“I absolutely wanted to be a fighter pilot, that was the gold ring for me.”
That from Lt.-Col. Joseph ‘Scotty’ Mullins, one of several Sault natives who have successfully reached their professional goal of becoming a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) jet fighter pilot.
SooToday spoke with three such pilots, who have flown the CF-18 Hornet fighter jet, and another waiting in the wings (no pun intended).
Lt.-Col. Mullins, like so many other local military and civilian pilots, credits the Sault-based 155 Borden Gray Air Cadet Squadron for inspiring him to pursue a career in flight.
“The first time you fly an airplane by yourself is a big event. It was a rush, I still remember it,” Mullins said, recalling his days as a cadet.
“I still love that airplane (the CF-18). Technologically it's outstanding, it's very capable.”
The speed of the aircraft is especially noticeable when flying below the clouds, observing the landscape rushing by, Mullins said.
“Mentally it's exhausting flying it because you have to be on top of it all the time, there’s really no resting. You’re constantly doing something from the time you take off to the time you land.”
After earning his glider pilot and private pilot scholarships in the 1980s, Mullins completed Sault College’s aviation program, getting into the RCAF through the community college entry program in 1989 and got his air force wings in 1993.
Mullins, 47, began his RCAF career as an instructor, which he called “an outstanding experience,” and moved up to the CF-18 Hornet in 1998, stationed at various bases since.
His service as a pilot has included missions abroad, including a posting at Italy’s Aviano air base as part of Operation Echo, Canada’s involvement as a NATO partner in stabilizing the Kosovo conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the Middle East, carrying out airstrikes on extremist targets in Iraq and Syria (Operation Impact).
He also flew missions over Calgary during the G8 Summit in 2002 and was posted at NORAD headquarters in Colorado.
“The best part of my career was in 2015 when I was appointed commanding officer for the newly-formed 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron…three months later we deployed to Kuwait for Operation Impact, and we spent five months in combat operations.”
“It did involve dropping bombs and engaging enemy ground forces,” Mullins confirmed.
Mullins said he doesn’t get “too wound up” over the criticism some people level at the military over combat missions.
“I try to educate people on exactly what we were doing. You’ve really got to take a look at ISIS, who they are as a group and the atrocities they’ve done against their own people, their own civilian population, as well as our allied ground forces over there which were engaged in the conflict.”
“Our primary mission was to support our friends and innocent civilians,” Mullins said.
“I have a sense of pride in what I do for my country, it's very rewarding because I get to do something I love and it's something the country needs, whether it's doing air sovereignty missions for NORAD or overseas missions.”
“When I’m actually flying the airplane I still love what I do after all these years. It's very personally rewarding.”
Mullins is now based at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa in an administrative role.
Any advice for young people dreaming of a career in military flight?
“Absolutely. Just get out there and do it, and remember you’ve got to be motivated. They’re not going to hand it to you, you’ve got to work hard for it. You’ve got to do well in school and in physical fitness, and have a good healthy work-life balance. Take care of your family, your body and your mind, and go for it,” Mullins said.
“There are four guys from the Sault doing it, so there’s no reason why you can’t,” Mullins said.
“I still love the Sault and consider myself a Saultite. What can I say? People from the Sault have heart, they have drive, and for a town our size to put out this many good aviators, it's great, it wonderful.”
Another Sault native and CF-18 pilot is Capt. Dion Marson, currently based with 425 Squadron located at CFB Bagotville, Quebec.
Marson, 29, fondly reminisced about high school sports and his family’s cottage at Batchawana Bay.
“As for me becoming a pilot, it all started with my older brother and myself.”
“We were always interested in military aircraft and we had a lot of military aircraft models we would build together out at our cottage, and after building them we would hang them from the ceiling in our room at the cottage, so every time we went to bed we were always looking up at different military jets.”
“Growing up we actually made models of the CF-18 and it was always kind of a dream or a fantasy to be a fighter pilot and as things played out, it was just something I worked toward and strived for, but I always understood not everybody can do that job, so I did the best I could and I was fortunate it worked out for me.”
