The Pilot Selection Process

 - April 23, 2008, 12:50 PM

Even under ideal circumstances, hiring pilots for a corporate operation is arduous. But when there’s a shortage of qualified pilots, the situation becomes even more difficult. Add in a slumping economy and stir in a liberal measure of the September 11 turmoil that has planted hordes of airline pilots on the street looking for work, and the decision about whom to hire can be overwhelming to even diehard aviation department managers.

With its individual attention to passenger comfort and safety by cockpit and cabin crewmembers, business aviation is poised for a dramatic climb, especially in light of the lengthy delays in airport security and service cutbacks surrounding airline travel. Charter flying was up markedly in the weeks and months following September 11.

But despite the dynamics of the world, some things never change, such as the obvious advantage of choosing the right pilot the first time. “Hiring the wrong person for a cockpit position, however, means disrupting the teamwork concept in your entire department,” said Dr. Robert Besco, a retired MD-80 airline captain and industrial psychologist who studies flight crew performance issues. Bob Blouin, NBAA’s senior vice president of operations, added, “There is a dent in the morale of the entire organization when someone leaves.”

Before the shortage of crews, business aviation pilots were hired primarily based on who they knew. The flight department manager “put out the word and people would just show up at the front door,” said Keith Gordon, senior captain with Flynn-Gallagher of Las Vegas. “Today, though, that kind of resource has pretty much dried up. A lot of flight departments that used to whisper when they needed pilots now have to make major broadcasts.” Many flight departments regularly advertise positions online at Aviation Employee Placement Service (www.aeps.com) and the NBAA Air Mail (www.nbaa.org) in search of pilots.

How managers first qualify candidates still depends on how much store they hold in various characteristics. Some use basic flight time and experience to begin the cut, while others may look for particular kinds of personality traits (team player, outgoing and so on). Some qualifiers are even quite extreme, such as the pilot-wanted ad posted online that warned: “Applicants with spouses who complain about their being gone a lot need not apply.”

Besco said, “The pilot selection decision is a tough one to make in general, but it is so important that even at small flight departments the manager must put some real energy into narrowing the field of candidates to be successful. Everyone seems to wait until the last minute when it comes to selecting crews, and then they run for a headhunter.”

The evolution of the selection process has forced some managers to begin looking at alternatives to help them make the critical hiring decisions, such as psychological testing, tougher simulator rides and extensive background checks. Some aviation department managers are also realizing that their own hiring and interviewing skills may fall somewhat short of what is needed.

‘One Day They Get Blessed’

Pete Agur, president of The Van Allen Group, noted, “Throughout a professional aviator’s career, there is little professional development of managerial skills until one day they get blessed and become the department manager. Now they are assigned tasks with which they have little experience.”

No matter what process is used for evaluating and selecting a pilot in an era where thousands are available to answer almost every job ad, having more applicants does not necessarily ease the process of selecting the best candidate. It only means a manager has more choices.

Now the questions begin. Should a pilot’s flight time and type ratings only get their foot in the door? Will some formalized testing like the military and airlines use be valuable? How useful is the information gleaned from a candidate during one-on-one interviews? And how valid are any of the testing and interview processes in an era of crib-sheet companies that can teach applicants the answers to many of the tests and interview questions? What problems does outsourcing the selection process solve?

A stand-up comedian in Atlanta once remarked, “My job would be great if it weren’t for the people,” reflecting the frustration many aviation department managers feel when trying to decide how to evaluate potential pilots. Both the military and airline recruiters claim considerable success here and offer a few lessons for corporate aviation managers.

After September 11 and due to the volatility of the airlines, the majors may no longer be the holy grail of aviation. “A significant number of pilots may come back to corporate aviation and never return to the airlines,” said Agur. “They may finally admit the airlines are not as intellectually stimulating as they thought they would be. If this happens, the attraction to business aviation again will be strong.” So that’s good if you need pilots for the upcoming surge, right? Well, not necessarily.

