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Flying family

Four generations of Pym men become military pilots

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When Capt. Jonathan Pym got his "wings" last week, he accomplished the remarkable feat of becoming the fourth-generation Pym to become a military pilot.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had only invented the airplane 15 years earlier when Pym's great-grandfather, Francis Guy Pym, was shot down over Germany in the First World War while flying an open-cockpit aircraft. He'd been shot in the leg, the engine had quit and was on fire, but he somehow managed to land the free-gliding plane -- it's called a "dead stick landing" -- in a farm field. He spent the next four months in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Jonathan's dad, Charlie, who is still a military pilot at age 56, pinned the "wings" on the chest of his son at a ceremony in Portage la Prairie.

"If you look closely (at a photo of the event), I had a tear in my left eye. I was kind of choked up," said Charlie.

Like father, like son -- like son, like son. "When I pinned on the wings, it was like passing the torch," said Dad.

As well, Charlie and Doreen's other son, Alexander, is currently at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., training to be a military pilot. "I think it's a very honourable career. I'm very proud of my sons. I didn't try to persuade them in any way," said Charlie.

What kind of "right stuff" do the Pyms possess? A low panic threshold, for one.

"When something goes wrong, you think, 'OK, the plane's still flying, let's pull out the checklist,'" said Dad. He sees the same fortitude in his boys. "They're unflappable."

For example, when Jonathan took his test flight to get his pilot's licence, everything went smoothly until it came time to land at Brandon's airport. Then three Snowbirds showed up unannounced and he got bumped.

That could have thrown him but he just kept flying in circles for 30 minutes until the runway was clear.

That's what pilots do, literally flying in long ovals. Jonathan flew six lengthy ovals before he was allowed to come down.

The first Pym to fly for the military, Francis, actually flew using a stick shift-like device to steer, instead of a steering wheel, which wasn't yet introduced. He flew for the Royal Flying Corps because he had just immigrated to Canada the year prior and Canada's air corps was in its nascent stage. He received a handwritten letter from King George V -- it's not a photocopy or a stamp letter -- from Buckingham Palace congratulating him on his "patience and courage" surviving the PoW camp.

Charlie's father, Stephen, 87, flew a Spitfire and is one of the few surviving pilots from the Second World War. He was unable to attend his grandson's ceremony due to illness.

He is very proud of his grandchildren, said Charlie. "Getting your wings is right up there with getting married and having your children."

A career highlight for Charlie was flying a commercial Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet when he quit the military. He re-enrolled in the military in 2003 and is a captain and pilot with 402 Squadron at 17 Wing. Wife Doreen also re-enrolled in 2003 and is a corporal in the 17 Wing supply depot. The family is related to Francis Pym, the former foreign secretary in British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's cabinet during the Falklands War.

The couple's middle child, daughter Francine, is the only non-military personnel in the family. She has a degree in environmental science and works in reforestation with the Provincial Parks branch.

Jonathan, 27, will start a four-year posting in Trenton, Ont., in the new year, flying an Airbus 310.

"Look at how quickly the world can change," said his father.

"My boys, I think, are going to see something in the next 20 years. There will be another conflict come up to test their mettle."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2012 A9

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