Making it through the airline pilot selection process is an accomplishment but successfully completing your airline pilot training is nothing short of awesome.
You’ve been submitting applications to airlines for over a year and reading doom-and-gloom on pilot blogs, which is beginning to work on your mind. If you allow yourself to believe what you’ve read, you’d give up. “How can I ever hope to get called-in for an airline interview with my experience?” “What do they want? Space shuttle proficiency?” Sheesh! Simply stated, they seek candidates who exhibit the basic skills required for training, good character, “fit in,” sound judgment, common sense, a positive attitude, compliant principles and professional behavior. They just want quality individuals and pursue neither Einsteins nor dim-wits.
Since the 1980s, the field of personality and psychological testing has exploded in American business and even job applicants for low-level, non-professional/non-career jobs can be required to undergo such assessments. Major passenger and cargo airlines are most prone for this screening. Small and medium-sized companies are more content with simplicity in their processes.
The interview process for most major carriers tends to follow a similar format. Dinky little airlines may whip you through their process in a day or two while majors may drag it out to 4 or 5 days and spread it out over several months.
If the airline is actively recruiting pilots and after you’ve submitted your on-line application you may hear from them between a couple weeks to couple months later. Major airlines now incorporate personality and psychological testing along with their on-line applications. While applying, you will be invited to click a link for their personality test. The Hogan Personality Inventory and MMPI are two such tests and consist of 400+ questions to sniff out “the REAL you.” Questions are carefully designed to minimize your “outsmarting” the test. If you are going to be invited to continue in their process, you’ll probably hear within a month.
When invited for an interview the airline often furnishes a non-revenue pass for travel; but not always. Plan a back-up in case your flight cancels. If you can, try to arrange things to arrive the night before and stay at a nearby hotel if even at your own expense. Being slam-dunked into an interview by traveling on the same day can frazzle you, which you certainly do not want.
The interview usually starts with a welcome presentation by human resources and flight operations management. You’re then whisked away to a personal interview with an HR person. They’ll go over your application, resume and ask those “gotcha”-type job interview questions like, “Have you ever had a conflict with a supervisor?.” If you have and spill your guts, make sure the noose is cinched up tightly around your neck before they pull the lever.
It is very important to do some homework and research the airline because they’ll find out if you’re interested enough to do it. Learn all you can. Know the CEO’s name, their stock value, number and types of planes, their history et cetera. Internet search news stories about them in the last year. When asked if you know anything about them they don’t want you to rattle-off a memorized spiel but if you can casually work in some fact about them it shows your interest and makes a positive impression. (Interviewer: “Why do you want to fly for us?” You: “Blah-blah-blah-blah and I understand you’ve ordered 40 new 737s early this year which underscores this as a solid, growing company.” Interviewer’s Voice Inside His Head: “H-m-m-m, this guy’s on top of things. I won’t bother asking him anymore about the company. And maybe for lunch today, I’ll order pastrami on rye.” Interviewers are human, too.)
Another component is a pilot board or panel interview. Expect from one to five management pilots to pelt you with scripted questions. They’re probing. They want to see if you can think on your feet. They’re sizing up your personality to see if you’re the type they’d like to be paired with inside a cockpit for long hours. They’re sampling the depth of your aviation knowledge. They may ask you questions that they themselves don’t even know the answer to like, “I see you are now flying a Beech Baron. What is the maximum takeoff weight of that airplane?” Not one of them on that panel may be able to answer that question but you’d better be able to or, at least, can act like you do. Also, you can expect “What would you do if…” judgment questions. Think through your response before opening thy mouth. They’ve interviewed hundreds like you so don’t blow smoke.
The pilot board interview may be when your logbooks will be scrutinized so be sure they are up to date. The person thumbing through them might pick out something to ask you about: “I see you flew into O’Hare three years ago. What did you think about that experience?” On any questions try to be positive. They don’t want to hear that you screwed-up making a taxiway turn, gridlocked 35 airplanes behind you that were waiting to take-off and got so stressed out that you never want to go back. “Um..,” the questioner might say, “we fly into O’Hare.” Oops. Cinch up that noose a little tighter.
Instead, answer temperately with something like, “It was fascinating to watch how ATC can move so many aircraft so efficiently.” Spin things with an “up” tone. Of course, there are things that cannot be spun positively like violations or accidents. Be honest because it is assured that they will check your FAA records before hiring you. There’s probably no such thing as putting a “positive spin” on a blemished record but we make our mistakes and then move on. If skeletons are in your closet, anticipate dreaded, tough questions and develop honest, humble answers. Mistakes and mishaps might be “softened” by admitting their value as a profound lesson burned into your head that ensures your never again allowing them to happen.