A Hard Choice
With a lack of qualified cockpit crewmembers in the past few years, some flight department managers have been pressed to choose from either a large group of relatively inexperienced pilots or a relatively small group of highly qualified people with questionable motives. One manager in Des Moines, Iowa, who preferred anonymity, said, “I am concerned about the people who appear qualified on paper but are not actually working now. What kind of pilot am I interviewing when an apparently well qualified captain is unemployed during a shortage?”

Some managers that AIN interviewed believe if they did not make a choice from among those few qualified applicants who presented themselves, they would need to revert to a contract pilot or, even worse, be unable to complete some of their department’s required missions.

In the aftermath of September 11, corporate executives can be expected to want prospective crewmembers to undergo greatly heightened scrutiny. What might make the decision process more difficult is the flood of airline pilots hitting the streets who have recent corporate experience. Does a manager grab an airline pilot just because he or she is typed in the GIV?

Jan Barden, president of Aviation Personnel International of New Orleans, said, “Any smart manager is not going to hire an airline pilot on furlough unless that pilot is willing to resign his seniority number.” A flight department manager in Savannah, Ga., who did not want his name used, added, “I have found some airline pilots simply could not adapt to the special environment of a corporate flight department, where they often might not know about the next trip until the day before.”

Barden reminisced about why pilot recruitment was a tad easier when there were more ex-military pilots to choose from. “Most aviation managers liked having military pilots on board. The military was very careful about the selection process and took only the crème de la crème. The government tested them for intelligence, judgment and learning ability. In general, they were and are a well disciplined, well traveled and well educated lot.” Ex-military pilots now make up less than 20 percent of the pilot candidate group, compared with 80 percent a decade ago.

“Until recently,” said Diane Damos of Los Angeles-based Damos Research, “the airlines and corporate aviation community let the military effectively do a lot of the screening for them. But many companies did not understand the recent, profound shift in the range of skills and abilities of applicants with no military flying background. Many civilian-trained candidates possess much different abilities today and would never pass current Air Force or Navy selection tests.” Aircrew psychologist Besco believes the intense testing of military pilots delivered a side benefit–a can-do attitude. “It was also tough to get into the military and tough to get out,” he noted.

Finding the Right Fit
An ability to blend in has always been considered the guiding light on what makes a good corporate pilot. But how can that trait be measured and evaluated? What should a flight department manager be looking for when a candidate comes through the door?

Barden began by explaining what not to focus on: “It is typically the smaller companies that hire for the aircraft and not the person themselves. You’re hiring someone to be with you for 25 years. Sure, a type rating is important. But what do you want this person to be doing in 10 years? What is the chemistry and culture of your company? An airline pilot simply does not have the same attitude as a corporate pilot. Airline pilots are used to little preparation and limited interaction with passengers. A good corporate pilot has superb situational awareness when it comes to understanding the passengers. They can sense their mood and what to do next as soon as they climb on board. Most airline pilots are used to simply closing the cockpit door and taking off.”

Normally, too, the decision about a person’s people skills, or lack of them, is simply a subjective decision on the part of the manager based on their own personal experience. The problem with the need for a subjective decision is that, as former pilots, many managers have little actual people-focused diagnostic abilities to draw upon. This could translate into a manager only hiring someone who is just like them, which may not deliver the kind of person the department really needs.

Historically, the U.S. Air Force spends slightly more than a $1 million  to select and train a pilot, according to Bruce Gould, a former civilian personnel researcher with the USAF. But dollars don’t always provide the answers evaluators need.

“What we don’t have with any selection system today,” he said, “is something that really predicts how well pilots will actually perform in the cockpit.” When pure academics is mentioned as a qualifier, Gould added, “There is a fairly strong relationship between academic performance and ability to pass ground school. But by the time you find a pilot with an advanced degree, there is little relationship between the two, at least as far as flying is concerned.”

