John C. Flanagan

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John C. Flanagan
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John C. Flanagan

  John C. Flanagan was a psychologist who is most noted for developing Critical Incident Technique. He was a pioneer of aviation psychology. Due to the needs arising from the World War II he was commissioned by the US Army Air Corps in 1941 to head an aviation psychology program. Flanagan held a rank of colonel.

  On this day in 1906, John C. Flanagan was born. John C. Flanagan was a pioneer in the field of Aviation Psychology, which now involves the application of psychological principles to aviation safety and welfare. In 1941, with World War II heating up, the United States government decided that it made sense to begin to expand its Army Air Corps (to become the United States Air Force). Just a year before this, Flanagan had completed a large sample interview of personnel in the Army Air Corps. With their foreknowledge of Flanagan, the Army Air Corps sought after and hired him to set up a large aviation psychology program. He was commissioned as a Major and, subsequently, rather quickly, was promoted to Colonel. [1]

  When Flanagan was first commissioned, there were but 51,000 men and a few thousand planes in the Army Air Corps arsenal. By 1945, this number ballooned to 2,282,000 men and over 80,000 planes. Around that time, more men were being shot out of the air then were being trained. As such, proper selection of pilot trainees and adequate but expedient training techniques needed to be developed. Flanagan’s task was to select those individuals from the enlisted servicemembers who could become successful pilots, copilots, navigators, and bombadiers – most of whom had never even seen the inside of an airplane. Just a few days after the war began, Flanagan’s plans for this task were adopted by the Army Air Corps. Furthermore, under his direct supervision, screening began less than a month later.

  Flanagan developed a two-step selection procedure: 1. First, potential cadets were screened using a general qualifying test. 2. More than half were then tested with 20 tests of aptitude, proficiency, and temperament. On the basis of multiple regression, the candidates for each position were classified into nine cat­egories (this, incidentally, was the origination of stanine scores).

  Flanagan was the first of many more aviation psychologists to come. In fact, he took the lead in recruiting outstanding psychologists from universities, government, and industrial organizations. Within just a few months, he request and was granted permission to commission more than 150 psychologists as officers and recruit 1,200 psychological assistants (he found the latter by searching the Army’s records of enlisted individuals for undergraduates and graduate students in psychology and related fields).

  In recognition of the out­standing contribution that he and his staff made to winning the war, Flanagan was awarded the Legion of Merit by General Hap Arnold. He is remembered today in several awards including the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology’s John C. Flanagan Award and the United States Air Force’s Annual John C. Flanagan Field Grade Officer Psychologist of the Year Award.

  This will probably be one of my few blogs wherein I give little by way of critical appraisal. As the son of a fighter pilot and a psychologist in the United States Air Force, I bear a strong debt to Flanagan.

  I will note, however, in passing that, although Flanagan was a pioneer in aviation psychology for the United States Army Air Corps, its subsequent instantiation, the United States Air Force has relatively few legitimately trained “Aviation Psychologists.” As of right now, on an almost yearly basis, current Air Force psychologists may apply for a single fellowship in Aviation Psychology. Interestingly, I find it appropriate that one of the most recent recipients (2005) of the John C. Flanagan Field Grade Officer Psychologist of the Year was one of those few legitimately trained aviation psychologists: Maj (now Lt Col select) Mark Staal.

  I will also say that, not until I joined the Air Force and began looking into the wonderfully interesting field of aviation psychology, I did not realize that my intellectual great-grandfather (George A. Kelly – of personal construct theory fame) was a pioneer in aviation psychology – but for the United States Navy. In fact, his time overlapped with that of Flanagan.

  The only similarities that I can find between Kelly and Flanagan are, of course, they were psychologists and, second, they both had strong experimental training as undergraduate physics majors. Both also had a prediliction for thought and development of conceptual ideas (Kelly, of course, with his personal construct theory and Flanagan with critical incident technique).

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