There is usually a written examination consisting of aviation knowledge questions. The questions are often multiple choice and true-false and similar to those found on FAA written examinations. Such tests are administered both on-line or in person during the interview process.
Large carriers customarily put you through a medical examination and, of course, all airlines are mandated to test for drugs and alcohol. Smaller airlines are normally content just with your holding an FAA medical certificate. Although it was common practice not too long ago there could be a psychological assessment done by a “shrink.” Major US airlines have moved away from this but some foreign carriers haven’t. In one such interview of mine, I entered the company psychiatrist’s office. In front of his desk was a blue chair and an orange chair. I don’t know if it was true or not but word from the grapevine was that whichever chair you chose somehow mattered. Since I was hired I guess they wanted pilots who choose blue chairs. Sigh.
The final component is frequently a flight simulator evaluation though the majors are abandoning them. Smaller airlines generally use a contracted simulator center at a nearby pilot school or Part 142 training company. Though many times smaller carriers use simulators emulating small general aviation twin-engine aircraft, large airlines conduct the assessment in a simulator for one of their aircraft types. You may find comfort knowing that they don’t expect a non-trained pilot to fly the simulator as an experienced one should. However what they do expect to see is good instrument scan, judgment, prioritizing skills, planning and corrective action if something goes wrong. The simulator evaluator may run the simulator by remote control while sitting in the right seat and serving as your co-pilot.
Important: Use the simulator evaluator all you can get away with!
Have him/her adjust your power settings, dial radio and navigation frequencies, run checklists, set flaps and landing gear. Don’t feel rushed. When it’s time to set up for an instrument approach, tell the evaluator to take the controls while you familiarize yourself with the approach procedure. It’s not expected that you would know their emergency procedures but if something happens like an engine fire, order your “co-pilot” to run “the appropriate checklist.” You don’t have to know what the checklist is called; they just want to see a pro-active reaction from you. This isn’t a check-ride, it’s an evaluation to see if you possess core abilities to be “trainable.” Do your best, be respectful and gracious, shake hands and exit the simulator on your wobbly knees. Then hope for the best.
Each step in the interview process may be separated by days or weeks. The waiting is agonizing although applicants disqualified during any phase are usually notified quickly.
When I arrived to interview for one of the majors I wore a tan coat with brown pants but noticed that every other pilot wore either a dark blue or black suit. I was also the only one with a mustache. Somehow, even with my colossal blunder, I got through that day and, obviously, when getting called back for Phase II, my mustache was gone and my suit was dark blue. Silly? You bet it is! Maybe it wasn’t even noticed by anyone at the airline. But why blow this opportunity by with something that may be interpreted as not fitting in? Airlines are not interested in pilots who hear a different drummer. They want discipline, consistency, and players who fit in with the team.
They say there’s a pilot shortage but leave out that the jobs with good, solid companies still get plenty of applicants. It’s smaller airlines flying smaller equipment with less pay that seem to be having the pilot shortage. Many small-to-medium sized airlines are overlooked great places to work. Even if you land a job with a company but cannot see yourself there for the long-term, it’s never a wasted effort. The time and experience you acquire will make you that much more attractive to the good, solid medium-sized and major carriers than you are now.
Airline pilots must continually prove themselves and the first proving of oneself is the pilot selection process. It’s a compliment just being chosen but then your effort continues. Next comes the interview process. Slaloming around the pitfalls and potholes of the interview to be offered a job is deserving of all the gratification you’ll feel. But the job offer is just a gateway allowing you to be trained. Airline pilot training is demanding and challenging and successful completion provides another well-deserved feeling of accomplishment. Then, as a line pilot, you’ll prove yourself through PCs (Pilot Checks), line checks, annual ground school final exams, upgrades or transition training and, of course, your frequent FAA physical. Some pilots scornfully view these checks as a game of chance with its stakes being their jobs. Others see these re-qualifications as only routine renewals for the privilege of having a pretty cool job. Though periodic checking is an ongoing requisite throughout an airline career you’ll come away from each with a sense of professional recognition and satisfaction.
But the most satisfaction comes during your quiet moments of reflection. Each day of flying presents hundreds, maybe, thousands of things, each one requiring a perfect plan, a perfect response and perfect handling by you. It is then that you’ll understand that each day is really a check-ride and those periodic ones become nothing more than routine formalities demonstrating what you know, what you do and what you are every other day.