The Positive Psychological Effect of Air Power (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 3)

By Dr. Richard Goette

Reprint from The Royal Canadian Air Force Journal Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 2012

That is meant by the words “psychological effect of air power?” Oftentimes, thoughts of massed bomber streams and bombed cities on fire come to mind. In terms of written work on the subject, academics and popular aviation writers alike usually point to “kinetic” air power roles such as the strategic bombing theories of Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell, the efforts by the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive to attack the morale of the German and Japanese people during the Second World War (WWII), and strategic deterrence theory of nuclear weapons during the cold war. To this grouping we can add efforts to bomb the North Vietnamese “back to the stone age” during the Vietnam War, and also the more recent theories of offensive air power articulated by those such as John Warden and David Deptula. The focus of the psychological effect of this kind of kinetic air power is quite literally on its “impact.” This is the use of offensive air forces for the purpose of destroying material, property, services—and sometimes lives—to influence an enemy populace and/or leadership to surrender. In other words, the psychological impact of kinetic air power is to target an enemy’s morale to demoralize or to convince that resistance is futile, leading to capitulation.

However, what is often overlooked—or at least under-studied—in the literature is that air power can also have a positive psychological effect on people. This includes the reassuring feelings of hope, relief, and safety experienced by allied personnel from the sound of a friendly aircraft during a difficult tactical situation. Most of us are familiar with Hollywood portrayals of soldiers cheering when they get their badly-needed air support, such as P-51 fighter-bombers flying over the beleaguered soldiers in Saving Private Ryan (1994), or the sense of relief felt by American GIs on the ground in Vietnam hearing the sound of helicopters coming to evacuate them from an untenable situation, such as in the 1986 film Platoon. Though these are “glorified” fictional accounts, they are based on real-life experiences of combatants who have experienced the positive psychological impact of air power. Indeed, there are other examples that we can examine.

For instance, looking at scholarship on the Battle of the Atlantic during WWII, we see that air power in the form of long-range maritime patrol aircraft played a huge role in the protection of convoys bringing supplies overseas and defeating the attack on them by German U-boats. During the dark days of late 1942 and early 1943, when shipping losses were at their highest, there was a real morale problem amongst merchant marine sailors plying the North Atlantic Run.[1] A sense of helplessness was apparent amongst these men as they did not know if the next minute would be their last thanks to a German torpedo. However, there were also a number of sailor accounts—both merchant and navy—of the huge relief that they felt when they saw a maritime patrol aircraft flying above their convoy. The ironic thing is that the aircraft were most effective in a tactical role by patrolling just out of sight of the convoy at dusk, as this is where the U-boat “wolf packs” would gather for their night attacks. Yet just the appearance of a Very-Long-Range (VLR) Liberator or a long-range Consolidated Canso aircraft over the convoy put the sailors at ease, as they knew that they were not alone and that they would get the help they needed.[2]

Nonetheless, we need not limit the positive psychological effect of air power to strictly combat situations. Indeed, there are many non-kinetic roles that air forces play which have an equally, if not greater, positive impact. This includes more “gentler” forms of air power such as search-and-rescue (SAR), air demonstration, and the delivery of supplies and emergency aid by airlift. Indeed, there are many instances in the history of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) where those in need of help have discovered the simple reassurances of hope, relief, and/or rescue from the drone of an approaching aircraft’s engines.

During the cold war, for instance, the RCAF’s Air Transport Command (ATC) had a significant psychological impact on people, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Canada’s northern region. The ATC roles included SAR missions to assist those in downed aircraft or in medical need, and air transport missions such as delivering emergency aid, and bringing supplies, relief, and joy to numerous individuals, military personnel, government workers, and a variety of communities in the North (including indigenous peoples) who were in need of assistance.

