that their numbers are all wrong. In fact, they’re dangerously low on fuel – and they’re hundreds of miles from their destination.

At the time, Air Canada had just added the Boeing 767 to its fleet – with the vessel bringing with it a new form of measurement. This was the metric system. Yet on the ground the plane’s electronic gauge failed to work, so airline employees manually calculated how much fuel they needed. They did so incorrectly, however, slashing in half the amount of gas it’d take to get them from Ottawa to Edmonton.

So as the plane subsequently flew at around 41,000 feet, its pilots realized that the warning lights hadn’t mistakenly turned on at all. In fact, their Boeing 767 had no fuel left – and so the vessel started to fall from the sky. The men in the cockpit therefore had some quick decisions to make to try and save themselves and their 61 passengers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Before his fateful flight on Air Canada’s Boeing 767, though, Captain Robert Pearson had ample experience in the cockpit. The 48-year-old had already logged in excess of 15,000 flight hours, you see. His first officer – 36-year-old Maurice Quintal – had tallied about half of that too. And on top of this, both men had also logged experiences in a diverse range of aircrafts.

For Captain Pearson, his prior experience had him flying not only traditional airplanes, but also glider planes. First Officer Quintal, on the other hand, had once served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This experience had in fact seen him serve a post at Gimli – a base in Manitoba. That is quite a journey from Montreal, the city from which he and Pearson would take off in their Boeing 767.

ADVERTISEMENT

Interestingly, the Boeing 767 marked a new level of innovation in aircraft at the time. The $40 million vessel incorporated new technology that was rarely seen in other airliners. Specifically, it had an electronic flight instrument system. In order for the craft to function, then, these handy controls relied on the electricity generated by the plane’s twin jet engines.

ADVERTISEMENT

So what happened with this flight? Well, on July 22, 1983, an Air Canada crew flew the cutting-edge Boeing 767 from Toronto to Edmonton, Canada. After that, a team flew the plane to Montreal. Here, another crew change put Pearson and Quintal at the helm to fly the craft back to Edmonton the next day. At first, though, it seemed that the airmen might not get the flight off of the ground.

ADVERTISEMENT

Mechanics realized that the plane had a dangerous fault, you see. A poor soldering job had in fact prevented an internal computer from measuring how much fuel the vessel carried. Yet although such a disconnection might have been reason enough to ground the flight, the Air Canada ground personnel seemingly had a solution that could allow for liftoff.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, the crew members attempted to manually calculate how much fuel they would need to get from Montreal to a stopover in Ottawa and then onto Edmonton. They then used drip sticks to measure how much fuel the plane had. But unbeknownst to the crew, they had made a potentially fatal error.

ADVERTISEMENT

You see, the drip sticks told the crew the volume of fuel that the aircraft had in its reserves. But, in actuality, the airmen had incorrectly converted the figures from the drip sticks. How did this happen? Well, the crew thought that the plane measured its fuel reserves in kilograms – but in reality it was in pounds. And anyone familiar with metric conversions will know that one kilogram is equivalent to about 2.2 pounds.

ADVERTISEMENT

So when the crew calculated the plane’s fuel reserves in kilograms instead of pounds, they inadvertently doubled their estimation. In reality, then, Air Canada Flight 143 took off with half the amount of fuel that it needed to make its journey. And yet everything initially appeared to be going fine for Pearson and Quintal, who both sat in the plane’s cockpit.

ADVERTISEMENT

So the pair began the 102-mile journey from Montreal to Ottawa before making their way toward Edmonton. And when they made their first stop, the ground crews felt understandably delighted. Their calculations had worked so far, after all. But it was the second leg of the journey where the crew’s mistake would come back to haunt everyone.

ADVERTISEMENT

Just above Red Lake in Ontario, though, the pilots and the rest of Flight 143 reached an altitude of 41,000 feet. And it was at this point that the plane’s warning system lit up. The first bulb brightened to alert the crew that the plane had a fuel pressure problem. It seemed that its left engine’s fuel pump had failed.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pearson and Quintal believed they knew how to fix this, though. If the fuel pump had broken, the pilots thought, they should just turn it off. The pilots reasoned that gravity pressing on the plane at 41,000 feet would keep fuel running into the plane’s engine regardless of a working pump. So the men switched off the fuel pump. But then, moments later, they got another warning: the right engine had lost pressure too.