Marson continued to be inspired to pursue a career in military flight when he saw the positive experience his brother had as a student at Canada’s Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston, Ontario.
At RMC, Marson earned a degree in computer engineering, graduating in 2010, before going on to be a pilot.
Marson trained on a prop plane, then jumped at the chance of flying jets when given a choice between flying multi-engine aircraft, helicopters or jets.
From the Hawk advanced trainer jet, Marson finally became a CF-18 Hornet pilot in 2014.
“I think the first time anybody takes off in the CF-18 there is a wow factor and a bit of a giggle almost, just because of the acceleration is very hard to experience in any other form of transportation,” Marson said.
Like Mullins, Marson has travelled widely as a CF-18 pilot, working with our closest ally in the U.S., and he also took part in Operation Impact, flying over Iraq.
“I was very appreciative that I was able to do that, to fly the Hornet and do what it's designed to do, in combat, to be able to do what all of my years of training had led to, and feel like you’re making a difference (taking the fight to extremist bases),” Marson said.
Around this time of year in particular (Remembrance Day), Marson said “in general, most Canadians are very appreciative of what we do and we all are very grateful to anybody who thanks us for our service.”
Capt. Tyler Park, a third CF-18 Hornet pilot who hails from the Sault, spoke with SooToday and recalled pleasurable times spent in the Sault and area’s outdoors in all seasons.
“It's such a great area. It's so beautiful and there are so many things to do and the people are great. It's always good coming home.”
Park, 35, said he had his sights clearly set on becoming a CF-18 pilot since he was 13, and after attending RMC in Kingston, started his flight training and eventually began flying the Hornet in 2009.
“I knew it would be very challenging to get to that point, but that was appealing to me.”
“It was a very poignant moment,” Park said of his first time flying a CF-18.
Park said he was very focused on the job at hand on that occasion, as with every time he flies, but said “you feel it when you’re walking to the aircraft before you strap in and start the engines up, that’s when you have that moment, that glimpse, of ‘I’ve worked toward my goal.’”
“(Flying the CF-18) is a workout. That’s one of the things I like best about it. We’re not just sitting down with our shirts and ties, we’re putting on a helmet, a mask, a harness and special uniform to avoid loss of vision and consciousness. You’re being challenged but it's part of what makes it great to fly this aircraft. That’s what makes it so much more rewarding.”
“It's great. It's the best job in the world, in my opinion,” said Park, now working out of National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, but he still flies the CF-18 whenever he gets the opportunity.
While Mullins, Marson and Park each know what it's like to soar in the CF-18, Lt. Caleb Robert, 25, another Sault native currently stationed at CFB Moose Jaw flying a Hawk advanced trainer jet, is waiting to earn his shot at getting into the cockpit of the CF-18 Hornet.
Robert, who went through the local air cadets and RMC, received a lot of inspiration from his family.
“My father was into bush plane flying when he was younger, and my oldest brother Joel got his pilots license through the air cadet program in the Sault, and now works in the aviation program at Sault College.”
“My other older brother and I went through the same program together but he’s not flying anymore, but that’s where it started, watching my older brothers, and when you’re young, what your older brothers think is cool tends to be what you think is cool,” Robert chuckled.
“It’s a competition between yourself and your peers (getting into the fighter program)…it was big, getting selected for fighter training.”
“Nothing is guaranteed (in regard to getting to fly the CF-18),” Robert said, but if all goes according to plan, Robert could be flying a CF-18 next year.
Robert, an evangelical Christian, added he firmly believes serving his country as a pilot, possibly even in a combat role, is God’s plan for his life.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now if I wasn’t led here. The world today is not the world it was 100 years ago or even 20 years ago. The secular world agrees there are bad groups out there like ISIS and Boko Haram, and if I can have anything to do with stopping those bad groups, well then I’ll do it (fight them) if ordered.”
As for so many CF-18 pilots coming from the Sault?
“Big dreams come from small places. Why wouldn’t you go out and do something big? I’d like to think it's a testament to the kind of people that come out of northern Ontario,” Robert said.