Airline Aspirations

What it takes to make it

March 1, 2003

Daily news reports of airline economic woes do little to dim the dreams of many who yearn to fly airliners.

The allure of whisking hundreds of people to exotic destinations in some of the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world is a powerful elixir in the minds of many young pilots. Of course, airline flying is not as glamorous as it once was. Just ask the guy in the cutoffs and tank top in the seat next to you. But it still promises good pay, time off, travel benefits, and the best view of any office window. Besides, you get paid to do what you love to do.

But the path to the right seat of an airliner is not as simple as it used to be. Traditionally, airline jobs went to those who came from the military. Today, most airline new hires were trained in the civilian ranks and their backgrounds vary widely. In my new-hire class at the regional airline I fly for, the backgrounds ranged from military helicopter pilots to bald-faced boys fresh out of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with only 600 hours' total time. At the time, I wondered how such a diverse batch of pilots could end up in the same room together. But as I got to know my classmates, I could see just how well the hiring process works.

Airline hiring isn't some kind of science. Typically, line pilots as well as a representative of the airline's personnel department interview prospective candidates. Who better than line pilots to determine if a person fits into that particular company's operation? In addition to the interview, some airlines employ tests that pry into your psyche to find desirable characteristics of prospective new hires. It's no secret that modern airline pilots are managers as much as they are pilots. Nowadays, management skills are just as important as flight time and experience. As a captain you are the manager of a team, and good management skills are considered paramount.

A military background is still a very 0ood thing to have on a résumé. It demonstrates that you are disciplined, capable of making commitments and sacrifices, and familiar with rigorous training — all of which are traits that make good airline pilots. For civilian folk, a professional flying job in multiengine airplanes is as good as gold. Airlines want to see that you are flying in a complex aircraft in the IFR environment on a day-to-day basis. Why? Because that's exactly what you're going to be doing for them.

Another important consideration is commitment. A 1,000-hour applicant with a résumé that highlights a career completely dedicated to flying for the airlines is likely to be just as well regarded as the applicant who has thousands of hours, a type rating or two, but has bounced between flying jobs and nonaviation desk jobs. Who's to know if the high-time guy wants to bail out of aviation again? That's one reason why students from aviation schools have an advantage when it comes to landing airline jobs.

At the interview, you can expect to be grilled on a few technical questions and questions about your flying background. Honesty is key. There's no sense in making up "and there I was" stories to impress the interviewers. Boning up on FAA written test questions and Aeronautical Information Manual material is mandatory. Nothing in any book you've crossed in your career is considered unfair to ask. If you don't know the answer it certainly helps to know where you can find the answer. Hint: Bring your current copy of the FAR/AIM.

In a two-on-two interview, it's common for interviewers to ask a question of one candidate and later ask the other if he or she agrees with the answer. Here's where you play your crew resource management cards. If your interview partner didn't completely answer a question or went off on the wrong tangent, don't embarrass him or her in front of the interviewers to make yourself look better. Instead, say something like, "Joe's answer was partially correct, but I can add to it by saying." Interviewers want to hear a correct answer but they don't want to see your ego stampede your partner's. That kind of behavior in the cockpit will lead others to think you're a know-it-all tyrant.

A good memory is an obvious advantage for the technical questions, but it's also key to recalling the many flights you've taken in your career. "Tell me about a flight in which you didn't land at your intended destination" or "Tell 'e about a flight in which you learned an important lesson" are common questions. Interviewers are attempting to gauge your decision-making skills as well as your ability to put aside your ego and talk about stumbling blocks. Interviewers also want to see the ingredients of a future captain. It doesn't do an airline much good to hire career first officers. An airline wants men and women who can blossom into captains. Candidates must be multitaskers who can command an aircraft safely and efficiently within the airline's operating specifications while effectively managing a crew without coming across as a dictator. At times, this can be a difficult task, but being cool under pressure is another mandatory trait.

Finally, personality weighs heavily in getting hired at an airline. Most airlines pair up cockpit crewmembers for an entire month. Spending 80 hours in small quarters with someone you don't like can get old and at worst could lead to a conflict in the cockpit. Interviewers are constantly asking themselves, "Can I spend a month in the cockpit with this individual?" You could have a stellar background and ace all of the technical questions, but if you come across as cocky, fake, or simply a bore to converse with, your chances of getting hired are greatly reduced. Similarly, body language can send the wrong message. Leaning back in your chair, slouching, or chewing gum is distracting and can lead interviewers to believe that you're not taking the event very seriously.

Most airline interviews place applicants in some type of a simulator to verify piloting skills. At some airlines, you could be in a full-motion Boeing simulator while at others it's a desktop Frasca. Making it to the simulator portion of the interview is a good sign that you have successfully passed the preceding portions of the process. Now it's just time to prove that you can fly instruments and handle a surprise or two.

Like an FAA checkride, the simulator portion of the interview is a nerve-wracking affair. You have one or more people analyzing your every move and it's extremely hard to quell your desire to self-analyze your flying. It's tough, but if you can forget where you are and fly the airplane as you've always done, you'll do fine. At one interview, I got fixated on nailing my climb speed and, for the second time in 2,000 hours of flying mostly complex airplanes, I forgot to raise the landing gear. The simulatoR operator gave me a chance to figure it out. "Uh, Pete, do you fly fixed-gear airplanes a lot?"

"Ugh." I sheepishly reached down and flipped the switch to the Up position. I thought I had put a nail in my own coffin. That woke me out of my fixated daze and the rest of the sim session went well. In the end, I was hired anyway.

Typically, with the invitation for an interview comes an application that must be filled out for you to bring on the big day. Filling out the paperwork is a daunting task but is yet another step in analyzing your attention to detail. Arriving with an incomplete application is an easily avoidable mistake. You want to save your mulligan for the actual interview.

Other incidentals also can sway the interviewers' hiring decision. From the moment you step on the grounds of the property, you have to be on your best behavior. I've heard of people not getting jobs because they copped an attitude with the receptionist at the front door. Another was overheard telling fellow applicants what to expect on the sim ride. Still another got the boot after parking in a handicap parking space in front of the headquarters building. Aviation is a small business and word gets around — fast.

After it's all over, it may be a day or several weeks before you hear anything about your interview. It's also very likely that the news won't be good. Rarely does anybody tell you what went wrong. You simply have to suck it up and keep at it. I interviewed with several regional airlines before I was hired. With some I knew exactly what I did wrong, while with others I had no clue. One didn't like my driving record, which had half a dozen speeding tickets in as many years. Another probably didn't enjoy the creative way in which I entered a hold during the sim evaluation. Rejection is just part of the game and is commonplace when interviewing at airlines. With perseverance, the job will come and you'll be on your way. And when you slide into your chair in your new-hire class, you'll meet a bunch of good people as I did. (See " Heading to the Big Game?" September 2002 Pilot.)

Believe it or not, getting hired is the easy part. Training takes lots of dedication, time, and studying to keep up with the accelerated courses. That's where you prove that the airline made a good decision in hiring you.

Peter A. Bedell of Germantown, Maryland, is a captain for a regional airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172 and Beechcraft Baron.