By Colonel Peter Murphy FAPS, Director, Australian Defence Force Psychology
Organisation and Lieutenant Colonel Martin Levey, Australian Army Psychology Corps

Like the profession of psychology, the aviation industry is a little over one hundred years old. Unbeknown to many psychologists, aviation has proven to be a harbinger of many advances in our profession. Problems of selecting and training pilots, as well as the role of human error in aviation accidents were areas where psychologists quickly became involved. The complexity of aircraft systems during the Second World War proved to be the major impetus to the development of the multidisciplinary approach to human-system integration and performance now known as human factors.

Psychologists are an integral part of today's Australian Army Aviation capability, providing support to this high-reliability domain of over 1,800 personnel. The model of psychological support to the Australian Defence Force is founded on three pillars of delivery: organisational effectiveness, psychological health and readiness, and performance enhancement. This article outlines six active performance enhancement arenas within Army Aviation. These initiatives recognise that effective performance depends upon a systems approach where individual, team, and broader organisational elements are integrated into improvement interventions.

  1. Promoting understanding of human performance limitations through education and specialist publications
    The four psychologists directly supporting Army Aviation are kept busy as instructors in various training courses and safety forums. Research reports in APA format gain no traction among aviation personnel. Information must be engaging and pragmatic so that it survives the ‘so what?' test. A milestone publication entitled ‘FOCUS on human factors in aviation', predominantly authored by military psychologists, has received plaudits from around the world, and won the Royal Aeronautical Society (Australian Division) Field Award for Flying Safety in 2006.
  2. Designing and conducting psychological resilience training to better prepare and equip personnel
    The operational tempo for aviation personnel is demanding. Recently, psychologists were asked to provide additional training to aviation units in the form of resilience training. This training includes performance enhancement and adaptive coping strategies to foster operational endurance. A similar program at the Army's recruit training school has had positive outcomes, including a 50 per cent reduction in trainee referrals for psychological support.
  3. Conducting research to improve understanding of performance issues of night vision devices (NVD)
    Military operations at night are becoming more prevalent as developments in aided vision technology generate performance advantages. Army is eager to increase the amount of time its crews can operate on NVD. Army psychologists have conducted
    targeted interviews and focus groups to identify operational and policy issues, and a simulator study into the performance and safety effects of extending NVD duty is planned for 2008. 
  4. Creating a structured psychological climate survey regime to assist executives to identify salient organisational and safety challenges
    The Army Aviation organisation is a complex socio-technical system. Leaders and managers of this system are continually trying to optimise performance while managing complex issues such as safety, retention, and job satisfaction. Army Aviation has recently launched an organisational and safety climate survey regime to provide guidance, at the organisational level, for the focused use of resources for sustained individual and organisational performance. 
  5. Refining fatigue management systems to reduce the risks associated with human error
    In order to increase the robustness of Army Aviation's Fatigue Management System, methods to identify potential risks associated with performance decrements are being examined. The aim is to provide mechanisms to enable supervisors and personnel to actively manage performance risks in aircrew, maintenance, and ground crew environments. A trial of commercial 'fitness for work' technology that purports to measure psychomotor and cognitive performance changes resulting from fatigue, stress, illness, and substance use is planned for early 2008.
  6. Developing and validating ‘Crew Resource Management' (CRM) training to improve the non-technical skills that underpin safe and effective operations
    CRM focuses on the cognitive and interpersonal skills needed to manage aviation operations and to promote safety. CRM training modules include human performance limitations, situation awareness, decision-making, and teamwork. A review of how training is developed and delivered has begun. Early validation outcomes suggest that characteristics of the trainee group, the selection and training of facilitators, and the ability to measure CRM behavioural markers are key issues for program invigoration.

Psychology is shaping human performance and contributing to safe and effective aviation operations, both inside and outside Defence. This specialist area will be showcased at the 8th Australian Aviation Psychology Association International Symposium to be convened at Manly, 8-11 April 2008.

For further information, please contact Peter Murphy at