By: Andrew Henry, EAA 1363721
July 23, 1983 — Air Canada Flight 143 (C-GAUN) silently glides to a touchdown on an abandoned runway in Gimli, Manitoba, in one of aviation’s greatest stories of airmanship and perhaps a little luck. The nose gear collapses and the aircraft slides to a halt metres away from crowds that are gathered for races.
There’s been a miscalculation in the fuel requirements for the flight but that is just one item in a chain of events that have led to this near disaster.
Fortunately no serious injuries resulted and C-GAUN was in the air again just two days later for a ferry flight to the repair depot in Winnipeg.
An abandoned airstrip — that was the best option for a 767 dropping from 41,000 feet as it ran out of fuel while crossing Manitoba. It’s fortunate that the runway was still there.
With the increasing number of airstrips in Canada being closed or under threat, the distance between active aerodromes is increasing and with it the risk to safe passage continues to rise for those who seek adventure in the skies.
Here I was, July 24, 2021, 38 years plus one day later and I am looking for the only suitable airstrip within range, another abandoned one, and I need terra firma, but let me review how I got here.
The front seat of my Autogyro MTO Sport gyroplane Stella (C-GNHP) is where you’ll find me. The freedom that comes with the open cockpit, the views, and the simple maneuverability of the gyroplane — it is unmatched.
My best days are those that include being able to take friends or family up for a buzz over Ottawa, low-and-overs on the runways at YOW, or following the shoreline of the St. Lawrence above a glass-like surface looking back in history at the ‘Lost Villages’ underwater near Morrisburg.
My plan has been to stretch my rotating wings a little further though — a journey from Carp (CYRP), Ontario (close to Ottawa), to Steinbach, Manitoba (CJB3), and back would bring me to family long separated by COVID, and afford me a dose of adventure I’ve been craving.
Departing CYRP on July 17, I made fuel stops at North Bay, Sudbury, Chapleau, Marathon (overnight), Thunder Bay, Dryden, Kenora (diversion for fuel due to un-forecasted head winds), then terminating in Steinbach. 16.9 hours’ flight time. The amazing people, especially those from the Airport Inn in Marathon, Julian and Tabitha, and Garnet Isaac and fellow ‘gyronaut’ at the airport in Steinbach, who went way out of their way to assist, reminded me of how great rural Canada and its people are.
Preparedness for the worst on a journey like this is well-advised. I’d been revisiting my notes for months prior and with anticipation of headwinds westbound I had considered transporting Stella west then flying only east.
Feeling like summer was wasting away and I needed to start taking action and do less dreaming, I decided to take this one segment at a time and pick my way west when conditions were favourable.
Westbound, especially around the north shore of Lake Superior, was indeed a challenge. The distances between fuel stops, headwinds, and unfamiliarity despite driving Highway 17 many times left me hyper-focused on the job. But the challenges that eastbound presented brought this to a whole new level.
Quickly changing weather conditions that make reliability of reports a suggestion at best, heavy smoke from devastating forest fires, and the distance between airports (there are NONE between Marathon and Thunder Bay — a driving distance of 300 kilometres) can create some challenging circumstances.
I had passed Terrace Bay, Ontario, and the best thrills that come with flying were coursing through my veins as I followed the railway tracks eastward. One could feel jealous of the train engineers for having a career that took them winding their way in and out of the bays and cutting their way through the hills along the shoreline; the sights are truly one to experience, but with the superior (or Superior – pun intended) views afforded by a bit of altitude Stella was banking around the curves in a smooth gentle ride that would leave any roller coaster enthusiast green with envy.
I was only a few kilometres from Marathon, taking my time and with plenty of fuel left when I decided it was time to climb and prepare for approach into the Marathon airport.
As I breached a ridge my whole situation changed. There, filling my entire forward view, was a sea of fog. It was not supposed to be here. Flight planning with Flight Information Services (FIS) in Thunder Bay more than two hours earlier, had, by all capabilities of our systems, left me confident that the conditions were expected to be comfortably VFR. This was anything but the case.
I have 1.25 hours of fuel remaining. 45 minutes plus, as for rotorcraft, 30 minutes reserve. Time to employ my alternate plan and, as noted, there are no airfields between Marathon and Thunder Bay, now two hours to the west.
I call Winnipeg Radio to advise of the situation and we discuss my three options; i) Highway 17, ii) A secondary road, most likely a logging road, or iii) The abandoned airstrip and now racetrack in Terrace Bay that I’d set as my emergency alternate for my westbound leg.
Terrace Bay it is. The realities of having to put down off airfield in a gyroplane barely concern me and a runway now used for racing is likely in good shape, but of course safety for myself and those on the ground is still paramount. The gyroplane is capable of a very short (near zero) landing roll and likely the worst that I face is if there are people and cars on the track and then what to do once I’m on the ground. Gyroplanes cannot technically hover but are capable of very slow flight under certain conditions.
I keep an eye out for straight stretches and snowplow turnarounds along the highway during my 23-minute flight back to Terrace Bay, just in case a quick change to plans is needed.
As I approach the racetrack, I see that this is one day where there are indeed events. The track has cars running on a slalom course and many people line the south side. Another call with Winnipeg Radio — he tries to reach the track owner to give a heads up — but after a few circuits to buy time it seems that the message has not gotten through.
I do a low pass now and point to the runway trying to indicate my intentions to land. They’re too intrigued to realize my intent so it is up to me. I circle around once more and ease back on the stick to slow down to a near hover and make it obvious that I am about to drop in on their party.
Timing it so that the car on the slalom course is just finishing its run, I dip the nose forward, accelerate to 65 knots and glide in for a touchdown as far from the activity as possible. There’s a slight headwind so just before contact I pull back and arrest the forward speed for what was probably a 20-foot touchdown roll.
The rotor needs a minute or so to spool down below 100 rpm then I apply the rotor brake and shortly afterwards everything is shut down.
In moments I am surrounded by curious folks intrigued by the odd machine and, of course, what brought me here. I tell of the fog in Marathon and that this was the best solution within range, and note of course that it would be preferred if this was still an actual airport.
“It’s like the Gimli Glider” one fellow mentions, “Racetrack and all.”
I agree and although fuel exhaustion was not my issue, I am grateful that it is here, I am on the ground, and everyone is fine.
Canadian hospitality kicks in again. Andrew runs me to town for a motel, only to find all rooms booked. We head back to the track and I am prepared to pitch my tent, one of my safety gear items, when Paul Wilson steps in. Paul is one of the competitors and fellow pilot (fixed-wing, float) and helicopter pilot trainee. He offers smokies for dinner, the pullout couch in his RV for the night, and then in the morning, the use of his Porsche to run back to town for fuel.
My return home is delayed by a day but I’m fine with that; I bide my time watching races the next morning while the fog slowly clears over Marathon. I file my flight plan, discuss the weather again, and the race organizers pause the activity between races so that I can take off and get on my way.
This journey was intended to be about adventure and as my brother reminded me, “If you didn’t want adventure, you’d have booked commercial.”
He’s right. And more adventures are yet to come.