Story by Michael Seguin
Photography by Charlie O'Brien
On Thursday, September 19th, the sky above Windsor began to roar. From a distance, they look like swans. The planes soar in perfect formation, ploughing through the clear blue sky, screeching white clouds of exhaust. The crowd spread across the tarmac of the Canadian Historical Aircraft Association hangar cheered when the Snowbirds came into view. And kept cheering when they touched down.
The Canadian Forces Snowbirds are an icon composed of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) servicemen and National Public Defense employees. The unit serves as ambassadors for the CAF, demonstrating the organization’s unparalleled excellence, discipline and teamwork.
While the planes themselves may be mythic, the pilots are the real legends. There’s 11 of them, all sporting the group’s proud red jumpsuits. And although all the pilots are friendly faces, there is one member that Windsor clamors to welcome home. Snowbird Number 6 is piloted by Major Bassam Mnaymneh—although he tells everyone to just call him “Sam.” A Windsor native, Sam’s journey has sent him literally soaring through the clouds.
“Being a Snowbird was a childhood dream,” Sam explains. “I used to see them flying at airshows as a kid. You just get that feeling when you see them. You think, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ Ever since, it’s always been a childhood dream. It’s been quite the journey, becoming a Snowbird.”
Calling it a journey may be an understatement. After attending Vincent Massey Secondary School, Sam enrolled in the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, where he embarked on a degree in mechanical engineering. After his fourth year, Sam made the decision to switch to the pilot training program.
Sam’s pilot training took him three years. After earning his pilot’s license, he relocated to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in 2004. He initially trained with helicopters.
“After flight school, my first posting was in a helicopter,” Sam recalls. “Which is interesting, because the first time I ever left the ground was at the Windsor Air Show in a helicopter. I must have been 12 or 13. My Dad paid for me to do a scenic tour in a helicopter.”
Sam believes that starting out with helicopters was beneficial to his development as pilot. Apparently, after going through the transitional lift, a helicopter behaves similar to an airplane. Sam compares the difference between the two as the difference between bicycles and unicycles. One is all about balance, the other is all about momentum.
“Flying a helicopter was amazing, especially on the West Coast,” Sam explains. “Travelling around with the navy and landing on a ship is something else. Flying around the mountains of British Columbia is unreal. It’s like Jurassic Park. You see a lot of stuff that normal people don’t get to see.”
However, Sam is not one to play favorites. He maintains an unconditional love for all the machines he’s flown.
“Each airplane has its great stories,” Sam explains. “Flying the Sea King Helicopter off the shores of Hawaii. Going through the Strait of Hormuz when you’re overseas. Seeing the pirates for the first time off the coast of Somalia. There’s a lot of wows. But, that’s all just the military side. There are other factors.”
However, despite his breathtaking experiences, Sam smiles the brightest when talking about his family.
“When I had my first child I was flying the Harvard 2,” Sam recalls. “That makes that airplane so much more special to me. That was a great time in my life.”
Family is tremendously important to Sam. He credits his success to his father’s lifelong interest in aviation.
“My father had a passion for aviation,” Sam explains. “He tried flying when he was younger. Whenever he took me to the airport to pick up the family or on Sunday morning drives, we’d see the airplanes. It just became this link between him, hearing the planes, seeing them fly and seeing the pilots. It was something I was always interested in. And then when you’re a kid, you have toy airplanes. You see shows, movies. That kind of helped spark everything.” Additionally, Sam also cites his years playing sports to helping him earn his wings.
“Sports were very important for me growing up,” Sam explains. “It gave me a break from the classroom. It strengthened me and made me a better person. And as I started playing more sports, I realized that being a pilot was similar. Both involve a team effort. You’re never by yourself. So, that heightened my ambition to be a pilot. From there, it was always something I wanted to do. And I was fortunate because I was young when I decided to do this. It helped steer my goals. It gave me a path to follow. It made certain decisions easier because I knew what I wanted to do.”
Notably, even after 15 years, Sam has never lost the sense of wonder that flying entails.
“Flying is my reward,” Sam affirms. “All the tough training days. All the bad days, where the flight didn’t go the best. Having to get back into the books. It’s just this sense of accomplishment. You’ve worked hard. You’ve studied hard. And now you can see the benefits of your hard work as you get airborne. Even after doing a thousand loops in formation, when you’re at the top of a loop and you’ve got eight airplanes next to you, you think, ‘Holy cow. This is so cool. I can’t believe this is happening.’”
While flying with the Snowbirds was a tremendous honour for Sam, he claims that this summer will be his last year with the team. “I love being a military pilot,” Sam states.
“I love training. But, I won’t be on the demonstration team next year. It’s bittersweet. This was a great experience, but it’s definitely tiring. Especially on the family side, being away. So, I want to be involved in retraining. If I could slow things down, be home more, help students with military training—I’d be happy doing that.”
Sam’s daughters are named Amina, 8, and Nyla, 4. His wife, Lana, helped make his dream come true.
Still, Windsor could not be prouder of Sam’s accomplishments. While the planes were refueling, Councilor Jo-Anne Gignac presented him with a certificate thanking him for his service on behalf of the City of Windsor. In addition, John Robinson of the Canadian Historical Aircraft Association made Sam a Yellowbird, and presented him with a coin displaying the organization’s crest.
While Sam may no longer be flying with the Snowbirds, it’s gratifying to know that one of our favourite Windsorites will still be up there, on metal wings.