Former pilot Bob Pitcairn flying high after becoming oldest Commonwealth Games competitor

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Career just taking off: Former pilot Bob Pitcairn. (Pic courtesy of Patrick Hamilton, AFP)

Being the oldest Commonwealth Games competitor in history at age 79 would be life-defining for most people, but not Bob Pitcairn: as a commercial airline pilot he foiled a hijacking.

Just weeks shy of his 80th birthday, the Canadian and his team-mate came a respectable eighth of 16 in the Queen’s Prize Pairs finals fullbore shooting on Tuesday in Brisbane.

It might have been Pitcairn’s Games debut this week, but the focus was just as much on his heroic past as his record-breaking present.

In 1974, Pitcairn was flying a Boeing 737 domestic CP Air flight carrying 120 passengers from Montreal when a hijacker armed with a knife made his move, repeatedly attacking a crew member and demanding they fly to Cyprus.

Fresh from training weeks earlier for just this type of emergency, Pitcairn kept his cool and attempted to confuse the attacker, convincing the agitated man that they needed to stop in the Canadian city of Saskatoon to refuel.

By the time they landed, the hijacker had given up on his plan and Pitcairn escorted him on to the tarmac and into the waiting hands of police. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

“I felt sorry for my crew, all of them were traumatised from that,” Pitcairn said on Tuesday, reliving the incident.

“I wore it fairly well, but being captain of the airplane you have to, it’s your job. The lady who was hurt by him, she never flew again. That’s the tragic part of it, people lost their jobs over fear.

“I wish I could do it all over again and it not happen. The big thing is to get the airplane on the ground and take away the matter from the people, you’ve got to separate them (hijackers) from your passengers. We did all that and as a result we had a good ending.”

Asked by AFP if the traumatic experience had changed him as a person, Pitcairn, who retired as a commercial pilot in 1998, replied with a smile: “No, it’s just me.

“I’m a happy guy, not too much bothers me. I’ve had 43 years of flying – 10 years military and 33 at the airline. Lots of stories in my job and I transferred all the skills I had into shooting.”

That means not getting flustered under pressure.

“I don’t get too excited and if I get in trouble I dig my way out of it,” he said.

“It’s no different being in an airplane with an emergency – you’ve got to resolve it. Shooting is a natural extension of all of my life.”

Pitcairn, who just missed out on a spot at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, goes into the Games record books having overtaken previous oldest competitor Doreen Flanders.

The English lawn bowler took part at Glasgow 2014 a few weeks after her 79th birthday. Pitcairn turns 80 in June and will also compete in Wednesday’s Queen’s Prize individual.

“We shall see how the old fella goes tomorrow,” he said with a glint in his eye.

He started fullbore shooting in 1960 and took part in national and international competition, but his flying career too often got in the way.

Central to success in the sport – and flying a plane full of passengers in the face of a hijacking – is mental strength, Pitcairn said.

“Flying and shooting are very similar,” he said. “You need to have strong mental management and good technical knowledge, and trust your senses.”

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Didgeridoo, surfers, unity for beach-themed Commonwealth Games opening ceremony

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Commonwealth Games opening ceremony

A heavy downpour lashed the 35,000 crowd at Carrara Stadium as the beach-themed ceremony began, ensuring a wet start for many in the half-covered arena.

Britain’s Prince Charles and wife Camilla were guests of honour and the heir to the throne officially opened the Games, signalling 11 days of competition featuring 71 nations and territories.

As the ceremony sprang to life, the camera panned in on an Aboriginal family planted in the crowd and a girl with a smartphone. The message on the screen read: “Welcome to the oldest living culture on Earth.”

A scene of a group of friends surfing gave way to a virtual journey through space and time as the stadium was engulfed in a galaxy of stars and warm blue light, followed by a performance of indigenous song and dance.

However, just outside the stadium, about 100 Aboriginal activists protested against what they have labelled the “Stolenwealth Games”, a reference to the plight of indigenous people since British settlement.

After a warm welcome for Charles and Camilla, and the singing of Australia’s national anthem, the stage transformed into a beach scene complete with inflatables, high-fiving sunbathers, macho lifesavers and dancing, bare-chested surfers.

A member of the City of Gold Coast Lifeguards, standing atop a yellow-and-white lifesaving hut, cried “G’day” as 2014 hosts Scotland emerged as the first team to parade in to the arena.

Every team was led into the stadium by a “Nipper” — a young surf lifesaver — gripping a surfboard and wearing heavy sunblock across their noses to complete the look, even if it was night-time.

Later a giant replica of Migaloo, the white humpback whale which has become a symbol of environmentalism in Australia, floated gently into the stadium before the ceremony finished in a blaze of fireworks.

The 21st Commonwealth Games will be the first to have an equal number of men’s and women’s medals events, and a record number of para events — which are held as part of the main programme.

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Commonwealth Games hoping to restore Australia's reputation after cricket's ball-tampering scandal

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Peter Beattie has backed Australia's sports stars to come good at the Commonwealth Games.

Bullish hosts Australia said the Commonwealth Games will restore the country’s battered sporting reputation on Saturday after a cricket ball-tampering scandal which drew criticism from around the world.

Sport-mad Australia’s image took a bruising after a plot to alter the ball was revealed in a Test match against South Africa, an offence which triggered an outpouring against Australia’s hard-nosed cricket team.

It comes just days before the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and Peter Beattie, chairman of local organisers GOLDOC, said: “Cricket has obviously damaged our national standing but the Commonwealth Games will restore it, very simply.

“Because the measures that have come in for drug-testing means these will be the cleanest Games, they’ll be friendly Games and at the end of it our reputation globally will be restored.”

Beattie was speaking hours after David Warner, former vice-captain of Australia’s beleaguered cricket team, broke down in tears and apologised for his role in the cheating conspiracy.

Mark Peters, GOLDOC chief executive, said “we are all devastated and gutted” by events in South Africa.

“Everyone in Australia and round the world is working to get back to what the great values are — fair play, equity. It’s winning when you get within the white lines, within the rules.”

In a possible dig at the nation’s cricketers, who have made a string of public apologies, Peters added: “Every time an athlete talks we will see a genuineness and we will see people talking about what’s good around sport.”

Adding to the upbeat message ahead of Wednesday’s opening ceremony — when rain is forecast — Beattie said: “We are ready. Not every event that has been held in the last 100 years has been able to say that, but we are ready.”

Organisers have added an extra 40,000 seats in recent weeks in response to strong demand, they say, after some of the most popular events sold out.

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