High on History: The Insane Story of the 1983 Plane That Ran Out of Fuel—Mid-Flight

Ah, summer. A season of blessed warmth, pool parties, state fairs and plenty of travel. What better time for us to remind you of the perils of plane flight? For this one we’re going back to 1983, when pilots in Canada found their Boeing 767 suddenly clean out of gas—mid-air. What's a flight crew to do in such a hopeless, gut-wrenching scenario? Read on, intrepid summer traveler!

One Tiny Mistake

On that fateful day, Canada 143 began with a speedy jaunt from Montreal to Ottawa. The flight crew had previously realized the plane’s fuel control computer was faulty, which forced maintenance to manually calculate the amount of fuel needed.

Taking every precaution, the flight crew checked the maintenance crew's fuel calculations no fewer than three times. All appeared to be in order, the plane had no problem in the first leg of its trip, and it set off again in the sunny blue skies onward ho to Edmonton.

The problem: both the ground refuelers and flight crew had forgotten one pesky little detail. Canada was switching to the metric system (psssh), and thus all Canadian planes were now being calibrated in those units. The conversion from the English system to the metric system meant the plane actually had only about . . . half of the fuel it needed to make the trip. Gulp.

Shit Gets Real

All seemed well until shortly after dinner, at which time:

*Warning light #1 came on. The pilots thought a minor problem was to blame, and so they went on their merry way. But then . . .

*Warning light #2 came on. The pilots decided that coincidences are never a friend of the air-bound, so they diverted the plane to closer-by Winnipeg. Sure enough . . .

*Warning light #3 came right on cue, and this time they lost their left engine. The plot thickens.

*Two minutes later, they heard a terrifying distress signal indicating the complete loss of both engines. The head pilot’s response, recorded on the cockpit voice recorder: “Oh fuck."

At this time, the pilots resorted to frantically searching their manuals (never a good sign), only to find there wasn’t even a listed procedure for the loss of both engines. The only hope: glide the plane to a safe landing using only the most basic instruments not affected by the recent loss of power. This meant the plane would be exceedingly difficult to control. The pilots and controllers all agreed the plane would never make it to Winnipeg, so they pegged a new, more desperate target: an abandoned Royal Canadian Air Force Base just 12 miles away.

Balls to the Wall

Though the head pilot luckily had a wealth of experience in gliding (granted not with a large commercial Boeing 767), the plane faced a number of formidable obstacles. Let’s count them:

*The plane had to approach the runway at just the right height to avoid disaster. And you guessed it: Canada 143 was just too high. The pilots had to perform a delicate maneuver to face the wind just right, allowing for a more rapid descent.

*The axed power meant pilots couldn’t control the plane’s landing gear, forcing another atypical procedure to physically cajole a “gravity drop” of the wheels. But oh no—the wheels didn’t entirely lock into place!

*The plane was becoming increasingly difficult to control as its speed continued to decrease.

And the piece de resistance:

*Unbeknownst to the crew, the “abandoned runway” had actually been converted to a recreational center complete with go-cart racing. And to further pile on the absurdity, it just happened to be “Family Day.” Races were happening all over the runway, and along the perimeter stood a plentitude of cars, campers, kids and parents getting their Family Day freak on.

The Final Countdown

The co-pilot didn’t realize the people on the runway until the point of no return, and there’s no point piping up at that point, right? So he just kept his mouth shut and white-knuckled it. Meanwhile, passengers began to spot golfers and other pedestrians below. But in his total preoccupation with monitoring airspeed and descent, the head pilot didn’t notice the people on the ground at all.

No matter—you didn’t need to tell people on the ground to scramble on out. As the plane touched down, “[s]pectators, racers, and kids on bicycles fled the runway” seeing that the “gigantic Boeing was about to become a 132 ton, silver bulldozer."

The landing wasn’t pretty. Tires blew out, the nose gear collapsed and slammed against the tarmac, part of the engine struck the ground, and about 300 feet of sparks rained out from the plane—which ultimately stopped less than 100 feet from the terrified spectators.

Although some people were hurt exiting the plane, none of the 61 passengers or eight flight crew members suffered any serious injury. Nor did the feckless participants of “Family Day” meet with any tragic consequences.

So that’s the story of how converting to a new measuring system can ruin everything. Hold strong, America, lest unholy metric black magic wreak all manner of mischief across our land.

Image: ThinkStock

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