ADVERTISEMENT

At this point, Pearson and Quintal had a decision to make. They could either ignore the second warning and trust the initial calculations that measured the amount of on-board fuel – or they could phone in an emergency landing. As it happened, though, the pilots had a third voice available to weigh into the debate. Air Canada engineer Rick Dion had in fact joined them for the journey across the country.

ADVERTISEMENT

Dion felt that the pilots should heed the warnings. And as it turned out, both pilots agreed with his assessment. So Pearson contacted air traffic control to see if they could divert their journey to Winnipeg. It was there that the pilots planned to make an emergency landing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, as was later suggested to the National Post in 2013, the warning indicators didn’t necessarily seem to point to disaster. The blinking lights could have also meant a computer problem, for instance. But then things got worse: the engine on the plane’s left side stopped working.

ADVERTISEMENT

As part of his training on a flight simulator, though, Pearson had learned how to fly a plane that had lost power in one of its engines. So in the scenario which had suddenly presented itself to him in reality, a landing would be difficult but not unmanageable. Then, however, the plane’s right engine ceased functioning too.

ADVERTISEMENT

An eerie alarm also sounded in the cockpit to indicate that both engines had died. This was something that neither Pearson nor Quintal had ever heard before. Neither of them had ever practiced landing a plane without any engines, either. And to make matters worse, the Boeing 767’s controls had gone out because they derived their power from the engines.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the plane’s darkened dash hadn’t left the pilots completely devoid of information. In fact, Pearson and Quintal had a handful of battery-powered instruments that could help conjure up some kind of landing. The airmen had their vertical speed indicator, for one. This showed just how quickly the plane had started falling from the sky.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet seeing that the Boeing 767 had begun to descend at a rate of 2,000 feet every minute left the Air Canada cockpit in disaster. There was barely any time to discuss possible tactics, in fact. The pilots therefore had to rely on the plane’s remaining resources, including its more primitive flight instruments and its hydraulic system.

ADVERTISEMENT

Airliners of the same scale as the Boeing 767 rely on a hydraulic system for control, you see. These behemoth planes also come with back-up plans in case the engine fails and power is consequently cut off to the hydraulic system. In the case of the Boeing 767, then, the craft typically uses a ram air turbine to regain control.

ADVERTISEMENT

A ram air turbine generates power from movement, much like wind turbines spinning in gusty areas around the world. But to land their plane safely, Pearson and Quintal had to reduce its speed. The pilots therefore lost much of the power they needed to regain control over their vessel’s hydraulics and steering.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fortunately, Pearson and Quintal had a second potential solution in mind. It all stemmed from the captain’s former life as a glider pilot. So Pearson knew a slew of techniques – not typically utilized by a commercial pilot – that could bring the plane down safely. First off, though, he had to figure out the giant plane’s most favorable velocity for gliding.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pearson then did his best to fly the Boeing 767 at about 220 knots – or roughly 250 miles per hour – as it made its descent. Meanwhile, Quintal started to do some calculations of his own. He needed to figure out if the plane had enough speed and time to make it all the way from Red Lake to Winnipeg – the airport where they hoped to make an emergency landing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Of course, air traffic controllers had also started to worry when they learned that Pearson and Quintal had lost control and power over their massive vessel. The crews knew that any overly harsh turn in steering could knock the plane out of its ideal aerodynamic path. And if that happened, the pilots would send their plane into a downward spiral toward the ground.

ADVERTISEMENT

On top of that, air traffic control wasn’t entirely sure where the Boeing 767 was. As soon as the plane lost power, you see, its transponder had stopped sending the aircraft’s location to the control tower. And while the team did have radar, using it would be unreliable compared to transponder-relayed positioning.

ADVERTISEMENT

Aboard the plane, though, Quintal had a good idea of where he was – thanks to his past experience with the Air Force. Yet his calculations showed that the plane wouldn’t make it to Winnipeg in time for a landing. So he suggested that he and Pearson forego their original route in favor of a glide-in landing at his former base at Gimli.

ADVERTISEMENT

Unfortunately, the base had become Gimli Motorsports Park – a civilian hang-out with a number of racing tracks. And at the time that Pearson and Quintal wanted to land their plane, the space was hosting a racing competition. So people had naturally crowded into the venue that day to watch it unfold.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Pearson and Quintal didn’t know that until they started to make their final descent onto Gimli. And the onlookers actually represented just one of two major problems that could make or break the pilots’ landing. The second problem related to the fact that they were coming in too high. Such a miscalculation meant that they could miss the landing strip altogether.