The airlines and corporations often felt little need to re-screen an applicant’s psychological and personality variables since the military had already done that. Companies simply added their own selection criteria to the mix, which often included written testing and a simulator evaluation. According to Gould, “Simulators were often the primary means used to decide who was a good candidate and who was not.”

But Besco noted, “A simulator is a tough place to evaluate someone because you can’t load them up with enough tasks for it to be realistic, especially if the pilot has not flown that aircraft type before. And the outcome of the simulator evaluation can often depend on the person performing the evaluation. If the evaluator didn’t happen to like the applicant, he or she might not make it.”

A flight department manager in Dallas, who did not want his name used, disagreed. “When we have a candidate in the simulator and everything is going to hell in a hand basket, we want to see how a candidate really performs. How do they think their way through the problem? That tells us a lot.”

Testing: One, Two, Three
How successful is formal testing as a qualifier? Besco is clear about his perspective: “Some companies used to give pilots the Minnesota multi-phasic personality inventory (MMPI), for example, to weed out the unstable people. But the ones that test would identify are so unstable that a normal person could pick them out walking down the street. That’s great for the people selling the test, but what about the test’s validity? I don’t know of much testing that is really worth the cost. Another big problem with most testing is that pilots can sign up with employment services that give them cribs, which blow the cover off the test validity as well.”

Barden puts considerable professional trust into both the written testing and the in-person interviews she conducts with candidates before she presents them to her clients. She also said the validity of her company’s tests is not an issue since “we developed and maintain most tests in-house. Our testing tells us quite a bit about the candidate’s character and motivation.” Barden believes it is pretty clear to her “when someone is trying to beat the test, which already tips me off to be careful about this candidate.”

Another corporate flight department manager who hires infrequently said, “This industry is so fragmented that I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to come up with some sort of standardized testing for corporate pilots.” Agur advises managers to “use the test process they are comfortable with. Many tests are effective at helping flight department managers find people who will perform well.”

Some psychologists believe it is difficult to measure the difference between the way a pilot reacts under stress and how they do under normal conditions, something every manager would like to know. Barden disagreed, “Our written testing program is stressful in itself. This assures a company that they have done just about everything they can to get the right individual.”

Besco believes that no matter what other evaluations are performed, “The best predictor of future professional performance is past professional performance. It is better than interview recommendations, flight instructor evaluations and aptitude test scores.”

Bill Quinn, president of Portsmouth, N.H.-based Aviation Management Systems, said, “Certainly a fallout of September 11 is that pilots are going to begin proactively asking their management what they are doing to ensure the cockpit crew’s safety. If I were a pilot, I would be looking very hard at what my employer is doing about this issue.”

Background checks are sure to become a standard in the evaluation process as well. Ken Defour, president of Aviation Management Consulting of Rockford, Ill., said, “Pilots may need to begin presenting themselves as pre-approved, security-screened candidates, which would show how proactively they are approaching the security problem. But right now I don’t believe there is anyone out there handling this kind of security screening for pilots. At least not yet.”

What Makes a Good Bizav Pilot?
After the written intelligence testing, after the interviews and the simulator evaluation rides, what makes a good corporate pilot? Fred Gevalt, president of Air Charter Guide, said, “Hours in a logbook don’t make a great pilot. Even similar credentials might mean completely different things. You should look for the pilot who has the richer, steadier career, if you have a choice. We need to be sure that charter and corporate aviation does not become a home for wayward airline pilots.”

An analysis of a pilot’s judgment would be handy, but Quinn said, “This would be a tough call since judgment is not easily definable.” NBAA’s Blouin interjected, “Our members are interested more in someone they can mentor until they become senior pilots than in someone who has a set number of hours or type ratings.”

