Present and visible: RCAF honorary colonels volunteer their services

News Article / October 6, 2014

By David D. Peart

When the term “honorary colonel” first enters any conversation, it is inevitably followed by questions about who they are, what they do, and how they are appointed.

There may also be a perception that honorary colonels are purely “decorative” and have no real purpose other than to appear for photo opportunities or function as “arm candy”, as one of the RCAF honoraries so colourfully described it.

The genesis of the honorary colonel program

The honorary colonel program originated in the United Kingdom and arrived in Canada as a concept a decade before Confederation. It took almost 40 years before the first appointment took place in 1895.

Obviously, this was not an Air Force honorary colonel, since the first flight of the Silver Dart was still 14 years in the future. The appointment was deemed to be an honour, bestowed upon prominent members of the community for their influence; however, it also involved rallying civilians to enlist during times of conflict or emergency, and to clothe and even equip troops during times of peace.

Through research completed by Major Mathias Joost, a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) officer working in the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence, it was determined that the first RCAF honorary colonel appointees date to 1931, and the names were legendary in our nation’s military aviation history: Group Captains James Stanley Scott and Redford Henry “Red” Mulock, Wing Commander William “Billy” Bishop and Squadron Leader Donald Roderick MacLaren. As they had recently retired from active service, bestowing honorary appointments upon them was both a way to honour their service and to retain them as role models and mentors to those who continued in uniform.

Other retired military personnel and prominent civilians were subsequently appointed over the years, recognizing their contributions in the field of aviation, to the RCAF during the Second World War, or for their standing in the community.

Interestingly, the first appointment to a specific squadron, wing or the RCAF was none other than John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, the first person to complete a powered, heavier than air flight in Canada, flying the Silver Dart. He was appointed as the first honorary colonel of the RCAF in 1959, marking the 50th anniversary of the flight of the Silver Dart. Honorary Colonel McCurdy served in that capacity until his death in 1961.

In 1934, the RCAF Auxiliary (the Air Reserve in modern parlance) began to nominate its first candidates – selected local dignitaries such as publishers, lawyers and business owners. The honoraries’ role was to provide a link between the auxiliary squadron and the local community in order to raise the public profile of the squadron – a role that is largely unchanged today. Unlike their army predecessors, they were not required to assist in enlistment or to equip the squadron.

It was not until the 1970s that the Regular Force squadrons in the RCAF sought the appointment of their first honorary colonels.

The past quarter century has seen distinguished Canadians from all spectrums of society appointed to the list of honoraries. The visibility that they bring to the RCAF and the pride that the men and women of the Air Force feel in their honorary colonels provide an important link between the Air Force and the communities in which it is based. The honorary colonels continue a centuries-old tradition of service and are just as important, if not more so today, as when the program first began.

The appointment process

The aim of the honorary colonel program – to provide a link to the community –  remains essentially unchanged, but it has been expanded to include professional communities as well as geographic reference.

In the RCAF, all nominations come from the “bottom up,” insofar as the squadron commander nominates prospective candidates based on a “fit” with the squadron’s roles and missions. Eligibility for consideration includes retired Canadian or Commonwealth military commissioned officers or distinguished civilians. While the latter category may seem somewhat ill-defined, it has proven to be not particularly difficult to select. It follows the same adage as defining a “leader” – one who may be difficult to find, but easy to spot.

There are many filters or levels of review for every potential nominee, culminating in the appointment by the Minister of National Defence. At present, the RCAF’s brilliant cast of honoraries includes prominent men and women from business and industry; academia at the university, community college and secondary school levels; members of the banking industry; municipal and provincial elected officials; lawyers; members of the clergy and medical professionals; members of the media; sports personalities and entertainers; as well as retired military (mainly Air Force) commissioned officers.

Notably, when appointments of honorary colonels for Regular Force squadrons and wings really took root in the early 1990s, they were almost exclusively retired RCAF officers. Over the past decade, the balance of retired military and distinguished Canadians has shifted markedly. At present, there are upwards of 70 RCAF honorary colonels in the program, 75 per cent of whom are from the distinguished Canadian category with little or no military service; the remainder are retired military commissioned officers. With this shift, the Air Force is able to engage many more professional communities without reducing the link to geographic communities.

Their role

What do honorary colonels do?

Without exception, these volunteers are devoted to their duties, excited to contribute, and constantly examining new and different ways to help all members of their squadron or unit to be part of their adopted communities. As volunteers, they are not paid for their services, although they are compensated for any travel, meal and accommodation expenses. There is no exhaustive list of their involvement but duties fall in the broad categories of:

  • Fostering esprit de corps
  • Developing, promoting and sustaining strong community support for the unit
  • Maintaining close liaison with the unit commander and other honoraries in the area
  • Assisting the unit in hosting parades and other unit functions
  • Being available when they can to all members of the unit for advice and support
  • Representing the squadron, or perhaps even the entire RCAF, within the community at public gatherings and conferences
  • Contributing to overall unit morale and effectiveness.

