Landing the Novel – The Story of the Gimli Glider

If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.” – Chuck Yeager

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In July 1983, Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767 airliner, took off from Montreal to fly to Edmonton with an intermediate stop in Ottawa. The trip ended somewhat prematurely.

Now, when you get ready to take a road trip, how do you handle the fuel? I’m guessing you go to the gas station and fill your car up, even if it’s a short trip, right? But airlines don’t do that. It’s common practice to load enough fuel into the plane to get it to its destination, and then on for another 45 minutes or so, to take care of any unforeseen circumstances. The reasoning is that filling the fuel tanks all the way adds a lot of weight to the plane, thereby making it more expensive to fly. There are tools to determine the amount of fuel to add to the plane before take-off.

That’s where the problem for Flight 143 began.

The fuel quantity indicator on the Canadian airplane was found to be defective, but there was no replacement available, so the crew manually determined the amount of fuel needed to fly all the way to Edmonton. This involved measuring the amount of fuel with a floatstick and doing some mathematical calculations and conversions. Mistakes were made. The plane took off on its journey and made the intermediate stop in Ottawa. As it departed Ottawa, no one knew that it didn’t have enough fuel onboard to make it to Edmonton.

The Boeing 767 is a two-engine aircraft. Flying toward Edmonton, it was at an altitude of about 41,000 feet when the left engine fuel pressure alarm sounded. The cockpit crew assumed it was a fuel pump problem and silenced the alarm, knowing the system was gravity-fed in flight. A few seconds later, the right engine fuel pressure alarm sounded. The crew decided to divert the flight to Winnipeg, but still had no idea about the real problem they were facing.

As they began their descent, the left engine stopped functioning. The crew began procedures for a single engine landing, but almost immediately, the right engine also failed. Air Canada Flight 143 was now a glider with a crew that had never been trained on a total engine-out emergency. The 767 emergency manual had no information on an unpowered landing.

Giving out of fuel in an aircraft at 35,000 feet is a problem. You can’t just pull over onto the nearest cloud and think things through. You have to land the plane. Whatever it takes, wherever you are, you have to put the plane on the ground, preferably in one piece.

Fortunately, an aircraft that has lost all power will not just fall out of the sky like a rock.  Even in a heavy airliner, the wings will provide enough lift for the plane to glide, however clumsily. Fortunately, the pilot of Flight 143 was also an experienced glider pilot, and he calculated what he thought was the best glide speed at 220 knots. That would give the plane a glide ratio of around 12:1, meaning the plane would fly forward about twelve miles for each mile it lost in altitude. Flying at 35,000 feet, they had a radius of around 80 miles to find a place to land.

The pilot instructed the first officer to locate the nearest airport.  They decided on the Royal Canadian Air Force base at Gimli. The base was closed, and the runway had been decommissioned, but the runway still existed. What the crew didn’t know was that the runway was used by car enthusiasts for racing, and there was an event in progress.

As the plane approached Gimli, the pilot realized they were coming in too high and too fast. One way to handle that in a normal airplane is to go around the field and approach at a lower altitude, but without power in the aircraft, the pilot didn’t think he had enough altitude to execute a complete turn, so he opted to perform a forward slip to land. This maneuver requires the pilot to cross-control by turning the rudder in one direction while the ailerons are turned the other way. The result is the aircraft continues its forward trajectory, but the nose is pointed at an angle to the side. The air hitting the fuselage will slow the plane and cause it to descend rapidly. The pilot will undo the cross control just before landing so the plane will be back in its correct configuration. It’s a maneuver that’s well-known to pilots of gliders or light aircraft, but is rarely to never performed in a passenger jet.

Fortunately, the people on the ground saw the 132-ton silent behemoth bearing down on them and were able to scramble clear of the runway in time.

Although the crew managed to get the landing gear down, the nose wheel did not lock in place. That turned out to be a bit of luck because, when the plane touched down, the nose wheel collapsed, and the friction helped slow the plane to a halt. It did not run off the end of the runway, and there were no serious injuries.

The aircraft was repaired and put back into service where it flew until its retirement in 2008. That airplane would forever be known as the Gimli Glider.

