Aviation Human Factors Psychologist

Holly Landwehr, PhD
Raytheon Aircraft Company

I never imagined that, with a degree in psychology, I would know so much about drill motors, aircraft jigs and seat cushion foam, and that all would be so relevant to my degree! In fact, when others learn that I am a psychologist in industry, the typical notion is that I counsel employees. Others discover that my job title is “engineer” and wonder what that has to do with psychology. Actually, psychology and engineering are very complementary fields, and I use both on a daily basis.

How did I end up here? I navigated through the typical process of determining what type of profession I was well suited for and began in accounting. I was doing well in accounting, but considering my desire to work with people and to use my other strengths, the field of accounting soon left me dissatisfied. A room full of numbers was not fulfilling to me, and tax season had yet to begin. At this point, my options were nursing or psychology, and I opted for psychology.

I completed my undergraduate degree in general psychology from Emporia State University in 1991. There, I was fortunate to have strong advisors with great research and networking skills. I went to work in the psychology lab, focusing on projects ranging from the investigation of cheating at the college level to taste aversion studies with weanling rats. Our lab group presented at conferences all over the country, and I learned valuable problem solving, presentation and networking skills.

I earned my master’s degree in general experimental psychology from Emporia State in 1993 and discovered a new passion teaching. As a graduate teaching assistant, I had the responsibility for an entire classroom myself. After graduation, I began to string teaching jobs together to make a living. One semester I taught at three different colleges, one of which was Wichita State University (WSU) in Kansas. After becoming a night instructor in research methods, I soon discovered that WSU had a PhD program in human factors psychology. I enrolled the next semester realizing that, if I was going to teach at the college level, I really needed a PhD, and the field of human factors appealed to me.

Most of the individuals in my human factors program studied human-computer interaction and usability areas. After completing an ergonomics course in the industrial engineering program, I found a way that I could help people in a different setting. I completed an internship in ergonomics from the engineering department, then took classes in advanced ergonomics and work physiology. I also completed an internship at Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita, where I was the project lead in a study investigating the accommodation and comfort of Cessna crew and cabin seats. I was assigned to a department that was experiencing a high injury and illness rate, then given the opportunity to use my investigation skills to discover the root causes and potential fixes. This experience culminated with a presentation of results and recommendations to Cessna management.

My doctoral dissertation concerned the effects of personality on maximum-acceptable frequency with a drilling task, attempting to unearth whether certain types of individuals are more susceptible to the development of cumulative trauma disorder. I effectively combined psychology with engineering, and my dissertation committee comprised four psychologists and one professional ergonomist (who was my engineering mentor and taught at WSU). He is the individual who instilled in me an enthusiasm for ergonomics.

Before graduating with my PhD in May 1999, I secured an internship in ergonomics with the safety department at Raytheon Aircraft Company (RAC) in Wichita, Kansas, where I am currently employed. Raytheon Aircraft manufactures private, corporate and military aircraft. My duties as an industrial ergonomist included conducting ergonomics training, coordinating 10 ergonomics teams, completing incident investigations, conducting essential job function evaluations, providing expert testimony, and participating in engineering design reviews. Being the only ergonomist on a square-mile campus with approximately 10,000 employees, I quickly found my way around the aircraft business. It was a wonderful way to get acculturated.

Last August, I moved to the engineering department, where I am a human factors engineer with the Industrial Design and Visualization and Core Interiors Group at RAC. I have participated in projects that include improving the comfort of aircraft seating, accommodating children and older adults, anticipating the demographics of our potential customers, evaluating seat foam for use in aircraft seats, and investigating the user interface of anything with which the potential customer will interact. I continue to research ideas, develop reports and present results of findings.

As you can see, I continually utilize my problem solving, presentation and networking skills that, when developed early in an academic career, can provide a marketable skill set with which to pursue diverse opportunities in the field of psychology. Researching ideas and working on a team that can help RAC become more competitive in the aircraft industry has developed into an exciting and fulfilling career for me.

(Originally published in the May/June 2001 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)