ADVERTISEMENT

By this point, too, the 61 passengers aboard the Boeing 767 had learned that their plane was in the midst of an emergency landing. And so many of them started to prepare for the worst. They scribbled goodbye notes to family members, for instance, or set about recording last-minute changes to their wills.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Pearson and Quintal worked in the cockpit to avoid such an enormous tragedy. First, the pilots considered making a complete rotation in the vessel so as to lessen its velocity and elevation. But the plane didn’t have enough height to make it all the way around. So Pearson was forced to try a glider maneuver that pilots almost never use when landing a commercial airliner.

ADVERTISEMENT

Pearson in fact pushed the plane into what’s called a forward slip. This tilted the aircraft to its side as it made its descent. And in such a position, the aircraft lost altitude quickly without increasing its speed. The Boeing 767 then headed towards the ground in almost complete silence – since its engines had stopped working mid-air.

ADVERTISEMENT

The revelers on the ground consequently had no idea that a commercial jet would be trying to make an emergency landing before them. Instead, they continued their activities as normal. In fact, a pair of boys were riding their bikes no more than 1,000 feet from where Pearson and Quintal hoped to land their powerless plane.

ADVERTISEMENT

The airplane actually came so dangerously close to both kids that the fearful expressions upon their faces could be noted from the cockpit. But thankfully, the people at Gimli had a spot of luck on their sides that day. Yet this manifested in ways that might at first have seemed unlucky.

ADVERTISEMENT

For one thing, the Boeing’s landing equipment didn’t fix into an appropriate position as the plane made its descent. So when the vessel finally hit the ground and Pearson slammed the brakes, the front wheel crumpled back into the plane. This forced the nose of the 767 into the ground – which created enough friction to slow down the landing.

ADVERTISEMENT

The new racetrack also had built-in safety features that kept the sliding plane from speeding into the crowds of people gathered there. Namely, the plane ran alongside a guardrail at the center of the track – thus creating even more friction. So eventually the aircraft came to a stop a stunning 17 minutes after exhausting its fuel supplies.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet landing didn’t mark the end of the ordeal for Pearson, Quintal and everyone else aboard the Boeing 767. They then had to evacuate the plane – and quickly. After all, a fire could break out and quickly engulf all of them in flames. As they departed the plane via its emergency slides, in fact, the racers on the track rushed toward the vessel to put out a small blaze at the nose.

ADVERTISEMENT

Ultimately, though, everyone got off the plane safely, with nobody suffering major injuries. In the wake of the miraculous landing, though, both Pearson and Quintal faced punishment from Air Canada for allowing such an accident to take place. The captain therefore endured a six-month demotion, while Quintal served a two-week suspension.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet most looked at Pearson and Quintal and their unbelievable efforts as heroic. Quintal eventually became a captain with Air Canada, while Pearson stayed with the company for another decade. And their landing remains a thing of legend. Other flight crews, in fact, have attempted to make the same landing in flight simulation – and many have failed to glide as these under-pressure airmen did in 1983.

ADVERTISEMENT

But one man who certainly comes close to matching Pearson and Quintal’s skill and bravery is Capt. William Mahoney. When in 2014 the pilot’s landing gear malfunctioned above the ocean, he was left with a hair-raising decision. And the maneuver that Mahoney pulled off in the crisis will no doubt go down in history.

ADVERTISEMENT

Flying a plane is really difficult. That’s something we all know. Pilots are looked up to the world over, and none more so than military pilots. But that doesn’t make the feat pulled off by Capt. Mahoney any less incredible. His story is one of broken hardware, difficult choices and perhaps the unlikeliest life-saving device that you’ve ever heard about.

ADVERTISEMENT

Of all the branches of the U.S. armed forces, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) is perhaps the most famous. Its history goes back as far as the American War of Independence, beginning in Philadelphia in 1775. According to its official website, “the Marine Corps functions as a unique force, combining ground, aviation and amphibious assets.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s a combination of the last two parts of the USMC remit that sets the scene for this story. The USS Bataan is a multi-purpose ship. At over 830 feet long and more than 100 feet wide, it’s capable of carrying a large number of marines into operation. Not only can it launch landing craft and helicopters, but it’s also designed to carry vertical take-off airplanes. Airplanes such the AV-8B Harrier.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Harrier weighs in at around 31,000 pounds. It’s capable of what’s known as VSTOL. This essentially means that the aircraft can take off and land vertically, rather than using a runway like most other planes. And it’s thanks to that ability that this amazing story unfolded.