More specifically, they serve as mentors to the unit commander and squadron leadership. They assist in solving personal and individual needs such as housing for new arrivals, special educational requirements, medical and dental care for spouses and children, or even assisting in legal issues.

Assistance at this level is particularly helpful for foreign students and exchange officers serving on Air Force squadrons and flying training schools. Continuing in the theme of family support, honorary colonels are especially attentive to families of deployed members of the unit and make contact with deployed aviators during festive holidays and special milestone dates.

They will often facilitate unit or wing level leadership sessions or seminars through their participation, enlisting the support of applicable speakers and panelists. In their most fundamental role of linking with the community, they may be called upon to clarify misconceptions, misinformation or even disinformation amongst friends at local service clubs or perhaps over coffee at “Timmies”.

Not all honorary colonels are locally based near their squadron or wing. While it makes it easier for local honoraries to visit with their units and provide the primary contribution of their “presence”, there is also a large benefit from those who live further afield.

RCAF bases were plentiful across Canada, especially in the ’50s and ’60s. Flying operations took place in such metropolitan areas as Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, so the RCAF was much more visible at that time. Men and women in light blue uniforms were prominent across the country, but that is no longer the case.

Unlike the Army Reserve, with units located in some 105 communities across Canada, the RCAF is now located in barely a dozen locations and, other than Winnipeg and Halifax – and to a lesser extent Montreal, with 438 Squadron – the RCAF is not very evident in large urban areas across Canada.

Although few in numbers within a large population, we highly value those honorary colonels who live in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and other metropolitan areas. They represent the RCAF by proudly wearing the light blue uniform at parades for Remembrance Day and other occasions. Their presence sparks awareness of the RCAF and opens an opportunity for them to speak about the men and women in the Air Force as well as the operations in which they are engaged. Even Stratford, Ontario, home of Honorary Colonel Loreena McKennitt, enjoys the presence of the honorary colonel of the RCAF on such occasions.

Inculcating newly appointed honorary colonels into the RCAF, especially if they have no previous military experience, is a group effort.

Since they wear a uniform and represent their squadron, the RCAF and, indeed, the Canadian Armed Forces in their respective communities, they are trained in the traditional protocols of uniforms, marching and paying respects – that is to say, saluting – during a mini “boot camp” conducted at their squadron.

The unit warrant officer provides that training and is always available to answer their questions on where badges and name tags are worn, and when and how to wear the RCAF wedge cap. Honoraries are then invited to learn the role and missions of the squadron by reading, talking to members of the unit, flying with them, if applicable, and even deploying with them. Nothing better demonstrates the mission than a night or two in a sleeping bag under canvas with a tactical helicopter squadron – in the winter – or by going on a search and rescue mission.

The final level of the educational process is conducted at the annual RCAF honorary colonels’ conference. This gathering serves a number of aims. First, it is intended to broaden their horizons to encompass the view from the strategic level, through presentations and the presence of the commander of the RCAF, the commanders of the two air divisions and key senior staff officers from Ottawa and Winnipeg.

The second aim is to promote networking among all RCAF honorary colonels. This permits them to share experiences and pass on “best practices”. The final aim is to broaden their exposure to other Air Force operational communities.

The conference is held in a different location each year so the honoraries can see the full range of air mobility, tactical aviation, maritime air, fighter, and search and rescue operations, as well as various RCAF training schools across Canada.

Meeting all these aims is a tall order limited to a short period of time. After all, bringing together such a body of prominent Canadians and commanders at several levels for a three-day period each year is a huge commitment on both sides. But, with this level of enthusiastic participants, the aims are met every time.

The power of 70+

Finally, while each individual within the cadre of honorary colonels has considerable power and influence, when taken together as a body of 70 or more prominent volunteers, that power and influence expands exponentially.

The term “Power of 70 plus” has been demonstrated repeatedly over the years and has continued to grow. As RCAF men and women move from location to location, an honorary colonel-to-honorary colonel link can assist with special education or medical needs, spousal employment, and settling in more smoothly. Collectively, the cadre will build foundations, assist in the operation of Military Family Resources Centres and assist families during periods of bereavement.

In the early days of the honorary colonel program, we honoured such aviation pioneers as Scott, Mulock, Bishop and McLaren, by granting them the honorary rank.

Today, as the honorary colonel of 400 Tactical Helicopter Squadron, John Wright, so succinctly stated, he accepted the appointment “to honour the men and women who serve in Canada’s Air Force, not to be honoured”.

That sentiment is true of every one of these proud Canadians who volunteer so selflessly – and the men and women of the RCAF are truly grateful and honoured.

David D. Peart is a retired colonel and special advisor to the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Date modified: