Spotlight on History

A descriptive history of military aviation psychology

Taking its cues from both advances in technology as well as events in military history, aviation medicine can be best described as a child of World War I.

By Mark A. Staal, PhD, ABPP

Lieutenant Colonel Mark Staal submitted a very nice brief history of military aviation psychology for this issue of the Spotlight on History. Like me, I'm sure you will find some new and interesting information in it. I suspect many of you also will be reminded of the Air Force's Armstrong Laboratory, named after Harry Armstrong, one of the founding fathers of aviation psychology that Mark discusses. The Armstrong Lab was home to much important groundbreaking behavioral science research by noteworthy military psychologists such as Ray Christal, Malcom Ree and Pat Kyllonen, among others.

Paul A. Gade, Editor, Spotlight on History

Trying to talk about where military aviation psychology has come from without acknowledging the role of aviation medicine is a bit like describing your new job without mentioning the company or industry that hired you. Taking its cues from both advances in technology as well as events in military history, aviation medicine can be best described as a child of World War I. Much of the development of aviation medicine has tracked the evolution of aviation itself. The first manned lighter-than-air flight was conducted in 1783, and this was followed by the extensive use of balloons for military purposes (typically observation) throughout the 19th century in France (Davis, 1923). These early experiments in manned flight caught the attention of a range of aviation pioneers, including physiologist Paul Bert, meteorologist Gaston Tissandier, and physician John Jeffreys. Their interest seems to have been a mixture of scientific curiosity (e.g., investigating the peculiar effects of altitude) and a desire for adventure. However, it was not until the development of heavier-than-air machines at the turn of the last century that the medical community took a serious interest in those daring to fly. One of the first to do so was a young Army surgeon named Theodore Lyster working during the Spanish–American War. Lyster, retiring after World War I at the rank of Colonel, was assigned as the first Chief Surgeon, Aviation Section, of the Signal Corps in 1917. As a result of his efforts, he was later promoted in 1930 during his retirement to the rank of Brigadier General and has gone down in history as the “Father of Aviation Medicine.”

In 1911, Lieutenant John P. Kelley became the first medical officer assigned to a flying school for aeromedical support. While little is known of Kelley and his duties at the school, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, who knew Kelley between 1911 and 1913, once described him as an excellent flight surgeon (Jones & Marsh, 2003). While Kelley may have been the first organically assigned medical officer to support fliers, Armstrong (1939) told us that the first medical officer to be placed on flying orders was Major Ralph Greene in 1916. The following year witnessed the coining of the term “flight surgeon,” and in August of 1918, history records the death of the first flight surgeon (Major William Ream). The year 1918 also witnessed the creation of the U.S. Army's Air Service Medical Research Laboratory (Hazelhurst Field, NY). According to Kirby (2001), its first mission was to improve procedures for pilot selection; however, this mission shifted toward training the Army Air Corps' first flying doctors out of necessity. Paton, MacLake, and Hamilton (1918) reviewed the standard aviator selection interview used at Hazelhurst and, in doing so, provided us with a snapshot of how little has changed in our evaluations over the last century. Although we no longer consider “blotchy” skin and “flabby muscles” as indicative of individuals who are “incapable of exercising good judgment in facing critical situations,” the majority of what we consider positive and negative aircrew attributes are the same (Paton et al., 1918, p. 631). Similar physical screening had taken place among the German and French Air Forces in 1910 and 1917, respectively (Jones & Marsh, 2003).

In 1918, General Pershing, then Commander of the American forces in Europe, requested that specialized aeromedical support officers be sent to aid flying units in the European theater. Thirty-three medical officers were deployed (to include over a dozen newly minted flight surgeons), marking the first known combat deployment of aviation medicine.

Operations were moved in 1926 to San Antonio, Texas, where the School of Aviation Medicine found its home at Brooks Field. Although it was later moved and integrated into pilot training at Randolph, it returned to Brooks in 1958 and was dedicated by President Kennedy on November 21, 1963, in what was to be his final public address outside of Washington, D.C. As readers will recall, he was assassinated the following day. During the intervening period between the two world wars, a second facility, designated as the Aeromedical Research Laboratory in 1934, was created at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, by Major Malcolm Grow and Captain Harry Armstrong (Armstrong, 1939, 1982). In the interest of cooperation, the lab at Wright Field became dedicated to engineering design, such as protective flight equipment and life support, whereas the Brooks Field site was focused on aviator physiology. During this same period of time, the Navy and the Army developed their own aeromedical programs—located at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, and Fort Rucker, Alabama, respectively. From 1934 to 1939, Grow served as the Chief Flight Surgeon for the Army Air Corps and was eventually appointed as the Air Force's first Surgeon General in 1949. Grow and Armstrong (1941) wrote one of the first manuals for pilots emphasizing various preventative measures to preserve their “mental hygiene.” Although not discussed here, similar developments were taking place among the civilian aviation community. In 1926, the Bureau of Air Commerce was established, becoming the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1938 (an infant Federal Aviation Administration). Civilian aeromedical standards and training followed and were well-established by the close of World War II. During the years following the war, there were many developments in aviation medicine. Perhaps the most influential individual during this time was Spurgeon Neel. In 1954, then Major Neel was installed as the Air Force's first Aviation Medical Officer, becoming the first to be placed on flying status. He has been remembered by many in the aerospace medicine industry as the “Father of Aerovac Medicine.”