ADVERTISEMENT

Captain William Mahoney’s flight started off normally. Mahoney, who is from the city of Athens in Georgia, was conducting operations with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit. He was part of Marine Attack Squadron 223, which is also known as the Bulldogs. And Mahoney certainly showed some of the tenacity of his squadron’s namesake that day.

ADVERTISEMENT

But not long after takeoff, Mahoney noticed that he had a problem. And it was a big one. The landing gear at the front of his plane was malfunctioning. As soon as he realized, he slowed down, and contacted the control tower back on the USS Bataan.

ADVERTISEMENT

Another pilot was at work in the control tower, and they set about researching the problem that Mahoney had encountered. At this point, the stricken jet was some 2,000 feet above the Bataan. But the two pilots decided that they needed to have a better look at what was going on underneath the plane. And that meant conducting a fly-by at a much lower altitude.

ADVERTISEMENT

So Mahoney flew much lower – at just 300 feet – which allowed the pilot who was talking to him have a much clearer look at the broken landing gear. And that pilot had some pretty bad news for Mahoney. Talking to the official U.S. Marines website, Mahoney later explained that the tower “determined that my nose gear did not come back down.”

ADVERTISEMENT

That left Mahoney with a number of uncomfortable options. Either he could ditch the plane in the sea, losing the incredibly expensive machine in the process, or he could try and land it without the aid of the front landing gear. It was then that the tower remembered that the ship had something that could help.

ADVERTISEMENT

The official name for the object is a crash cradle. But to the layman, it might more accurately be described as a stool. Albeit a stool that’s designed to carry the full weight of the AV-B8 Harrier’s nose. The stool meant that Mahoney could attempt an incredibly risky maneuver to bring the plane home safely.

ADVERTISEMENT

The plan was a reasonably simple one. Or, at least a reasonably simple one to explain. Mahoney would have to slowly lower his plane using its VSTOL capabilities, bringing the nose with the broken landing gear to rest on the stool. Of course, in practice, it was far more difficult than that.

ADVERTISEMENT

The first part of the maneuver involved Mahoney lowering the plane to just 20 feet above the deck of the ship. And despite the pressure, Mahoney told the Marines’ website he had remained calm. “At this point I had kind of forgotten that I had no nose gear and I was just focused on landing, because that’s what I had to do,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hovering just above the deck, Mahoney made sure that his plane was stable and perfectly lined up with the stool in order to make the audacious landing. But then another problem reared its head, making the final stretch of the landing even more perilous than everything that had come before it.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s because Mahoney could no longer see the stool. “I’m at 20 feet, stabilized, and I can’t see the stool – I don’t even know it’s there. I couldn’t see it coming over the ship, I remember thinking, ‘Oh boy, this is going to get interesting.’” To all intents and purposes, then, Mahoney had to make the difficult maneuver blind.

ADVERTISEMENT

While he didn’t realize it at the time, the flight crew who would usually be stationed on the deck during a landing had been evacuated. That was in case Mahoney didn’t manage to pull off the difficult landing successfully. With great care, he started to lower the multi-million-dollar aircraft down to the unseen stool below.

ADVERTISEMENT

Mahoney’s own description of the incident doesn’t quite seem to capture the incredible nature of the feat that he’d achieved. “I remember idling the aircraft, my main gear hitting and all of a sudden my nose dropping. It dropped more than I expected,” he said. “But at that point, I was along for the ride.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The nose hit the stool almost perfectly, in fact. It bounced for a moment before coming to a stop. Mahoney had managed to pull off something truly remarkable, landing a damaged plane onto a small, cushioned space. But once the tension of the experience had faded, the shock of what he’d just done finally began to sit in.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I remember feeling it just hit and that’s it. But then I had to sit there for a minute and remember how to turn the jet off and shut everything off,” Mahoney recalled. “It was just a pretty big relief, and I didn’t realize how much I was shaking until I actually got out of the aircraft.” And he didn’t go unrewarded for his heroic actions.

ADVERTISEMENT

Mahoney hadn’t just saved the aircraft. Thanks to his actions, in fact, it was back in the air before too long. A few months later, Capt. Mahoney was awarded with the Air Medal. This is given to service personnel who manage to set themselves apart while flying their planes. And Mahoney had certainly done that.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to Colonel William Dunn, who presented Mahoney with the medal, his actions stand out in the modern era. “In the world of ejection seat aircraft, it is not always the first choice to bring the airplane back after something like this and risk the pilot. But this was incredible,” said Dunn in a press release quoted by The Marine Corps Times.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT