If I say “fuel starvation”, you might think it would be unlikely on a commercial aircraft in a developed country. But what if I told you that this happened on a state-of-the-art Boeing 767 on a Canadian airline in 1983? This is the story depicted in Falling from the Sky: Flight 174, also known as Freefall: Flight 174. Based on the novel Freefall by William and Marilyn Mona Hoffer, this made-for-TV movie was aired for the first time in English on the ABC Network (U.S.) in 1995.
The date is July 23, 1983. The ground staff at Montreal Dorval Airport (now Pierre-Elliott Trudeau International Airport) contemplates a brand-new Boeing 767, the pride of Canada World Airways. It’s “just out of the box”, as one of the employees says. Meanwhile, Captain Bob Pearson (William Devane) gets dressed and has coffee with his wife Beth (Marriette Hartley), who is worried as if she had a premonition. For the first time, she is worried that her husband is leaving for a flight – Canada World Airways flight 174 from Montreal to Edmonton. It might be because on the way back from Edmonton, her parents will be on the flight. Somewhere else, First Officer Maurice Quintal (Scott Hylands) gets a last-minute call. He is to cover for a colleague on flight 174. He reluctantly accepts, leaving behind his wife Marie (Wendy Van Riesen), who is appears to be very sick.
Beth drops off her husband at the airport, and passengers of flight 17. A man and a woman travel together; it is unclear if they are roommates or a couple. A businessman keeps taking notes on a microcassette recorder. There are also a surly physical education teacher, a businessman leaving his girlfriend behind in bad terms, and one of the flight attendants, Lynn Brown (Shelley Hack), kissing goodbye her husband and her baby. It’s her first trip since maternity leave.
Ground staff has trouble refueling the Boeing 767; to make matters worse, the fuel gauge is inoperative. The Boeing 767 is the first aircraft in the fleet to use the metric system. Employees need to convert gallons into pounds or liters into kilos. Later, we find out that they make a calculation mistake.
Bob Pearson and Maurice Quintal are informed of the fuel gauge problem, and after a walk-around, judge that the aircraft fit for flying. After all, the Boeing 767 has a state-of-the-art computerized cockpit. As an alternative to the fuel gauge, the onboard computer will indicate precisely how much fuel is in the tanks.
The departure of flight 174 is delayed. The ground staff tell Pearson and Quintal that the plane has loaded 20,345 kg of fuel, which should be enough to go all the way to Vancouver if needed. Or so they think…
Pearson is confident that Passenger Rick Dion, the airline’s chief mechanic, will be able to help the crew with the fuel gauge, so he makes the decision to proceed with the flight. Rick (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 afraid of flying, but for the first time, she is reassured.
Flight 174 takes off in sunny weather, and once the seat belt sign goes off, Rick joins Pearson and Quintal in the cockpit and his brief conversation with Pearson is interrupted by a series of small beeps in the flight deck: the fuel problems begin. The left engine fuel feed lights come on. Rick deduces that there is a problem with the left fuel pump, and that “either pump, left or right, can feed both engines”. The cross feed fuel valve is activated in order to feed the left engine with the right engine pump. The problem appears to be solved at that moment.
A few minutes later, more beeps. That this time, the right engine pump is malfunctioning and the cross feed fuel valve does not solve the issue. Tension is in the air. A louder alarm sounds in the cockpit and the plane falls for a split second. Passengers get slightly worried. Pearl is extremely scared.
Pearson contacts the Winnipeg Air Traffic Control Centre and advises Senior Flight Attendant Larry Roberts (Kevin McNulty) to prepare the passengers for an emergency landing in Winnipeg. The problem is serious enough to divert the flight, but is not a source of great concern. But obviously, the fuel pumps are not working properly. This is when the flight crew realizes that the ground staff in Dorval made a mistake when converting the fuel density into weight. It turns out the plane is carrying not 20,345 kg, but 20,345 lb. Rick gets back to his seat and tries to reassure his wife. “We’re fine, Pearl! I swear it”, he says, even though it’s not true.
The problem turns into a terrifying nightmare as a loud alarm sounds in the cockpit and the Boeing 767 swiftly moves left, as the left engine flames out. Rick Dion returns immediately to the cockpit to see what’s going on. The right engine flames out too and the cabin shudders. The glass cockpit of the Boeing 767 shuts down completely. “We have a general failure”, says Dion.
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 even 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 shape of the lateral panels and overhead bins, the design of the exit doors and the 3-4-3 seating arrangement in economy class.
- This would also explain why there are no middle seats in First Class: on a regular Boeing 747 arrangement (as the cabin becomes narrower and narrower) there are no middle 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 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.
- People are too warmly dressed for a July day in Montreal or the Winnipeg area. Plus, the trees barely have any leaves: they are all on the ground. The picture was obviously filmed in Fall.
- 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, 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 the same marks as an open 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 in Ottawa, Ontario. AC143 left 24 minutes late due to the fuel gauge failure. But because of a shorter stopover in Ottawa and a higher cruising altitude, the flight would have arrived 7 minutes early in Edmonton.
- The movie shows the flight leaving in the morning or afternoon. The real event happened in the evening and flight 143 touched down at Gimli at 8:38PM, shortly before sunset.
- 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 Senior Flight Attendant Robert Desjardins invited the passengers in the aft section to go at the front to watch the movie. Many stayed in their seats as a sign of protest.
- 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 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.
Flight 174 is a Boeing 767-200 operated by Canada World Airways. It flies a YUL-YEG route (Montreal Trudeau – Edmonton).
- Amazon.com – Freefall: Flight 174
Buy this movie on DVD.
- 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).