Inaugural aviation training proves a success for Air Force psychologists

  • Published
  • By Keith Wright
  • Air Force Safety Center
The Air Force has just implemented a new training for Aviation Psychologists that aims to increase the psychologists’ knowledge of USAF aviation training and practices. One of the many aspects of USAF Aviation Psychology is focused on resiliency and readiness of its aircrews’ daily activities by addressing the human factors involved in safe and effective performance. Enhanced understanding of pilot training and the human performance demands on aircrew will facilitate improved ability for these psychologists to accomplish their mission.

The service conducted the 14-day flight training for the very Aviation Psychology Introductory Course at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, in April. This course is the first time the USAF has given  direct aviation training to psychologists. Aviation Psychologists total strength is now at seven, with four more in the pipeline.

“We are so excited! The Aviation Psychology Program’s first APIC class brings to fruition a concept long in development in the USAF, to have psychologists trained to look at not only the human factor of “why” do aviation mishaps occur, but what aircrew specific needs could be fulfilled by trained psychologists,” said Maj. Nancy DeLaney, recent Aviation Psychology human factors and human performance expert at the Air Force Safety Center. “The typical psychologist doesn’t “speak” aviation, so this course is meant to provide an orientation to that culture as well as practical understanding of the human performance demands and skills utilized in aviation.”


Air Force Aviation Psychology applies traditional psychology principles, methods, and techniques to individual and group issues within the flying community. It expands upon the standard practice of military psychology to include components of community and occupational health psychology.

The Aviation Psychology program provides an opportunity for credentialed psychologists to be immersed in the flying community to better understand and mitigate the behavioral, emotional, and physical strain aircrew experience in the performance of their duties. They may be involved in counseling or wellness services, development or optimization of training programs, flying assessments or even a member of a mishap investigation board working to explain the human factors that contributed to an accident.

“In addition to psychological knowledge, you want an Aviation Psychologist to have an in-depth understanding of the aviation field, and to be trained in the Air Force Medical Standards to ensure anything medical or mental health related has an expert looking at the aeromedical risk disposition,” said DeLaney. “However, I think the most essential aspect of Aviation Psychology is optimization of aircrew performance.”

DeLaney also outlined the need for involvement in the aircrew training process, understanding the challenges in the training pipeline, and looking at what human factors impact each aspect of the aircrew and the specific aircraft. This includes everything from design and assessment to operational task improvement.

Dr. Timothy Strongin, USAF, Col, Retired and a pioneer Air Force Aviation Psychologist was on hand to provide his thoughts to the first APIC class going through the flight training.

“The Aviation Psychologist’s job is to support the Air Force’s mission any way they can,” said Strongin. “We do this by ensuring the aviator’s mental health, like physical health, is at peak performance when the task comes.”

“The more aware an individual is of their own condition, the condition of their friends and its interaction with the environment, the better decisions they can make to minimize risks,” Strongin said. “We can identify opportunities to reduce risk while enhancing performance.”


The class was made up of one Army and four Air Force psychologists who were able to observe undergraduate pilot training, daily operations, sit down with aircrew, and fly in the various aircraft to understand sentiment and struggles as well as incorporate practical experience from experts.

“As an aeromedical psychologist or aviation psychologist, we need to be present with those that we are to serve in the unit,” said Lt. Col. Tracy Durham, School of Aviation Medicine, Fort Rucker, Alabama. “Having been co-located with Air Force units in the deployed environment on a couple of occasions I have found that there is an interservice need for aeromedical psychologists to provide assistance to aircrew.”

The intent of the program is to integrate these psychologists into large training and operational flying units and place them on aeronautical orders to better understand and support the mission needs of those organizations.

“Aviation Psychologists get to do all of the most fun things within the Air Force,” said DeLaney. “We are able to be proficient in aviation and do what we need to do to optimize the aircrew, flying on the aircraft on our installation to monitor the human factors present in training and current aviation, and impacting mission, policy and training for the better.”

Air Force psychologists that want to apply for the Aviation Psychology Fellowship can do so through the Air Force Institute of Technology. It is a competitive selection process accepting one to two positions per cycle and train for a full year in aviation. Alternately, the designator can be earned by receiving supervised training in a specified position after three years.