Tyranny of Numbers
Got to have those hours
Question: When does an airline open its interview process to outsiders, revealing the secrets of the written, computer, and simulator tests? Answer: when it has nothing to hide and, in fact, has one of the best hiring and training programs in the country. Piedmont Airlines, a regional carrier with headquarters in Salisbury, Maryland, and one of four independently operated US Airways regional airlines, invited AOPA Pilot to observe its airline interview process. Director of Training Rei Torres said that FAA officials frequently use the company's program as a model of high-quality hiring and training practices.
Thinking that it might not look believable to have a writer in his 50s taking the test, Eric Granrud, a flight instructor from Virginia, was invited by AOPA Pilot to be the guinea pig for a day-long battery of tests, even though he lacked the hours to be called in by the airline for a real interview. Granrud took it seriously, since he hopes one day to be an applicant. Additionally, as a flight instructor at AvEd in Leesburg, he helps real applicants to practice in the school's Frasca 142 simulator prior to their interviews.
There is always a great mystery and not a little dread about the airline interview. Before the big day, Granrud invited me to try what was said to be the real United Airlines simulator test, but we would use AvEd's Frasca 142. A friend of his had smuggled out a diagram of the test I would fly (see how quickly the process becomes mysterious?).
It was a six-segment simulator flight. The first leg was to fly at 160 knots using autothrottle — which the Frasca does not have — and to track a 180-degree radial to a VOR and then track the 120-degree radial outbound. (Autothrottles adjust automatically to maintain a set airspeed, whether it be for takeoff, a go-around, maximum cruise, or a climb.)The second segment, still in autothrottle, was to follow the 120-degree radial to an intersection; hold there, using 3-mile legs; and then follow radar vectors out of the hold while starting a descent from 6,000 feet to 4,000 feet at 1,000 feet per minute.
After each segment the applicant takes a break and relaxes. The third segment is to fly manual throttle at 160 kts, descend to 2,000 feet, and receive a vector to join the localizer. Segment four is back on autothrottle, and the ILS is followed down to 300 feet. The next segment starts at 160 kts, but with the aircraft outside the outer marker. The applicant is to call for approach flaps and speed, which is 145 kts. Who is the applicant talking to? An imaginary copilot, of course, but during the test it is the airline examiner. Segment five is a repeat of four, but the ILS is followed to 180 feet. Finally, on segment six, the applicant is given an emergency — an engine fire, to be exact. The applicant turns to the copilot and says, "You take care of the emergency. I'll fly the airplane." And that's it, according to the smuggled notes. United could not be contacted for confirmation.
The average instrument-rated general aviation pilot might logically expect to do reasonably well on such a test, but the experience in Salisbury proved that it isn't quite so simple.
Our day at US Airways Express started with a personnel briefing by Employment Representative Cathy Alexander. A highlight of the meeting is learning that US Airways Express — this particular one, at least — pays for the interview testing and for initial training to fly the de Havilland DHC-8 (Dash 8). (There are other US Airways Express carriers out there that require their applicants to pay $9,225 for initial training.)
Another highlight includes the salary and benefits. Granrud learned that he was competing for a starting spot at just over $22,000 a year, but that he would get free travel for himself and his family to anywhere US Airways and its affiliates fly. The airline pays a pilot $21.85 an hour; pilots work at least 72 hours a month, but most work 85 to 95 hours a month. Granrud asked whether his résumé, which he prepared by using a readily available résumé software program, was to Alexander's liking. She said that it was fine and that she likes the résumé to be as simple as possible, set in 10- or 12-point type, and with the applicant's flight hours listed at the top. The most important categories are total time, turbine time, multiengine time, and actual instrument time.
A written test on instrument flying practices and regulations followed the personnel briefing. Applicants had better be prepared to take the equivalent of the FAA instrument flight instructor written exam. Names of airports, approaches, and navaids on the FAA test had been changed to reflect those actually used by the carrier, but otherwise the test was similar.
The day's events occur in an exact sequence. Fail at any point and it is time to go home. In this case, passing the instrument test meant Granrud was cleared for the drug test at a local laboratory. Yes, some pilot applicants fail the drug test, but the total is less than 1 percent, US Airways officials say. The results are given by the lab directly to the applicant, and if the applicant was on medication or had eaten food (such as bread with unwashed poppy seeds on it) that may have caused a test failure, the results can be appealed.
