Fuel starvation… You probably think that such a situation is impossible on a commercial aircraft, at least in the industrialized world. But what if I told you that this happened on a state-of-the-art Boeing 767 operated by a Canadian airline in 1983? This is the real-life event depicted in Falling from the Sky: Flight 174, also known as Freefall: Flight 174. In English, this made-for-TV movie was aired for the first time on ABC in 1995. It is based on the novel Freefall written by William and Marilyn Mona Hoffer.
It’s July 23, 1983. On this sunny day, the ground staff at Montreal Dorval Airport (now Pierre-Elliott Trudeau International) is admiring the pride of Canada World Airways: the brand-new Boeing 767, “just out of the box”, as said by one of the ground staff members. In the meantime, Captain Bob Pearson (William Devane) is dressing for his morning routine, CWA flight 174 from Montreal to Edmonton, as he sips his coffee with his wife Beth (Marriette Hartley). Beth seems to have some kind of premonition. For the first time, she actually looks worried that her husband is leaving for a flight. Maybe it’s because he is going to Edmonton pick up his in-laws.
Somewhere else, First Officer Maurice Quintal (Scott Hylands) is called at the last minute to replace the First Officer on that Boeing 767. After a brief discussion, he finally accepts, in despite of his wife Marie (Wendy Van Riesen) being very sick, at home, probably suffering from cancer or a serious illness.
Back at Dorval Airport, Beth drops off her husband. And many of the passengers of Flight 174 are already checking in. We see two friends of opposite gender, obviously roommates, a businessman always recording on his microcassette recorder, a surly high school coach, another businessman who is having an argument with his girlfriend, and one of the Flight Attendants, Lynn Brown (Shelley Hack), kissing goodbye her husband and her little baby. It’s her first trip following maternity leave.
The ground staff has some complications trying to burn fuel into the Boeing 767, as the fuel gauge is inoperative. They have to deal for the first time with metric system, as the B767 is the first plane in the fleet of CWA to use the metric system. As they discuss to convert gallons into pounds or liters into kilos, they get mixed up and eventually make a mistake.
Bob Pearson and Maurice Quintal enter the Crew’s Lounge and are informed that the Boeing 767 they will fly has an inoperative fuel tank gauge. As they board the aircraft and watch the ground staff checking oil, they feel everything will be fine. After all, the B767 has a state-of-the-art computerized cockpit. The In-Flight Computer will replace the fuel gauge and indicate precisely how much fuel is left in the tanks.
Because of the fuel tank issue, Flight 174 is “slightly delayed”. Finally, after a brief discussion with the Mechanics, the Ground Staff and the two-member cockpit crew, the tank is supposedly filled with 20,345 kgs of fuel, enough for the B767 to reach Vancouver if needed. Or so they think…
The Captain finally accepts, confident that Passenger Rick Dion, the airline’s chief mechanic, will be able to help the crew with the fuel gauge. Dion (Winston Rekert), his wife Pearl (Gwynyth Walsh) and his son Chris (Joel Palmer) board Flight 174 along with the rest of the passengers. Pearl is slightly aviophobic and for the first time, she doesn’t show any signs of scare. In fact, she should.
Flight 174 finally taxies and leaves Dorval Airport on this sunny day. Once the Captain turns off the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign, Rick Dion enters the cockpit and after brief discussion with Pearson, the fuel gauge problem starts: a series of small beeps in the flight deck. The lights on the button for the left engine fuel feed turn on. Rick Dion says that the left pump must have a small problem and that “either pump, left or right, can feed both engines”. After a crossfeed from right tank to left engine, the problem is supposedly solved.
A few minutes later, the same thing happens but this time the right engine pump has a failure. The crossfeed button doesn’t solve it this time. The beeps go on… Tension is climbing. Suddenly a sharp alarm sounds in the cockpit and the plane rapidly falls as a rollercoaster for a split second. All passengers get slightly worried, but Pearl is already scared to death.
Pearson contacts the Winnipeg ATC Center and advises the Senior Flight Attendant, Larry Roberts (Kevin McNulty) to tell the passengers to prepare for an emergency landing at Winnipeg. The problem doesn’t seem too serious, however enough to make an emergency landing. Obviously, something’s wrong with the fuel pumps. The ground staff at Dorval made a mistake converting the fuel density into weight… and the plane is carrying “20,345 units all right… But that was POUNDS, not KILOS!”… Rick gets back to his seat with his wife and tries to reassure her. “We’re fine, Pearl! I swear it.”, even though he perfectly knows he’s wrong.
The problem turns into a terrifying nightmare as a loud alarm sounds in the cockpit and the B767 swiftly moves left, as the left engine flames out. Rick Dion goes immediately to the cockpit to see what’s going on. The right engine flames out too and the cabin is heavily shaken. The video screens that replace the instruments on the B767 turn off and Pearson, Quintal and Dion are powerless, as their plane suddenly experiences a general failure.
Will the plane stay in the air until it reaches Winnipeg? Will it fall down so quickly that it will cause a cabin decompression or maybe disintegrate? Will Flight 174 make it?
The movie is overall very interesting. I have been told that even when someone catches it on TV well into the storyline, the movie creates interest through the uncommon situation of fuel starvation. The movie is “fairly” based on the real event. Many details have been left out and the picture doesn’t feel “eighties” enough. Also, there is obvious overacting from the actors and actresses, especially at the end of the movie.