The History of Military Aviation Psychology

The field of Aviation Psychology grew out of the need to refine and define a more objective and less time-consuming means of selecting candidates for military aviation training. During World War I, the number of pilots needed increased dramatically, and the initial exploratory research into human abilities and traits that predict success in aviation began. In one of the earliest known studies on the subject, Henmon (1919) reviewed the aviation personnel selection research for the Army's Air Service. Working with Thorndike, he attempted to empirically validate a test battery for selecting pilots and aircrews for training. Following a thorough evaluation of the Army's personnel selection protocol, Henmon remarked, “The Air Service is certain to become an increasingly significant arm of the military forces . . . The selection of the apt and the elimination of the unfit for flying is, therefore, so important” (p. 109). During World War II, the military selection program—known as the “Pensacola Project”—was initiated, ushering in a new era in aviation psychology. Accordingly, in 1939, some 30+ different psychological instruments were administered to all entering naval flight students to determine which tests were predictive of flight training success. This initiative would later become recognized as the progenitor of the first aviation psychology program. Shortly after the advent of this project, propelled by the war, the Department of the Navy created a new designator—aviation psychologist—for those in uniform engaged in this work. In later portions of 1941, Navy Captain Alan Grinsted was designated as Naval Aviation Psychologist number 1. The Aviation Classification Test and the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test had proven their worth as validated predictors of flight training success, and these two tests became the basis for the Navy's aviator selection program by 1942.

In a parallel move, the Army was also searching for the right psychologist to develop an aviation psychology program. Described as a “practical psychologist,” John C. Flanagan was selected for the job and reported to active duty in the summer of 1941. Charged with recruiting other psychologists, Dr. Flanagan was asked to develop the Army Air Corp's program, and, by the end of the war, he had overseen the commissioning of over 150 psychologists. Within its ranks were some of the finest psychologists of the day, including five forthcoming presidents of the American Psychological Association and 11 members of its board of directors. Toward the close of the war, this group of psychologists was involved not only in conducting research regarding the selection and classification of aviators but was also involved in developing training programs and human factors engineering.

During subsequent decades, the focus of aviation psychology research went beyond personnel selection into aircraft flight design, layout of instrument displays, and an examination of the basic tasks of flying. While there were many aviation psychologists that facilitated this movement, perhaps most notable was Paul Fitts. Dr. Fitts was an Air Force psychologist who served from 1941 until 1946, following which time he left the service but remained involved in human factors and aviation psychology (Fitts, 1954). He initially became interested in the study of pilot attention, examining the pilot's visual scan across cockpit controls and instrumentation during approach and landing procedures. This work is considered the earliest application of eye-tracking experimentation and is one of the first examples of applied human engineering studies. In 1945, Fitts was assigned as the first psychology branch director of Wright Field's Aeromedical Laboratory and was charged with coordinating the study of engineering psychology. Arguably, Dr. Fitts's greatest contribution was the extension of information theory to the human perceptual-motor system. He described and modeled the logarithmic relationship between perception and action. More specifically, he quantified the accuracy of human movements in terms of the bandwidth of perception and action (Fitts, 1954). His work, the foundation of what was later to be known as “Fitts's law,” framed the speed–accuracy tradeoffs found in purposeful movement—considered by many as one of the most intensively studied topics in the human–computer interaction literature and one of the most successful formulas used in the history of human factors research.

Soon thereafter flight simulators were invented for pilot training, and this opened up innumerable opportunities for aviation psychologists to study pilot behavior and performance. During the 1970s, a great deal of the focus concerned mental workload and attempts to define the limits of human information processing in multitask environments (aviation being but one of them). With the advent of on-board computer systems and the glass cockpit of the 21st century, many flying tasks have been automated, which has required a significant shift from actively flying the aircraft to greater pilot monitoring. While the original goal of the many automation changes was to reduce pilot workload and “take them out of the loop,” reality has demonstrated that automation also added many human factors issues that had not previously existed. Such by-products of automation include (but are not limited to) complacency and an overreliance on automated systems, resulting skill decline, increased requirements for visual scanning, and greater situational awareness. Concomitantly, with the increased need for concurrent task management and the volume of information processing on the rise, improving selection and training of aircrew has continued to be in great demand.

Each branch of the service currently has among its ranks a cadre of aviation and aeromedically trained psychologists. These officers' duties include aircrew selection and training, human factors engineering and systems design, and aeromedical consultation and aviation medicine (Bowles, 1994; Giles & Lochridge, 1985; King, 1999; King & Lochridge, 1991; Senechal & Traweek, 1988). While making up only a small fraction of the active duty military psychology corps, they provide an invaluable service supporting the aviation operations mission and carrying on a distinguished heritage dating back to the birth of aviation itself.


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