Pearl Dion never expected to fall in love with the man who saved her life.
She was one of more than 60 passengers on the famed “Gimli Glider” — the nickname given to the Boeing 767 jet that made an emergency landing near the small community of Gimli, Man., on July 23, 1983, after running out of fuel due to a metric conversion error.
The Montreal-to-Edmonton Air Canada Flight 143 was piloted by Bob Pearson, whose flying skills allowed him to successfully land the plane on an abandoned runway near the town in Manitoba’s Interlake region, saving everyone on board — including Dion, now his partner of 10 years.
“Never in a million years did we expect to be together,” she told CBC on Saturday, a day before the anniversary of the flight — and her and Pearson’s anniversary. “It’s something from up above, I guess.”
Pearson and Dion met at a 30th anniversary celebration of the famed landing. Both Pearson’s wife and Dion’s husband, Rick — who happened to be one of the pilots in the cockpit with Pearson — had died years earlier.
“We just hit it off,” said Dion. “He’s the best friend in the world, and I’m so grateful that we’ve had the last 10 years, and I hope many more to enjoy life together.”
The July 23, 1983, event that would eventually bring them together marks one of the most extraordinary days in Canadian aviation history. It was even marked with a 1995 movie based on the event, Falling from the Sky.
“This is a story you couldn’t make up,” Pearson, now retired, said.
Pearson had been flying the Montreal-to-Edmonton route for a month before the Gimli Glider incident, he said. But the plane he flew on July 23 was brand new, with a state-of-the-art computerized system.
“The manuals were very incomplete back then when we first got the airplane — even chapters missing,” Pearson said.
But a metric conversion mix-up before takeoff meant the plane had half the fuel it needed to reach its destination, and it started running out near Red Lake, Ont., about 225 kilometres from Gimli.
The left engine failed at about 29,000 feet — soon after, the right failed too.
“Now we’re powerless.… The cockpit went blank,” Pearson said.
“I thought we’d make it to Winnipeg,” about 85 kilometres south of Gimli, he said. “We couldn’t see the ground. There was a layer of stratus cloud below us as we descended down over Lake Winnipeg.”
But after another pilot said they wouldn’t make it to Winnipeg, Pearson decided to make a turn toward Gimli.
He had three choices to slow the plane down: one was to do a 360-degree turn, but that could mean losing track of the airstrip. Another was to try “S-turns” —but they may not have had enough time to reduce their speed.
The third was to try a “sideslip” — something Canadian pilots train for in case of engine failure.
Pearson opted for the last, angling the plane sideways so the wings pointed diagonally, allowing the plane to slow down and reduce its altitude.
“We touched down 800 feet down the runway — and normally the ending spot is about 1,000 feet,” he said.
After using the brakes to steer, the plane eventually came to a halt.
All things considered, it was a good landing for Pearson — but he knows it scared a lot of people, including Dion.
“We just sort of went into shock when the lights went out, and we were told to go back to our seats and put through emergency procedures,” Dion said.
“You just kind of are spaced out.… But you do know that something is dreadfully wrong and you’re wondering if you are going to die.”
Other people were also watching the landing nearby — the Winnipeg Sports Car Club was out on the airstrip, which had been converted into a race track.
People were also out having barbecues, and kids were riding their bikes along the track.
Meeting people along the way
Pearson and Dion aren’t the only two whose fates have been intertwined since that day.
“That’s the best part of the whole thing, is the people that we’ve met along the way.… We’ve met some wonderful, wonderful people and we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Dion said.
That includes Barb Gluck, president of the Gimli Glider Museum in Gimli, which features the plane’s fuelling system, the steering wheel, a chair from the cockpit and other pieces of the aircraft.
Gluck said the exhibit has attracted visitors from around the world.
“It’s been fascinating, absolutely fascinating, to meet people from around the world and hear their stories of why they have come to see us,” she said in an interview with Radio Noon guest host Pat Kaniuga.
“We never know who’s coming through the door.”
Radio Noon Manitoba11:29Marking the 40th anniversary of the Gimli Glider
To celebrate 40 years since the landing, a fundraising dinner for the museum was planned to be held in Gimli on Saturday night, with Pearson and Dion in attendance.
The museum is also hosting the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at the landing site on Sunday afternoon.