A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

July 2007

Metric Conversions

 Three young boys, 11, 13 and 14 year olds, raced their bicycles down the decommissioned runway, burning off their energy.  All day excitement was building, fuelled by the events, sounds and smells of the Winnipeg Sports Car Clubs’ family day. By evening, things were winding down, some people had already headed for home. Still, many campers, trailers, vehicles and people occupied the north end of the 6000 ft. runway at Gimli, Manitoba that pleasant evening in July, 1983.

The 13 year old saw it first  “That guy’s crazy”, he shouted to his friends. They skidded their bikes to a stop and stood staring in disbelief. A giant, silver airplane was descending toward them, silently, in an odd forward slip configuration, dropping at over 2000 feet per minute, and closing rapidly from the south.  Not able to fully comprehend the situation, but sensing the pending disaster, the boys bolted back toward their families. Pedalling a fast as their legs would go, they screamed at their parents to run. Others saw the jet, a Boeing 767, barrelling toward them, now less than a mile back.  As people scattered in all directions, the jet hit the runway 1000 feet from the threshold. Two explosions as tires blew out were the first sounds they heard. Then one engine was dragging on the ground. As the front of the aircraft settled, it’s nose gear collapsed. Speeding down the runway at almost 180 miles per hour, now a giant shower of sparks blazed out behind as the gear leg tore a huge trench into the concrete. 

The crippled airliner, over 130 tons, hurtled closer and closer to the trailers and people, grinding up the pavement with bent metal, trashed wheels, shredded tires, spitting sparks and smoke.  Finally only 100 feet from the first line of vehicles, it stopped. The Gimli Glider had arrived. It was an Air Canada flight that had run out of fuel. 

Photo courtesy of Winnipeg Free Press,. July 1983. Reprinted with permission.

 Much has been written, even a movie made about the near disaster. Miraculously, no one was killed. Part of the reason for the fuel exhaustion was blamed on the conversion to the metric system of weights and volumes Canada was instituting. Following the failure of the fuel measuring system in that aircraft, the flight crew gave instructions for an amount they had calculated using the imperial weights and volumes.  The result was only about half the fuel required for their flight to Edmonton was loaded. They carefully re-checked their calculations, but were not trained to use the new metric numbers.

The Canadian government began the gradual conversion to the metric system in the 1970’s. In 1975, rain and snowfall amounts were measured in millimetres and centimetres.  In ’77, all new vehicles had speedometers showing kilometres per hour. Road signs were posted with metric measurements. Most of us recall the confusion at the grocery store, buying meat and corn by the kilogram, milk by the litre and coffee by the gram.  To it’s credit, the government allowed merchants to advertise the old measurements along with the new ones so we could at least see that the prices hadn’t really changed. 

My flying days were not yet underway at that point in time.  I was in the middle of a career in broadcasting, hosting a morning show on AM radio. This part of the story has nothing to do with aviation, but it shows there was a lighter side to the metric conversion exercise. April 1st, 1975, was the day we were obliged to begin reporting temperatures in degrees Celsius. To avoid such a big shock to our listeners who had gone to bed the night before with 70 degrees now waking up to only 20 (C), I reported the temperature in BOTH measurements throughout the morning. “Good morning, it’s 20 Celsius/70 Fahrenheit outside”.  Most people by then knew it was coming. The government had some pretty expensive ad campaigns going on ahead of time.

We had decided only the night before to have some fun with this whole metric system conversion.  Since it was April Fools day anyway, why not institute our own CLOCK with METRIC time?! The whole scheme was quickly put together. I even fashioned a “metric clock” so that I could keep track through the confusion we knew it would create. Metric time was based on two 10-hour halves in the day, 20 hours instead of 24. Listeners were greeted with two time readings every few minutes. “Good morning, it’s 8:25 Standard time, 6:38 Metric time”.  And so on ....  Combined with the two temperature readings, it was a great day indeed for sleepy listeners and commuters who wondered what to wear and if they would get to work on time.

There was fallout, lots of it.  A nursing supervisor at our hospital was on the phone demanding to know how to schedule her staff.  The payroll supervisor at a local mill had no idea how he was going to change the hourly pay rates for his workers.  The school board couldn’t believe they hadn’t been notified. And everyone wanted to know where to buy these new “metric clocks”.  A hardware store manager was angry with our sales staff for not being informed.  Seemed he’d just received a shipment of the old “standard time” clocks. What was he going to do with them?!

I didn’t lose my job.  Life went on. Some people laughed. Some were embarrassed.  But the government never contacted us for information on how they could make the time conversion a legitimate and workable procedure. The scheme was so ridiculous I often wondered why the bureaucrats passed up that one.

Somehow, we still manage to fly our airplanes. Some pilots measure fuel in litres, some in U.S. gallons, some using Imperial gallons. It’s all the same gas though. Degrees Celsius seems to make sense to me now, a full 30 years later. I suppose if we had actually converted to a 10 hour clock, that would make sense now too. But converting the entire world to our time system isn’t going to happen. Next time someone starts telling you about changing clocks, check the calendar.  

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