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Research takes flight

Queen’s University researcher Luc Martin takes to the skies with the Snowbirds to study team dynamics.

Anyone who has been to an airshow in Canada is probably familiar with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, a military flight demonstration team that thrills spectators with their aerobatic performances. Since 2015, Queen’s University researcher Luc Martin, an expert in team dynamics, has been working with the Snowbirds in their high-risk environment where effective communication is critical.   

In early June, Dr. Martin, a professor in the Queen’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, took to the air with the team during a media flight which gave him an even deeper appreciation of the communication and teamwork that occurs between formation pilots during a flight.

[Luc Martin and Snowbirds]
Queen's University professor Luc Martin (School of Kinesiology and Health Studies) took to the air this summer with the Snowbirds. (Supplied Photo)

“I likely could not do the experience justice if I tried to put it into words,” Dr. Martin says. “As a researcher, it helped me to appreciate the conditions that this team must navigate, which is unlike any other group I have studied. Because they perform as a collective in such an intense, high-risk environment, they are ideal for studying team-building efforts, cohesion, leadership, and communication.”

Dr. Martin’s research revolves around group dynamics and the actions, processes, and changes that occur either within or between groups, and what those might mean for various individual or team level outcomes. He visited the Snowbird’s base in Moose Jaw, Sask., where he observed the pilot selection process.

The newly-selected pilots became the central figures in Dr. Martin’s investigation into how new members are chosen and integrated. He then followed their transition from newcomer to veteran (when they were involved in selecting future members), through to their retirement from the team – a timeframe that normally lasts only two years.

“I’ve found that the team has a very clear understanding of the type of pilot they are looking for, and skill or capability is only a part of it,” says Dr. Martin. “There are many other characteristics sought and the team has purposefully included strategies throughout the selection process to identify them. It’s important to recognize that while these pilots represent the elite of the elite, the success of the show (and the safety of each member) rests on their ability to work together, and this takes high levels of trust and accountability.”

While few people are likely to find themselves working in such demanding environments, there are certainly important take home points that could benefit anyone who works in a team setting.

“Although having a clear understanding of the type of member you’re trying to recruit is critical, you need to go one step further and design selection processes that allow you to specifically evaluate those characteristics,” says Dr. Martin. “It’s also necessary to show the incoming members exactly what to expect, as demonstrating clear normative expectations early can facilitate their integration into the group.”

Dr. Martin published his initial observations of the Snowbirds in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. His co-author on the project was Mark Eys from Wilfred Laurier University.