Though listed as a secondary role, oftentimes RCAF aircraft operating in the North found themselves tasked to fly to a remote area in order to help someone in medical need. This was, of course, the mercy flight, which was to be “undertaken when the job is a life-or-death matter, and can be handled by no other normal means, including commercial flying organizations.”[3] Whether these missions included evacuating a sick person and bringing them to a hospital, or delivering medicine (sometimes by airdrop) or medical personnel, a common theme was that the mercy flights provided relief and therefore had a positive psychological impact on those in need. Moreover, sometimes such missions paid important dividends for the Air Force. A good example is a 14 February 1951 letter from a Department of National Health and Welfare doctor sent to the Chief of the Air Staff that was reproduced in the RCAF’s service magazine, The Roundel: “A Tribute to S.A.R.,” The Roundel 3, no. 5 (April 1951): 47.

Figure 1: Copy of a letter

Nor were the positive psychological effects of the RCAF’s non-kinetic air power roles limited to SAR mercy flights: air transport missions also proved to raise morale considerably.

Every spring, the ATC conducted a series of resupply missions to replenish outposts of other government departments before the ice landing strips melted. Besides the basics such as food, medicine, fuel, and building materials, aircraft cargo also included recreational supplies to help personnel pass long periods of time at these isolated bases. No matter what they were delivering, the ATC resupply missions were a vital lifeline for those working at Arctic bases, with one author noting that the arrival of the aircraft “at these tiny outposts is heralded as the big event of the season.”[4]

One of the most notable air transport roles that the cold war RCAF undertook was Operation SANTA CLAUS every December. In this annual operation, the regular deliveries of mail, parcels, spare parts, fuel, clothing, and fresh fruit were made by RCAF ATC, usually by air drop, to RCAF personnel, other government personnel at the Arctic weather stations, and even Inuit communities. However, also included was a little “something extra,” whether it was a Christmas tree and decorations, a new teapot, or maybe some “liquid spirits” to keep one warm and cheerful.[5] Flying conditions, to say the least, were not the greatest—hence the air drops—so those who received the special deliveries were always grateful for the courage, versatility, and determination of the ATC aircrew who undertook them. As one station commanding officer noted, “You’ve given our morale a hundred-percent lift.…” An American working at a weather station echoed this sentiment, explaining, “You’d be excited too if you knew a bundle was coming down with all your mail for the past six months and perhaps a drop of something special.”[6] However, it was one recipient who, calling the departing C-119 Flying Boxcar on the radio, perhaps put it best: “God bless you for coming. God bless you—and a Merry Christmas.”[7] Moreover, it was not just those on the receiving end of the supplies who experienced the positive psychological effects of RCAF airlift air power missions. Indeed, it was also the ATC aircrew themselves whose morale was heightened by Operation SANTA CLAUS. As one RCAF public affairs officer captured it, “There is an incomparable thrill about dropping Christmas mail and parcels, watching the bundles parachute to the burning oil barrels below [to indicate where to drop the cargo], and knowing that you are bringing traditional Christmas cheer to lonely people.”[8]

A remarkable and more recent example of the positive effect of Canadian non-kinetic air power is one experienced by retired Lieutenant-General (now Senator) Roméo Dallaire during his famous United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Speaking to the audience at a recent Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC)-sponsored workshop on air power support to the UN, he recalled the uplifting feeling that “the sound of the engines” from Canadian Forces (CF) C130 Hercules aircraft brought to him and his staff in the midst of their difficult mission. “We didn’t care what was in the Hercs,” Senator Dallaire noted, but just felt relieved knowing that they had not been forgotten, and that if they had wounded, the aircraft could get them out and get food and supplies in.[9]

The positive effect of non-kinetic air power is a proud characteristic of the RCAF that persisted beyond the end of the cold war and continues today, whether it is delivering supplies to beleaguered flood victims in Manitoba and Quebec, the continuous resupply of Canada’s Arctic outposts, providing emergency aid to earthquake victims in Haiti during Operation HESTIA, or even simply the awe displayed on the faces of civilians watching the Snowbirds perform aerobatic demonstrations during air shows throughout the country. Like traditional kinetic air power, non-kinetic air power is also awesome, and it can prove to be very uplifting for recipients and practitioners alike for the positive psychological effects that it can have.