That was one awesome bit of flying by Captain Bob Pearson and First Officer Maurice Quintal. They deserved a medal for their piloting skill and calm in the face of imminent disaster, and they got one. In 1985, they received the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Diploma for Outstanding Airmanship.

* * *

There are similarities between flying an airplane and writing a novel. In order to fly an airplane, there are two things you have to do:

#1 – You must take off

#2 – You must land

According to Heinlein’s Business Rules (and I hope Harvey Stanbrough is reading this) there are certain things you must do when writing a novel. The first two are:

#1 – You must write

#2 – You must finish what you write

But whether you’re flying or writing, there can be some turbulence and maybe even a few surprises in between those two steps.

The writing journey will certainly include a months-long effort of plotting, drafting, outlining (or not), editing, revising, and getting feedback. But eventually, the writer has to bring the novel in for a landing.

The checklist for putting it down safely may be long. There are final edits, cover design, formatting, endorsements, copyright, ISBN, Library of Congress, and so on. It may be stressful, but at some point, you just have to let go and land the thing.

Several of us are on final approach or have recently landed our novels. Terry Odell just published Deadly Relations and Debbie Burke’s Deep Fake Double Down is available on pre-order now. My novel Lady Pilot-in-Command is in the hands of the copy editor, and beta readers are sending me feedback. Other TKZ authors have recently touched down or are approaching the runway.

Whatever the status of your work, I wish you a good journey and a happy landing.

* * *

So TKZers: Have you ever run into problems with a novel in mid-flight? How did you solve them in order to land the book? Are you on final approach or have you landed a novel recently? Tell us about it.

44 thoughts on “Landing the Novel – The Story of the Gimli Glider

  1. Kay, you gave us everything this morning. We received pacing, suspense, a metaphor, and ninety-nine reasons to never get on a plane again for any reason whatsoever. Oh, and I’ll be flicking my gas gauge intermittently for the next five years or so just to reassure myself that it is in working order as well.

    Thanks and have a great week!

    • Good morning, Joe! Thanks for those kind words. The story of the Gimli Glider has been on my list to write about for some time.

      The next time you get on an airplane, just stop by the cockpit and ask if there are any glider pilots aboard. 🙂

  2. I’ ve just taken off. I have my outline (the plane itself) and four chapters out of 40 in first draft form. I’m excited about the rest of the flight and hope we land where the outline thinks we will.

    • Maybe the outline isn’t the plane but the flight plan. Am I stretching the metaphor too much.

      • I love the metaphor of the outline being the flight plan. Now that you know where you’re going, it makes flying there a lot easier. Happy landings!

  3. Great story, Kay, well told.
    My writing is more like a puddle jumper. No overall flight plan, lots of stops for fuel along the way. Yet somehow, I get where I’m going which might not be exactly where I thought I was going when I took off.

    • Thanks, Terry. The puddle jumper is another great metaphor I can identify with. Those small legs of a trip can keep us from making big mistakes or running out of fuel.

      Have a safe journey this week.

  4. Great post. Great story, Kay. I love the analogy.

    I published Perfect Strand in February. It tells the story of Covid, with all the controversy and disagreements. Mid flight in writing, all the controversy and the pandemic itself seemed to be settling down. I thought the story was going to crash, and I was considering ejecting. After some encouragement here at TKZ, I decided to finish the book. By the time I landed, the controversy and conflict was heating up again, so I landed without crashing.

    My current WIP has been hijacked and is sitting on a deserted runway on an island that is not on the map. I believe the island has been called Rental Repair Time Trap. We’re still looking for fuel and a way out of our predicament.

    I hope you have smooth flying!

    • Good morning, Steve!

      Perfect Strand had perfect timing. Even if the Covid controversies had calmed down, your story touches on deeper issues within the human experience. It’s timeless.

      Hope you get off that Rental Repair island soon. I’m looking forward to the next book of yours.

  5. Now I know why I was never interested in being a pilot. They have to do too much math. 😎 I’ll stick to writing.

    • Good morning, BK!