Frank Richey, chairman of applied aviation sciences at the Daytona Beach, Fla. campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), said, “The real heart of a great pilot is their cognitive ability to think and make proper decisions under tough circumstances, in essence their scientific approach to problem solving. Pilots must know how to synthesize solutions well. ERAU challenges students on every course. But we also realize that the skills needed to manage people are different from those needed to fly an aircraft. Today we are developing too many systems manager-type pilots who often don’t think as well as they fly.”

Making things even a bit tougher on the pilot-selection process is a legal quagmire of regulations designed primarily to protect applicants. Thanks to the Pilot Record Improvement Act (PRIA), an airline can request five years of training records on an applicant to assist with the selection decision.

The act also protects all commercial operators from lawsuits based on information contained in those records. In corporate aviation, however, there is no similar law. Privacy restrictions, in fact, make it pretty clear that previous employers risk a lawsuit themselves if they provide anything more than basic information about a past employee.

Jim Waits, aviation department manager for Columbus, Ohio-based World Harvest Church, said, “The key to preventing your organization from becoming mired in possible legal disputes when selecting pilots boils down to some simple criteria. Have an accurate job description, some sort of monitoring system that validates the job description and always maintain a file of potential candidates that keeps the entire process above board.” He also advises bringing in a good attorney who specializes in hiring issues if your company lacks a human resources department.

Testing also carries its own legal concerns that managers should be aware of. According to Damos, “Even though a pilot’s performance on crew resource management issues is often considered important during the selection process, there is no written test for CRM. That is because we can’t prove that a test will measure the things that are actually required on a flight deck. Even more important, though, we can’t guarantee the tests have no discriminatory biases. Many companies first learn a test doesn’t fit when some pilot applicant sues them.”

Turning to a Headhunter
Fear of making a bad decision, as well as the reluctance to waste valuable time and money on tasks for which many managers feel only marginally qualified, is why some organizations have taken the route of hiring professional personnel specialists to locate suitable candidates. When outsourcing the hiring process, Barden said, “We visit the hiring company on their site and wear the company hat as we evaluate candidates. Since the candidates often come to us of their own accord, we can ask them many things a human resources specialist never could.”

She believes the four-hour written testing process, as well as the in-depth interviews she offers, help weed out the difficult pilots right from the beginning. “That leaves us with the people who are pretty upstanding right from the start.”

Some departments still like to see three pilot choices for each opening at first. But that can still leave the aviation department manager with some tough decisions. Barden said, “API offers some guidance on the decision if we’re asked. But the final decision, of course, is still up to the flight department manager.”

There are other obstacles to selecting good pilots, some of which an aviation department manager may not always be aware of. A good evaluator needs self-awareness of his or her own limitations. “We need better educated people running flight departments,” Besco said. “People with some sort of human performance knowledge who can tell when they are being pushed by the managers above them. They’ll need to know when it is appropriate to push back.”

If a department manager is trying to save money in the hiring process, for example, by cutting $5,000 worth of procurement costs against an annual budget of a few million dollars to run a $20 million aircraft, they’re probably shooting themselves in the foot, according to Besco. Managers with this skill level are probably not the kind of people who should be evaluating pilot applicants anyway.

Gordon added, “Often, the chief pilot’s and candidate’s egos can get in the way of good hiring decisions. Is that chief pilot simply looking for an employee who will follow orders, or a clone who can run the department in the manager’s absence?”

Bill Campbell, SimuFlite’s director of regulatory compliance, added, “One of the big problems corporations face as they search for the best pilots is that corporate hiring tends to happen quickly and crew selection often comes late in the process. It can be tough to put a lot of research behind applicants on short notice.” A good manager must, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “dig the well before they need the water.”

Embry-Riddle’s career services director, Lisa Scott, noted, “One big obstacle we’ve seen in the selection process is corporate flight department managers who simply refuse to consider low-time pilots. It is just not something they are used to doing. But most aeronautical universities have alums in their databases who will often make great employees.”

