Address: Gimli Motorsports Park, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada
PH: +1 204-642-6697
Circuit type: Permanent road course
Were it not for one unusual incident in July 1983, Gimli would probably have remained a largely obscure circuit, hosting little more than regional racing throughout its life and perhaps only achieving a footnote in history as the venue for the first Formula Atlantic win for Gilles Villeneuve. However events unfolding some 80 kms away that summer's day would seal Gimli's place in history. On the ground, a Formula Ford meeting was under way, with competitors and their families enjoying the evening sunshine in the outfield areas. Little did they know of the drama about to unfold.
In the skies above, Air Canada Flight 143's captain Bob Pearson was dealing with an alarm in the cockpit of his almost new Boeing 767. An amber low fuel pressure warning was the cause but while Pearson and his First Officer Maurice Quintal began working through the manufacturer's troubleshooting list a second alarm sounded; low fuel pressure in the second wing's tanks.
Cruising at 41,000 feet, the pair were puzzled. The flight computer indicated there should be more than enough fuel to get them to their Edmonton destination, yet the alarms said otherwise. And while the plane's fuel gauges had been reported as faulty before take-off, manual checks of the fuel tanks had revealed them to have the right quantity of fuel. They knew the central tank was already drained after efforts to transfer fuel to the wings had failed, but the other two should still have plenty. What was going on?
Facing an unknown issue, the captain decided to divert and land at Winnipeg, but no sooner had he received permission from Air Traffic Control, the cockpit display lit up like a Christmas tree: all the fuel warning lights were now on. The alarms quickly gave way to silence, as first the left and then the right engine shut down. This, to put it mildly, is not good news for a twin-engined airliner. For whatever reason, the plane was out of fuel.
Going through their emergency checklists, Pearson and Quintal were mildly perturbed to discover no procedure existed for a double engine shut down mid-flight; presumably Boeing thought the event so unlikely as to discount it ever happening. The flight crew were on their own. Come what may, the heavy airliner was beginning its final descent - it was now simply a case of how it would land back to earth, rather than when. As it shed altitude quickly, the captain and his co-pilot checked and re-checked their calculations but came to the same conclusions; they could not reach Winnipeg.
It was then that fortune began to smile upon the pair for the first time that day. Pearson, it turns out, was an accomplished glider pilot. And his co-pilot was a former Royal Canadian Airforce Pilot, who was once stationed at Gimli Air Force Base. Which was now just in range of the stricken airliner. What Pearson and Quintal did not know was that the military had long since vacated. The base was now a public airport using just one runway; the other had been used since 1973 as a racing circuit...
Down below, the race meeting was wrapping up for the day, oblivious to the drama above. As the 132-ton Boeing appeared on the horizon, the penny began to drop and as it began its silent landing approach, a degree of panicked scattering began, especially for two children on bicycles on the southern portion of the abandoned runway. The plane touched down and, with little in the way of hydraulic pressure available, the nose gear collapsed, having failed to lock in position. For another 2,900 yards the plane slid on its nose with sparks flying before, mercifully, coming to a halt mere feet away from where the old runway was cleaved in two by the armco barrier of the race circuit.
Race officials were quick to make their way to the aircraft and emptied their fire extinguishers on the overheated nose area as the plane's doors opened and the emergency chutes deployed. One-by-one the plane's startled occupants emerged. None, it transpired, had suffered any significant injuries. The crew's quick thinking and deft flying skills had saved all on board.
Investigations would subsequently reveal the cause of the drama. When Pearson and Quintal had manually calculated the fuel needed for the flight, they and the ground crew had multiplied the the number of dripsticked liters by 1.77, as was standard practice for Air Canada's fleet. Unfortunately, the four-month-old plane was among the first in the airline's fleet to be fully metric - and the multiplier provided for the weight of fuel in imperial pounds, not kilogrammes. Contrary to what everyone had all thought, there never had been enough fuel on board. The crash-landing served as a reminder to the industry that training and ground practices would always need constant revision to take into account changing technology.
As a postscript to this story, Air Canada dispatched a ground crew to patch up the plane and enable it to fly out of Gimli for full repairs elsewhere. Rather unbelievably, their van ran out of fuel en route...
Once fully repaired, the 'Gimli Glider' re-entered service and enjoyed another 25 years of thankfully uneventful service, before being retired to the desert, where it was broken up for parts. Metal from its outer skin was turned into plane tags which souvenier hunters can purchase over the internet. Meanwhile the underwing fuselage panel and the controls in the cockpit that mix the fuel were purchased in 2015 by locals and put on display at the raceway.
Gimli itself continues to this day as the only combined drag strip and racing circuit in Manitoba. Alongside the road course are a karting track and a two kilometre motocross track, allowing the facility to be in regular use by the Winnipeg Sports Car Club, the Drag Racing Association of Manitoba, Manitoba Roadracing Association (Motorbikes) and the Manitoba Karting Association.
The circuit continues in near-original specification, the only change occurring in 2007 when a chicane was added prior to the last turn to slow racers as they entered onto the long main straight, also providing a better angle to keep away from the wall at pit entry.
Gimli Motorsports Park is located at the city of Gimli, one hour north of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. The nearest international airport is Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, around 70 minutes' drive to the south. Private aircraft may be able to land at the Gimli Industrial Park Airport which is immediately adjacent to the circuit and uses the other runway of the old air force base.
By car from Winnipeg, head north on Manitoba Highway 7 north for around 85 kms until you reach Armstrong and the right turn for Route 231 east, signposted for Gimli. Head along 231 for another 12km and you will see the entrance road to the circuit on the right.