But the question still remains: is non-kinetic air power “real” air power or should we limit our thought on the subject to purely kinetic aspects? Essentially, this depends on one’s definition of air power. While some may advocate in a more focused definition that stresses purely kinetic applications of aviation, others favour one that is more inclusive and stipulates that air power can in fact be widened to consist of “the full potential of a nation’s air capability, in peace as well as war, in civilian as well as military pursuits.”[10] Billy Mitchell, one classical air power theorist—and, incidentally, cousin of a former head of the RCAF[11]—also championed this wide-ranging perspective of air power. In one of the earliest definitions of the term, he did not distinguish between military and civilian applications of the aeroplane, calling air power “the ability to do something in or through the air, and as the air covers the whole world, aircraft are able to go anywhere on the planet.”[12] This “ability to do anything” emphasis, as American air power academic Clayton Chun notes, “brings to mind a strength or power to influence events.”[13] The use of offensive or kinetic means such as bombing is a common means to utilize air power to influence someone, but as we have seen, so are non-kinetic roles.

It says here that kinetic air power capabilities have and must still form the principal raison d’être for air forces, as it is the air force’s prerogative to carry out a nation’s use of military force from the air if deemed necessary by the government. Nonetheless, non-kinetic air power roles also form part of an air force’s responsibilities, and in fact form the majority of air force missions, especially in peacetime. Therefore, the positive psychological impact of non-kinetic air power should not be discounted but instead deserves greater study. What do you think?

Richard Goette is an air force historian who teaches for the Canadian Forces College and the Royal Military College of Canada. He is a Research Associate at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) and an Associate Air Force Historian with 1 Canadian Air Division’s Office of Air Force Heritage & History. This article was written while he was a DND Security and Defence Forum (SDF) Postdoctoral Fellow at LCMSDS in Waterloo during 2010–2011.


ATC―Air Transport Command
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
SAR―search and rescue
UN―United Nations
WWII―Second World War


[1]. See Marc Milner, “The Battle of the Atlantic,” in Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War, ed. John Gooch (London: Frank Cass Publishing, 1990), 47–66 (especially 57–61) and also his North Atlantic Run: The Royal Canadian Navy and the Battle for the Convoys (St. Catharines: Vanwell, 2006). (return)

[2]. See, for example, sailor accounts in J. Gordon Mumford, The Black Pit... and Beyond (Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing House, 2000). (return)

[3]. “RCAF Takes Lead in Opening Canada’s North,” Canadian Aviation 27, no. 10 (October 1954): 80. (return)

[4]. “Arctic Airlift,” The Roundel 19, no. 3 (April 1958): 20. (return)

[5]. J. D. Harvey, Director of Public Relations, “Operation Santa Claus,” The Roundel 6, no. 2 (February 1954): 44–46; J. D. Harvey, “Operation ‘Santa Claus,’” The Roundel 7, no. 2 (February 1955): 16–20. Quote from former, page 44. (return)

[6]. Harvey (1955), 19. (return)

[7]. Harvey (1954), 46. (return)

[8]. Harvey (1954), 46. (return)

[9]. Lieutenant-General (Ret) the Honourable Senator Roméo Dallaire, “Air Power Support to the UN Mission in Rwanda,” Keynote Address at the 17th Air Force Historical Workshop, “On Wings of Peace: Air Power in United Nations Operations,” 15–17 June 2011, CFAWC, 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario. (return)

[10]. David MacIsaac, “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists,” in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1986), 625. (return)

[11]. Mitchell’s first cousin was Air Marshal George Croil, the first RCAF Chief of the Air Staff. Tom Walsh, “Air Marshal George Mitchell Croil, CBE, AFC, MiD: The Father of the Royal Canadian Air Force,” Airforce 35, no. 1: 30–33. (return)

[12]. Quoted in Clayton K. S. Chun, Aerospace Power in the Twenty-First Century: A Basic Primer (Montgomery: United States Air Force Academy in cooperation with Air University Press, 2001), 2. (return)

[13]. Quoted in Clayton K. S. Chun, Aerospace Power in the Twenty-First Century: A Basic Primer (Montgomery: United States Air Force Academy in cooperation with Air University Press, 2001), 2. (return)

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