      It was surprising to read that the crew was allowed to manually determine the amount of fuel. I don’t think that would ever have happened in the U.S. because of the regulations here. I believe I read the Canadian government changed their own regs after the Gimli Glider incident. Pilots have enough to worry about without converting litres to gallons.

      I agree with you about writing. You can create all the drama without leaving the ground. Have a good writing week.

  6. Wonderful post and analogy, Kay. And a story I didn’t know!

    If I may add an amendment (or expansion) on #2… #3 – You must publish what you write. There are some who get to that last part and let go of the throttle. They prefer to glide forever, which is okay if you’re journaling or doing therapy. But I decided early on that I was going to go all the way and stick the landing in front of everyone, even when I didn’t know for sure what I was doing. And I haven’t looked back. I recently landed (and published) my fifth novel and first suspense thriller (EL NORTE), and I’ve already left the runway with my new plane.

    • Good morning, Harald!

      You must publish what you write. That’s a great amendment! The fear of putting a story out there for all the world to see can be overwhelming, but if it was important enough to write, who knows what impact it may have on the world.

      Congratulations on El Norte and best wishes for book #6!

    • Not to be a stickler, but, um, I’m a stickler.

      The rule actually reads “You must put it on the market.” In today’s world, that means “submit or publish.” And yes, that’s one of Heinlein’s Rules, but it’s Rule 4, not Rule 3. It leads to and goes hand in hand with Rule 5, “You must keep it on the market until sold.” In today’s world, once it’s published, leave it alone. Maybe update the cover or sales copy now and then, but otherwise leave it up. Books aren’t fruit. They don’t spoil after a few months like traditional publishing would have us believe.

      Rule 3 is different. Rule 3 is the one that speaks to self-confidence, yet somehow convinces 99.9%+ of writers Heinlein was just some hack who didn’t have a clue how to be a “real” writer: “You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.” Later, Harlan Ellison appended that rule, adding, “And then only if you agree.”

      • I’m glad you mentioned Heinlein’s Rule #3, Harvey. I’m planning to take a swing at the subject of revising one’s work in my next post. I hope you’ll read it and comment.

  7. The cockpit crew assumed it was a fuel pump problem and silenced the alarm.

    I don’t think I want to fly in a plane with a snooze button! Yeesh.

    Speaking of which, it’s easy to hit the snooze some mornings when you don’t feel like writing. That’s where the quota comes in. It makes sure you have enough fuel to get you through any turbulence and finish the flight.

    • Good morning, Jim!

      Making assumptions is usually not a good idea. In a cockpit, it can be downright dangerous.

      Love the analogy with the snooze button. You’ve convinced me to write my quota six days a week. Fuel for the journey. I don’t always meet the goal, but I’m getting better at it.

      Have a great week.

  8. Fantastic post containing a very apt analogy, Kay. As you know, I’m also one of those bringing in my cozy mystery for a landing, now that I’ve revised based on feedback from my beta readers and sent it to my copy editor. I’m on a short time frame to landing the book, with a preorder deadline on 4/25.

    My first few novels got into the air, but were unable to land safely because of lack of craft and too much winging it (pun intentional, but also true).

    This book had a mid-flight challenge after the original draft. I spent time reviewing mystery structure and elements, and getting a better handle on what the murder mystery was really about. After that, whenever I would get stuck, I would pull up to the 30K foot level to take my bearings of the overall story.

    Congratulations to you for lining up your own latest book’s landing!

    • Good morning, Dale!

      You are on *very* short final for A Shush Before Dying. Just a couple of weeks before touching down! I am so looking forward to reading that book.

      I love all your analogies, but I especially love that you’re landing your first cozy even more.

      For our TKZ friends: Dale and I will be co-writing a post on cozy mysteries in the not-too-distant future. His recent experience will give us a lot to work from.

  9. Great start to my week, Kay! Love the story-I’d heard about it-but you spiced it up with new-to-me details.

    I landed last October, and with a nod to Harald, actually got off the plane (published).

    At present, I’m in the air again, on approach to my next destination. Second novel being formatted as we speak, cover design in progress.