After the drug test (and before the results are known) comes an initial interview with Director of Flying Captain John Buchanan. Buchanan receives from personnel a package of papers with the applicant's résumé on top and draws his questions from that information. He also provides information about such important topics as scheduling, uniforms, and company procedures and practices. Pilots are based in Salisbury; Norfolk, Virginia; Charlotte, North Carolina; New Bern, North Carolina; Tampa; and Jacksonville, Florida. He expects to need 20 to 25 new pilots in 1997, and there is a training class at a simulator center in Charlotte every other month. There was also some bad news — well, lots of bad news, actually.
First, Buchanan said, just to be called for an interview takes 2,000 hours of flight experience, including 500 hours multiengine and/or turbine time, with 125 hours of flight in actual instrument conditions. Additionally, the company prefers applicants who have passed the ATP written and are currently flying Part 121 or 135 operations, another company official said.
Even if low-timers have the minimum hours, they still face a tyranny of numbers. There is an ample supply of pilots jumping from existing regional airline jobs to US Airways Express, and the experience of the average applicant is currently between 3,600 and 3,800 hours, with 1,000 hours of turbine time. Intensifying the competition for low-timers like Granrud is the fact that Buchanan and Torres interview 50 applicants for every 10 hired. Additionally, about 90 percent have an ATP certificate before they arrive.
Is that fair? Why demand so many hours? Because low-time pilots, even good ones, take longer to train than high-time pilots. Additional training costs the airline additional money and affects the bottom line. It's an economics thing; welcome to the real world.
Following the initial interview, a decision is made. Is the applicant satisfactory? Only if the answer is "yes" does the simulator ride began. Explained ahead of time by Torres, it sounded a little like the United test: intercept a VOR, hold, and do an ILS. But it was actually a demonstration of crew resource management (CRM).
If CRM sounds like an obscure term to you and you consider yourself an airline prospect, get very familiar with it. Do whatever it takes to get experience in airline-style crew coordination.
Once Granrud was in the simulator, Torres went over detailed instructions in just how a captain uses the pilot not flying to lighten the workload. The only thing the pilot flying should do is fly the airplane. This was going to be much more than an ILS. Could Granrud remember it all?
Granrud had a secret: He had all but memorized the approach plate for Salisbury, the one actually used on the test. When it came time to brief the approach, he could spout an impressive torrent of information.
"I want to be able to read your thinking process," Torres told him. The simulator ride began with a warmup consisting of assigned headings, steep turns, 360-degree turns, and altitude changes. Granrud scored points when he asked the entry speed for a steep turn before performing it and when he asked the second-in-command, Torres, for the descent checklist before descending. There were occasional questions, such as "What radial are you on?" Granrud answered but was told that he could determine the radial more quickly by looking at the simulator's RMI. "It's talking to you," Torres said.
Finally he was assigned a hold, and up came Granrud's thumb, a memory aid to divide the heading indicator into sectors — one for direct entry, one for teardrop, and another for parallel. It worked. Continually stressing CRM, Torres wanted to know that Granrud was always in charge of the flight and once asked, "Are you asking me or telling me?"
Then came the ILS, during which Torres asked a number of questions about the weather. Granrud's job was to know when he had minimums for the approach. "The weather is 100 and a half. Can you shoot the approach? Now it's 1 mile and 200. What about now?" Halfway through the simulator test, and unseen by Granrud, Torres turned and gave a thumbs up to others in the room. Granrud was doing great. In fact, two things were apparent when the ride was over; he had gotten one of the highest scores Torres gives, and Granrud's back was completely soaked with sweat. Even though this was only a demonstration for this article, he was invited to leave an application and to update it from time to time as his hours increase in the years ahead.
Despite the "nice job" comments, Granrud still faced a no-holds-barred critique. He has good flying skills, Granrud was told, but he must read the body language of the second-in-command. (CRM again). Never ask the second-in-command to do something without noticing whether he is already busy. Also, there was "too much chatter." Cut the conversation to essential communication. Ask the pilot-not-flying to do more. Delegate more, including setting the heading bug. Don't forget that the ceiling is not published — "200" feet means the height of the weather above the touchdown zone. Visibility is the controlling factor, Torres reminded him. Granrud noted later that all his prior instrument training, and all the training he gives, is single-pilot IFR. But when it was all said, Torres concluded that Granrud had done an "outstanding" job. "I would recommend you with high rates," he said.
