Fisherville mourns 'hero' pilot who was Santa's escort
Capt. Thomas McQueen died in CF-18 crash during training mission
Flags are flying at half-mast in Fisherville, Ont. today, as the small, rural hamlet near Hamilton mourns Capt. Thomas McQueen, a Canadian Forces Pilot who was killed in a fatal fighter jet crash near Cold Lake, Alta. on Monday.
On Tuesday, the street on which the family lives was full of Canadian flags, billowing in the wind. At the end of the McQueen family's long driveway, a neighbour has erected a memorial that reads "Tx Thomas," which is impossible to miss for its size.
"He was our hometown hero. He seriously is. Everyone was so proud of Thomas," said Lyn Rayner, a neighbour who lived across the street from the McQueen home.
It's a great loss. The town is feeling it.- Lyn Rayner , neighbour
"He always wanted to be a fighter pilot. There wasn't any doubt in his mind," she said, adding that his eyes would light up even as a boy when talking about his dream.
McQueen's CF-18 went down Monday during a routine training mission on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The 29-year-old had flown deployments in Eastern Europe and had combat flight time in the Middle East on Operation Impact.
At home, McQueen was even one of "Santa's escort pilots" for the Canadian NORAD region, filling in excited children on St. Nick's progress on a recent Christmas eve.
The 10-year flying veteran was extremely close with his family, Rayner said.
He had a brother and two sisters, as well as an assortment of aunts and uncles. McQueen's father is a veterinarian, while his mother raised the children on the family's rural home.
I kept saying, 'I hope it's not our boy. I hope it's not Thomas.'- Diana Smuck
McQueen was engaged, and his brother had just gotten married.
His brother, Aaron, tweeted out a photo of McQueen on Tuesday morning, saying, "Will miss my big brother. Captain Thomas McQueen 1987-2016 in service of his country. So proud of him."
"Family was so important to them," Rayner said. The family said it would not be speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Rayner said she had been talking with McQueen's mother, Edith, just a couple of weeks ago, and she had said how happy she was with life, seeing one son just get married and the other engaged.
"They would be devastated," she said. Fisherville is extremely small, centred around one crossroads — the kind of place where family businesses abound and residents all know each other.
"It's a great loss," Rayner said. "The town is feeling it."
Will miss my big brother. Captain Thomas McQueen 1987-2016 in service of his country. So proud of him <a href="https://t.co/FEJFDQRC9r">pic.twitter.com/FEJFDQRC9r</a>—@aaronmcQueen93
Down the street from the family home at Smuck's Garage, photos of McQueen smiling on top of a jet are taped to the wall right by the entrance.
Former co-owner Diana Smuck told CBC News that McQueen worked there as a teen, after riding his bike over and asking for a job. Her son has since taken over the family business.
When news of the crash first broke, Smuck says she was constantly refreshing Google search results, as she knew where he was stationed.
"I kept saying, 'I hope it's not our boy. I hope it's not Thomas.'"
Then, the tragic news came — their local hero was gone. "I was just in tears, instantly," she said.
Lt.-Col. Joseph Mullins, the commanding officer of McQueen's squadron, spoke about the personal loss of the veteran pilot.
"Here at 401 Squadron we're very much a family, so it's like we lost a member of our family yesterday," he said.
It's not clear what went wrong during the routine training session.
The director of flight safety with the Department of National Defence will lead the investigation to determine the cause.
Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger released a statement Tuesday, saying the city is saddened by McQueen's death.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Captain McQueen's family, friends and colleagues, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Armed Forces during this difficult time," he said.
The mayor has instructed city staff to have the flag outside Hamilton City Hall be lowered to half-mast in memoriam.