    Also, I have another flight booked for next year. And BTW, I will be asking for the pilot’s glider creds when I board. Thanks for the tip!

    Happy Monday!

    • Good morning, Deb!

      Congratulations on publishing The Master’s Inn last year. I enjoyed your novel, and I’m looking forward to the next one. Sounds like you’re close to landing novel #2. Care to share the title with us?

      Kudos on getting your books done and published. Best wishes for many more safe and happy landings!

      • No Tomorrows . . .

        Blurb-in-progress:

        “Will Annie Lee die tomorrow?

        Annie and her husband, Roger, live in a small, rural town in central Washington State—a place where almost nothing scary happens . . . until today.

        By the time today is over, Annie is convinced God is telling her it’s her last one.

        Hang on to her coattails as she navigates her tragic past, her frightening present, and her unknown future all in the space of twenty-four hours.

        And ask yourself the same question posed to Annie.
        ‘What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?’
        Will your answer be the same one Annie discovers?”

        Needs some tweaking, but there it is… 🙂

  10. I’m surprised this landing isn’t up there with the Miracle on the Hudson in public knowledge. Awesome piloting. Most small plane pilots are taught how to land without an engine/s. It’s called dead sticking. My dad flew small planes and gliders so I’ve been in both. Would 100% recommend a glider ride with a good pilot. It’s nothing like any other form of flying.

    In a novel, gliding to the end isn’t a good idea. You should power in fast and exciting, then feather those wings and glide to a quick stop while the reader’s heart is still pounding and their interest is still there.

    • Good morning, Marilynn!

      You’re right about gliding. Although he’s no longer actively flying, my husband is a glider pilot. I’ve been up with him and with others in gliders, and it’s a unique and beautiful experience. Pure flight. But personally, I prefer to have an engine just for the assurance that I can make it back to the airport. (It’s not unusual for a glider to “land out” when the air currents change and they lose lift.)

      Love your analogy about bringing it in fast and exciting. An aircraft carrier landing to be sure!

  11. Hi, Kay! Right now I’m in the middle of edits and have changed the first half of the book and trying to tie it to the last half–no time to rewrite the last half…kinda like the plane that ran out of gas–I have to land this thing by next Monday. So I’m looking for that airstrip!
    But I can do it…I keep telling myself this..it’s what you call a wing and a prayer.

  12. Wow, Kay, I was alternately holding my breath and gasping out loud through your whole story! What a terrific job of relating the incident and a wonderful analogy for writing a book! You made Monday morning an adrenaline rush.

    Thanks for your kind mention of the upcoming launch on 4/25 of Deep Fake Double Down! I’m going through the pre-landing checklist but looking out the window from time to time, watching how fast that ground comes up!

  13. Great analogy as others have said too, Kay. I just landed a book on the weekend and have another in mid air on what seems to be an endless flight. But that’s not my reason for commenting. The Gimli Glider story hits close to home. My brother was one of the racers on the converted airstrip that day.

    • Hi Garry,

      Congratulations on your recent landing, and good luck with the one in flight.

      Your brother was at Gimli! I wish you would get him to comment and tell us what it was like to be there on that fateful day.

  14. Excellent story, Kay! I have one book on the air strip, taxing to the airport (on preorder). The WIP just landed, ready for edits. 😀

  15. Great post! (you all know I’m a sucker for metaphors).

    Those pilots were, I think, the ultra pantsers.

  16. Hi Kay, Thanks for the mention. Yep, with any luck at all, there might be plenty of turbulence. It’s called the unknown. You get that a lot when you trust your characters, record the story as it unfolds around you and them, and just write off into the dark. 🙂

    But see, really you’re sitting in your chair at your desk in your office, so you know you can dive into the unknown and come out the other side thoroughly exhilirated but with nary a scratch. That’s the fun part of writing the way I do. (grin) Cheers!

    • Hi Harvey! I was hoping you’d stop by and comment.

      Yes, turbulence is okay as long as I’m sitting at my desk. I like the way you put it: “dive into the unknown and come out the other side thoroughly exhilirated but with nary a scratch.” That’s the way to fly!

      Have a good week.

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