I give this movie 7 out of 10.
Although very good, this movie doesn’t offer the satisfaction of a solid based-on-true-story movie.
Things to notice
Falling from the Sky: Flight 174 is good, but missed out many details, due to a lack of research about the region where the flight departed, Montreal, and possible lack of resources. Here are the goofs:
- One of the worst gross technical goofs is that the passenger cabin used was not from a Boeing 767, which has a 2-3-2 seating arrangement in economy class. The movie most likely used an existing Boeing 747 mock cabin, based on the lateral panels, the shape of the overhead bins, the exit doors design and the 3-4-3 seating arrangement in economy class.
- This would also explain why there are no middle seats in First Class: because on a regular Boeing 747 arrangement (as the cabin becomes narrower and narrower) there are no seats in First Class either at the very front of the plane or on the upper deck.
- The license plates of the province of Quebec are used only on the back of the car. But the movie shows them at front and back. Also, the pattern used, A9A 999 is inaccurate for the 1980s. It would have been either 999A999 or AAA 999 back then.
- Another goof that could have easily been avoided: the take-off sequence showing Flight 174 taking off is the one of a Boeing 737-200 and not of a Boeing 767.
- The movie was obviously not shot in Dorval/Trudeau for many reasons. I have been to Trudeau Airport many times, before and after it’s makeover (prior to the transfer of international scheduled flights). In the movie, the placards are English-only, the cars drop the passengers from the wrong direction, and the control tower looks way different.
- The people are too warmly dressed for a July day in Montreal or the Winnipeg area. Plus, the trees barely have leaves, as they are all on the ground. The picture was obviously filmed in Fall.
- The same thing goes for Winnipeg. In the movie, the airport has two runways: 4L-22R and 4R-22L, but in real life, the runways are 7-25, 13-31 and 18-36.
- Throughout the flight, First Officer Maurice Quintal wears an accurate uniform showing three stripes on his epaulettes. However, when he leaves the flight deck to speak with Flight Attendant Florence Bisaillon (Suzy Joachim), he suddenly wears four stripes on one shoulder.
- None of the passengers assumed emergency landing positions and only the left front and left aft exit are opened.
- In the last part of the movie, during the descent of the Boeing 767, the altimeter changes barometric setting several times by itself, presumably so that it would indicate a perfect altitude of 0 (zero) feet on touchdown. The actual elevation in the vicinity of Winnipeg is around 800 feet MSL.
- The landing sequence shows from the cockpit a black strip with no markings, however the exterior sequences show the B767 on a light gray runway with strips as a fully equipped runway.
- After crash landing, when flight attendant Lynn Brown and passenger Phil Lyons are about to open the rear emergency door, after two continuous shots, they switch positions.
Now here is some trivia comparing the real event and the recreation.
- The flight number was changed from 143 to 174 in the movie. And the airline changed from Air Canada to Canada World Airways (CWA).
- The real flight 143 made an intermediate stop at Ottawa, Ontario. AC143 left with 24 minutes of delay, because of the fuel gauge failure. But because of a shorter layover at Ottawa and a higher cruising altitude, the flight would have arrived 7 minutes early at Edmonton.
- The movie shows the flight leaving in the morning or afternoon. The real event happened in the evening, with still some daylight, and Flight 143 touched down at Gimli at 8:38PM.
- Only the characters and family of Robert Pearson, Maurice Quintal and Rick Dion have been saved in the movie. All other characters are composite or fictional.
The movie does not show any meal service or movie projection, which were present on the real flight 143. By the way, story has it that one of the lamps of the projector in the aft section was broken, and that the senior flight attendant Robert Desjardins invited the passengers in the aft section to go at the front to watch the movie. Many kept their seats, protesting against Air Canada!
- In real life, there were six flight attendants. Four only are shown, Larry Roberts, Lynn Brown, Florence Bisaillon, and another female F/A, name unknown.
Did you ever notice that…?
- The real-life Bob Pearson appears in a cameo, in one of the first scenes! He is the instructor who tells the grumpy test pilots that what they just experienced in the simulator is not fake… but it’s real! Incredibly close to reality.
Flight 174 is a Boeing 767-200 operated by Canada World Airways. It flies a YUL-YEG route (Montreal Trudeau – Edmonton).
- IMDb – Falling from the Sky: Flight 174
Cast, plot summary, quotes, goofs, trivia and more from the world’s widest movie database.
- YouTube – Trailer
Movie trailer featuring many scenes.
- Wikipedia – The Gimli Glider
Detailed recount on what actually happened on July 23, 1983.
- Wade Nelson – The Gimli Glider
Website of a freelance writer who produced an article on the Gimli Glider. Also available: alternate links, and a list of coincidences on that day!
- Damn Interesting – The Gimli Glider
Article published in 2007 regarding the incident.
Canada/U.S.A. 1995. Produced by Hill/Fields Entertainment. Directed by Jorge Montesi. Starring William Devane, Scott Hylands, Shelley Hack, Winston Rekert, Gwynyth Walsh, Kevin McNulty, Gloria Carlin, Suzy Joachim. Rated PG. Also known as 767 en détresse (French), Schreckensflug der Boeing 767 (German).