Gordon countered, “It amazes me how fast younger pilots are finding their way into midsize jets. I’m not sure I approve, not because I want to deny them the opportunity, but because it seems to me that SimuFlite and FlightSafety teach only the airplane, not airmanship. The airmanship part is what a pilot gains from years of experience in progression and application of their knowledge.”

Just as important to the selection process, Waits said, is that “I have a responsibility to bring my management along with the times on aviation issues before I hire someone. If I don’t sit them down and tell them what is happening, it begins to degrade the entire department. Managers must stay sharp and be proactive, not reactive to what is happening all around them. I read everything I can get my hands on about the economy and our industry. I am also careful how I sell the flight department to my boss. I must make sure I don’t overwhelm them with information related to the pilot-selection process. Timing is important. Memos that inform my management I’m interested in their concerns as I hire new people usually work well. Flight department managers need to interact more with other managers.”

Build Your Management Skills
The need to interact and learn from others highlights another often overlooked obstacle in the selection process–a manager’s own skills at evaluating candidates. For those flight department managers who began their careers as pilots and are hungry for more education to hone their managerial skills, NBAA has developed a professional development program  (PDP) leading to certified flight department manager designation.

The courses offer both current and future managers a variety of delivery systems, the most often used of which is the Web. The classes are spread among a variety of universities. Embry-Riddle has roughly 800 online students already enrolled through its institution alone, according to Richey. [For the last 20 months AIN managing editor Chad Trautvetter has been taking and reporting on courses in Embry-Riddle’s PDP syllabus. See the “Professional Development” section at www.ainonline.com for archived articles.–Ed]

When a manager gets to that personal interview stage, insightful answers often evolve from common-sense questions. Besco suggested asking, “What kind of literature do you read, what Web sites do you regularly visit and what do you do to keep abreast of the world? Do you just play golf?”

NBAA’s Blouin added, “In a cohesive department, pilots are often pulled in to cross-fertilize the interview process, so you’ll get a thumbs-up from a number of people. When I call references, I ask if the references know someone else who knows the applicant and often get more information that way. To me, a background check is money well spent.”

Being practical in the pilot-selection process is a necessity in a small flight department, said Gordon. “We start with a simple telephone call and use our intuition. If we like the pilot, we invite them in for an interview and do an even more intuitive personal screening.”

Some experts suggest hiring a pilot in a temporary capacity for a three- to six-month period to see how they work out. In a world where there is a flood of qualified pilot applicants, that might work. But in a tight job market that pilot might just go elsewhere, taking the decision out of the manager’s hands. But a temporary employee will never feel they belong. That could translate into an employee who never actually shows anyone his or her peak performance.

When all is said and done, however, we cannot dismiss a pilot’s experience–or lack of it–in the aircraft they are being considered for as a factor in the selection process. What are the lives of the company’s senior executives riding in the back of the aircraft worth when amortized over the cost of a FlightSafety course, whether it includes a type rating or not?

When the hiring decision comes, a manager must consider the long-term needs of both the department and the company. Just what problem is the new pilot being hired to solve?

“At any one time, there is always someone hiring and someone looking for a job in corporate aviation, regardless of the job market,” said Gordon. “It is an ebb and flow. The key is learning what those signals mean to everyone.”

To Rick, a Falcon 900 pilot in Little Rock, Ark., who did not want his real name used, it means “the marketplace for corporate pilots and where we find them has changed. We may need to begin looking at ab initio training to attract the right talent.”

NBAA’s Blouin added, “Make sure you really feel as if you want the person you’re about to hire around until you retire. Ask yourself if the candidate has good interpersonal skills, the ability to handle conflict, an excellent customer service orientation, adequate resourcefulness and creativity to accomplish difficult tasks and a willingness to be a team member. Can they provide more than just piloting skills to the department?”

When there is a glut of qualified personnel, managers can afford to be choosy, although the process can still be rather complex. “Make sure you choose wisely,” Blouin cautioned. “Hiring mistakes can make your life miserable for a long time.”