If the applicant is successful with the simulator ride, he takes the computer-based personality test. The Chinese should consider substituting it for their famous water torture. While it is a personality test of sorts, it secretly tests the applicant's ability to handle emergencies. It starts off simply enough. "Here are numbers 1 to 9," the computer screen reads. "One of them is missing. Which one?" But it quickly gets out of control. A tic-tac-toe grid appears, and now the numbers are flashing on and off, out of sequence, only once per number. Now, remember them all — which of the numbers was missing? You need to know that to get to the next portion of the question, which requires that the exact position of each number be recalled. Was the 9 in the bottom of the middle row? Or was it the upper right hand corner? C'mon, think! Maybe 9 was the number that was missing. The test is sent off for grading and evaluation, at a cost to the airline of more than $100. The day was over.
As noted, unsuccessful applicants can be asked to leave at any point during the process. One applicant never made it to the personnel briefing, since he arrived in a tank top, cutoff jeans, and sandals. The only question he was asked was, "Do you have tickets home?"
Granrud had taken the torture, and by the end of the process he admitted to a first-class headache. His experience was relayed to Sylvia J. Otypka, a United Airlines 747 first officer, who was asked to comment and provide tips. She has been a pilot for 21 years, working for United since 1985, with type ratings in the Boeing 757/767 and 747-400. She is the author of Flying the Big Birds: On Becoming an Airline Pilot (see "Pilot Briefing," April Pilot). Otypka had these observations:
"The personality tests are very common in all the airlines. There is really no way to study much for them. There are some resources available to help, though," Otypka said. Those resources include the Airline Pilot Testing Guide by Clark St. John, which provides sample tests to help prepare for a variety of airline aptitude, personality, and stress tests. AIR Inc. (800/247-2777 or 770/996-5424) in Atlanta also offers a book called Airline Test Kit, which tells you which airline gives what tests and how to prepare; it lists several of the tests and includes sample questions from airline interviews.
"CRM is fairly new to this industry, having started in the early 1980s," Otypka said. "It wasn't around when I was hired." The FAA has a CRM handbook available for prospective interviewees. AIR Inc. offers a book called CRM Intro/Refresher and also offers a career workshop on CRM at seminars. "Although AIR Inc. may seem costly, you can't beat the plethora of products and services they offer," Otypka said. A basic pilot membership is $198. However, AOPA members get a 10-percent discount on membership and most products and services.
As for answering questions, both in the simulator and the initial interview, Otypka advises that applicants answer the question completely but not offer anything more "or you could hang yourself." That sounds easier than it really is. "When everything is going smoothly," she said, "it is difficult for the ego to keep quiet and not add additional information to impress the examiner. But if you slip up and say something that is incorrect, it may open up a can of worms. Any erroneous information is more profoundly remembered than any extra correct information. There is a fine line between answering a question thoroughly and giving superfluous information. Remember, no extra credit is given."
She also offered advice for those of us of greater age ... er, experience. "Your age makes no difference. In fact, United has been hiring pilots well into their 50s. Want to start a new career?
"Eric's experience sounds similar to mine back in the early 1980s. Most of the airlines had pilots on furlough, and many were working at commuters. Naturally, flight time qualifications went up. Many commuters wanted 3,000 hours of total time, some would settle for 2,500, and a few would hire with only 2,000 hours. I had a mere 1,700 hours, but I applied to them all. Surprisingly, one hired me. Why? Because I ended up establishing some great rapport with the chief pilot and I had other good qualifications that counted in my favor. I had gotten my ATP at the minimum time of 1,500 hours, which showed him that I was serious. My records reflected that I stuck with aviation no matter what. I also had an A&P license and had been an air traffic controller. They hired me at a lower salary until I met the flight time requirements," she said.
Don't be discouraged if you lack the hours, she advises. In 1979 Otypka had 350 hours of flight time. United Airlines was hiring and, for the first time, women were being employed. She barely met the minimum requirements and didn't apply because "I lacked the confidence that they would want me." They did hire a few people with minimum time, however, and she missed out on a great opportunity, having to wait six years before it came around again.