What does an aviation psychologist do? Most general aviation pilots will never see one!

by Bob Worthington
© Copyright 2022. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine October/November 2022 Digital Issue


What is an aviation psychologist? First allow me to define a psychologist. The psychologist is a professional trained in the study of human behavior. Human behavior encompasses how people think, how they perceive, and how they respond to family, social, or vocational influences and demands. A bachelor’s college degree is the minimum education required to work in the field. Most jobs require at least a master’s degree. To practice independently as a psychologist, most positions call for a doctoral degree, certification, and state licensing.

Psychologists typically serve in one of three capacities: clinical/counseling, consulting/teaching, or research. All deal with how humans behave within certain vocational, family, educational, or social frameworks. Clinicians or counselors collaborate directly with people in a variety of settings in hospitals, mental health clinics, businesses or organizations or specific settings such as education, professional or collegiate sports, law enforcement or legal endeavors (as in the television show “Bull”), even aviation. Consulting psychologists serve as advisors to organizations or industries regarding the utilization of people. Research psychologists use their expertise studying human behavior under distinct settings, such as examining medical conditions and human responses, how to best match people with concepts of new equipment or machines or studying human responses under certain conditions.

Aviation Psychologists

Psychologists serve in a variety of functions involving aviation. I am an aviation psychologist. As a PhD psychologist I was educated to understand how to observe human behavior and to predict how humans will respond to specific stimuli. As a veteran pilot, I have experienced most stressors, demands, and challenges experienced while flying or being in an aircraft (from combat to crash landing).

My specialty is to examine how and why pilots behave in specific situations in flight, such as losing an engine, having equipment failure, facing emergency situations, severe weather, or experiencing personal issues. I then strive to understand what behaviors lead to successful performance and which result in failure. Using this knowledge, I can create educational seminars or lessons explaining what is happening and why, then teach pilots how they can either avoid bad situations or how to effectively manage what is happening. Or write articles depicting lessons learned.

My work as an aviation psychologist began in the military (see my next book, the Making of an Army Psychologist, to be released in September). I would teach Army aviators classes such as managing stress in the cockpit or the psychology of survival after a crash.
The airlines use psychologists to select pilot candidates to hire. Applicants complete psychological instruments measuring personality characteristics to determine which best match those of successful pilots. The military also use aviation psychologists to assist in their selection of pilot candidates.

For example, pilots should tend to follow rules and regulations. If the tests reveal high scores in these areas, that is good. But a candidate with low scores could be a poor selection. On the other hand, airlines do not want “high-risk” pilots, those who will cut corners or compromise safety to complete a mission. Psychological tests can identify candidates with these undesirable personality traits. Airline and military aviation psychologists also support the mental health of flight crews which constantly deal with the demands of time, weather, passengers, schedules, and potential flight hazards, every day on duty.

Family and personal pressures likewise effect behaviors while flying. Airlines and the military have aviation psychologists available to help flight crew effectively deal with personal issues or difficulties ranging from family and marital problems to depression to substance abuse or addictions, such as gambling.

The airlines recognize the pressures and demands on pilots and flight crew members which affect their behavior and flight performance. Additionally, the FAA has strict regulations regarding pilot mental health issues and treatment. And family members are not immune to husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters, dealing with mental health difficulties. The airlines and professional pilot organizations have made available to employees, and family members professional help from behavioral scientists (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health counselors), as well as volunteer peer-to-peer counselors.

Aviation research psychologists are trained to understand inflight stressors and can assist in the design of aircraft cockpits or equipment to make utilization or manipulation easiest for humans to accommodate.

Flying can be a challenging endeavor. Learning to be a pilot can be both financially and emotionally demanding and challenging. Military flight school attrition rates can be as high as 25%. Aviation clinical psychologists understand the stressors found in flight training and piloting performance to help aviators more effectively overcome behaviors which interfere with safe flying. Several colleges and universities and major flight schools have psychologists on staff or contract to assist students with a personal crisis that inhibits learning.

The military has a three-week course at the Fort Rucker, Alabama Army Aviation Center of Excellence for military aviation psychologists. This Aeromedical Psychology (the military term for aviation psychology) Training Course teaches Department of Defense clinical, counseling, and research psychologists with doctoral degrees, about the demands and stressors facing military aircrew and how to best help overcome them to remain on flight status.

Aviation psychologists are like aviation accident investigators; most pilots will never meet one. But National Transportation Safety Board data show that up to 80% of aviation accidents are attributed to human error (the data also reveal that 78% of aviation accidents involve general aviation aircraft). This means that someone has failed to do something (or did something wrong) which leads to an incident or accident. This is termed “human factors.”

Human factors involve the study of interactions of people with technology, equipment, devices, or systems, usually in the workplace. The goal of human factors is to make the work environment more efficient and safer. Human factors investigators examine links between what went wrong and human responses. Within the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) aviation investigations, human factors issues are examined by the Human Performance Group which contains aviation psychologists, as well as other human factors scientists, to include industrial designers, engineers, and medical experts. The military also use human factors experts.

The aviation industry has aviation psychologists (both clinicians and researchers) involved in every aspect of aviation. Beginning with selection procedures throughout a pilot’s career, aviation psychologists are there to help, however possible.

And because most aviation accidents are due to human error, aviation psychologists often become a part of the investigation. Along with other human factors scientists, all attempt to determine why a person made a mistake. Learning “why” leads to training to avoid this from happening in the future.

An excellent example of human factors and an aircraft accident is found in Ernest Gann’s 1961 best selling memoir, “Fate is the Hunter.” The captain of the airliner that crashed was blamed for causing the accident, but a recreation of the accident revealed the culprit was a spilled cup of coffee, not human error.

Many aviation training programs are designed and conducted by aviation psychologists. Safety seminars are created and taught by aviation psychologists. Engineers and research psychologists design instrument panel gauges, screens, and switches to obtain the optimum placement for easy use by pilots and to avoid misuse of controls by mistake.

The future for aviation psychology

As aircraft operating systems become more complex, the potential for mistakes increases. For this reason, despite more automation, piloting skills still depend on human responses.

Yes, the military fly aircraft without human pilots inside the aircraft (unmanned aerial systems or drones). However, humans still do the flying, in another cockpit, but on the ground, not in the air. And they face the similar demands and challenges as do pilots in the sky. As flying and the aviation industry continue to grow, more aviation psychologists will be utilized. This is a profession that is expanding and becoming more valuable to aviation.

This column is based on a chapter in my next book: 40 Years in the Sky: A Pilot’s Guide to General Aviation (McFarland 2023).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer. Website: www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com. Bob Worthington has placed excerpts about combat flying in Vietnam (from his books) on his website. Here is a direct link to those excerpts: www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com/combat-flying-in-vietnam/. Every couple of months, he adds another excerpt.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only. Readers are urged to seek the advice of others, including their personal flight instructor. Neither the author, Midwest Flyer Magazine, Flyer Publications, Inc., or their staffs, employees or advertisers assume any liability for the accuracy or content of this column or any other column or article in this publication.

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