Ever since he was a young child living in Gander, Lt.-Col. Mark Hickey says he had a fascination with airplanes.
“My folks and my family say that, at four or five years old, I was always pointing at the airplanes at Gander International (Airport), saying I was going to be a pilot,” Hickey told The Packet.
It was a passion that stayed with Hickey his entire life, leading him to the Royal Canadian Air Force and fulfilling his dream of flying a CF-18.
“As soon as I figured out the CF-18 was basically the fastest airplane in the country, I decided I wanted to fly that! I put a lot of interest in it and it was my goal all throughout my youth.”
Hickey was also recently recognized with meritorious service medal for his work with the air force, including inspiring leadership while deployed to Romania as the Air Task Force commander with the NATO'S Enhanced Air Policing Commitment over Eastern Europe, from August 2017 to January 2018.
Born in Gander but raised in Clarenville until his late teens, he considers Clarenville his home town. He lived there from 1985 to 1995.
He attended Clarenville schools from Grade 3 to 11 before moving to British Columbia.
“That 10-year stretch is the longest I’ve ever been in one spot as a kid,” said Hickey.
His goal of entering the military stems from his time in the local area. Hickey says he was a proud member of 567 Random Squadron Air Cadets while living in Clarenville.
“I started as a 12-year-old air cadet and advanced through that program until becoming a Chief Warrant Officer-1.”
After leaving the local air cadets, he attempted to enter the Air Force as a pilot in 1995. However, after discovering they weren’t accepting applications for pilots that year, he attended the University of British Columbia for a year.
He re-applied in 1996 as a pilot before beginning his official training with the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He continued his military career from there, moving often and advancing, until today — a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
So what’s it like flying a CF-18?
Hickey began flying a CF-18 fighter jet in 2007. He’s completed combat operations over Iraq and Libya, and flown over the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, in addition to having led the enhanced air policing in Romania.
He calls flying the jet one of the most amazing experiences of his life.
“It’s probably the most exciting thing that I can ever imagine. It totally lived up to everything that I thought.”
Honoured for service
Hickey says he was surprised and humbled by the news of his receipt of the medal, calling his mission a “team sport.”
“It’s quite an honour,” he said. “I do what I do to serve my country, serve Canadians and work with the excellent people in the Canadian Armed Forces. I really love it.”
The mission for which he was recognized centres around the Forces’ Operation Reassurance in Eastern Europe.
“Essentially, after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO put a whole bunch of extra assurance and deterrence measures into place really with the aims to reinforce NATO’s collective defence and show strength of allied solidarity,” Hickey explains.
Lt.-Col. Hickey led the first enhanced air policing mission in Romania. In the summer of 2017, he was given command of the 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Cold Lake, before that squadron was picked to do the mission in Romania.
As the commanding officer of the task force of about 160 to 170 people, they went to Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, near Constanta.
The mission was a first of its kind.
They conducted air policing on the southeastern flank of NATO near the Black Sea, assisting and enhancing the Romanians’ efforts.
“We obviously met some challenges and it was a great, great team effort to accomplish what we accomplished.”
Next steps in career
Having recently participated in a change of command, Hickey says he’s now studying French for a year in Cold Lake, Alberta. The Air Force has a base there.
After improving his French language skills, he doesn’t yet know what his role will be, but Hickey looks back on his time as a pilot with fondness.
He recently completed what might be his last time in the cockpit of the fighter aircraft in his military career — although he says he’ll try to find opportunities to fly again if he can.
“To be honest, it’s a bittersweet moment. Especially for me … all my focus was put towards becoming a fighter pilot. But things change as you go on in your career.”
Hickey recognizes that it’s time to serve his country in a different way.
While his decorated career is changing, his dedication for what he does endures.
“I love flying a Hornet. I’ve had amazing opportunities … It’s brought me a lot of great joy.”