Cool under pressure: Games debutant, 79, who foiled plane hijack

Canada's Robert Pitcairn is competing just weeks away from his 80th birthday.
AFP

Brisbane (Australia) (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.”

– ‘Trust your senses’ –

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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