FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Army News Service, June 11, 2007) - A team of Fort Rucker researchers is assembling a new computer-based test that will help the Army determine the best aircraft and mission for aviator candidates.

The computer-based test, called the Track Assignment Classification Tool or TACT, will replace the traditional order-of-merit aircraft selection process and should, according to officials, maximize the likelihood of a pilot completing a successful career as an Army aviator.

"The whole idea is that this should increase pilots' job satisfaction because we are placing them where they look like they best fit based on their skills, abilities, personality constructs and demographics," said research psychologist Dr. Larry Katz. "The rationale is that if we could assign individuals to the aircraft and mission type that they are best suited for, it might increase retention and improve an aviator's career overall."

Dr. Katz and a team of researchers at Fort Rucker's U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences Rotary Wing Aviation Research Unit began developing the new test about one year ago when Army leadership requested "a classification instrument for assigning aviator candidates to a specific aviation mission and aircraft type."

Currently, aviators are assigned to their missions and aircraft during flight school based on an order-of-merit list derived from academic and flight grades, with those at the top of the list normally getting to select the aircraft of their choice and those at the bottom being assigned aircraft based on the Army's needs.

Once TACT is officially implemented, Dr. Katz said aviators are more likely to be assigned to the mission and aircraft that best fit their needs and abilities.

In its current design, the two-and-a-half hour TACT test measures mechanical comprehension, spatial apperception, demographics, personality characteristics and perceptual speed and accuracy through multiple choice questions and multi-tasking scenarios. The test station includes a joy stick, a "throttle," a computer screen and head phones.

"Yes, the test is challenging, but fun, too, because it is a bit like playing a video game," Dr. Katz said.

Dr. William Howse, chief of the Rotary Wing Aviation Research Unit, said the TACT is just one more way his team is trying to create an even better aviation training program. Dr. Howse said the TACT will maximize the overall probability of success in training and maximize the fit of students to their assigned aircraft.

"(We are trying to) improve the aviators while keeping the costs in control," he said. "By selecting the right people, we reduce training losses (like) individuals who don't complete the training."

Before the test is recommended to the Army, Dr. Katz and his team will rotate 120 test subjects, 30 pilots from each of the four advanced aircraft, through their facility to take the test. Dr. Katz said the test subjects, mostly instructor-pilots or standardization-pilots with at least 500 flight hours, who have already taken the test have said it is a difficult test and that it is right on the mark.

CW4 Danny Andrews, an instructor-pilot and flight examiner who has been assisting Dr. Katz's team with the test's development, said TACT is very challenging because of the amount of concentration required during certain portions of the test.

Chief Andrews called the portion of the test that asks pilots to track two "targets" on the computer screen while listening for only odd numbers in the right side of a headset "difficult," but noted that pilots are asked to multi-task like that frequently in the real world.

"The environment the test creates is very similar to what pilots would be doing in the aircraft," he said.

Dr. Katz admitted the final product will be difficult, but if it weren't challenging, it wouldn't sort the pilots into the correct missions and aircraft.

Although the current TACT is made up of several elements right now, Dr. Katz said at least a few might disappear before the final product is presented to the Army.

"We are just testing these to see which ones turn out to be useful in terms of sorting individuals into this mission or that mission," he said.

Dr. Katz said his team hopes to have a product ready for recommendation to the Army by August. While he doesn't know when the Army will officially implement the new aircraft assignment test, he said the tests his organization creates are usually put into practice within about six months.

"This is much better than what we have been doing in the past," Chief Andrews said of the test. "It is going to make a huge difference in Army Aviation."