Regional needs and advancing technology will shape selection and training programmes.

Paul Phelan/CAIRNS

Not since 1944 has aviation known the sustained need, which now exists, to train pilots rapidly to high levels of competence on advanced aircraft.

Added to the reasons prevalent then, multiple new factors compel airlines towards the ab initio approach to crew training. The relevance of military and general-aviation experience, diminishes with each new advance in airliner-flight deck technology - reduced numbers of military pilots are becoming available - as training costs soar, airlines seek to recover them, over a longer term of pilot employment - two crew flight decks, now largely diminish, the value of on board training, so that cadets must be trained straight through to arrive at first officer status, with relatively low total experience. Carriers in regions of major and rapid growth are increasingly determined to limit pilot employment exclusively to nationals, creating enormous pressure to fast-track selection and training, in many cases from a limited resource base.

Those same factors, now make it even more imperative, that airlines get the selection process right. Qantas is among airlines, which are experiencing a peak in failure rates in command training. That is traced to a period in the mid-1980s, when recruits were in short supply and recruiters were less selective.

Commercial schools which train on contract to airlines note that selection philosophies vary widely, both between cultures and between individual client carriers, some of which may later attribute high student-attrition to weaknesses at the school rather than to poor screening. "We try and get around it by participating in the selection process using standard techniques, but not all countries like that," says one training-school executive.


Other carriers have their own well-developed systems. Singapore International Airlines (SIA) has been involved in ab initio training since the early 1960s. Capt. Len McCully, himself a product of the system which he now oversees, puts the current cost of ab initio training at $110,000 per cadet, and the cost of advanced training at another $160,000, despite SIA's training being conducted completely in-house, including advanced training on the company's Learjet fleet. McCully attributes the low attrition rate on Learjet training - so far resulting in only four losses among 210 trainees - to SIA's rigorous initial selection process, and to early pilot screening during training at its ab initio school in Singapore and at its advanced training site at Perth, Western Australia.

Some attrition, he says, results from situational-awareness problems, but, predominantly, it follows detected weaknesses in multi-tasking capability. The airline continues to refine its selection process according to the accumulated dictates of its training experience. "It is always evolving; it's never stood still," says McCully. Four streams of ab initio pilot training have now evolved:

the totally in-house system typified by SIA, Lufthansa and British Airways;

the contracting of all or part of the process to commercial schools or those operated by other airlines;

recruit-funded training at schools owned by the carrier, creating yet another selection yardstick - the willingness to pay for straight-through training, if the candidate passes the other selection processes;

a surprisingly large body of self-funded student pilots independently training at any one of dozens of schools worldwide. (Some Australian schools report that the bulk of their business is now coming from self-funded Asian students, of whom there are perhaps several hundred training in that country alone).

Most of these "self-starting" trainees will later rely on their capability to pass a selection process after pilot qualification, spiced by the inducement of already-paid-for basic training to commercial-licence standard, which will also help demonstrate a dedication valued by most airlines. "It is clear that people who have a long and abiding ambition to fly for a living make the best employees," comments Emirates' senior general manager of flight operations, Capt Graham Jenkins.

Emirates' selection process, outlined by Jenkins, typifies modern methodologies. Its targeting of leadership and management skills, with emphasis also on the analytical and teamwork abilities demanded in modern cockpits, confirms that changes over time are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, in the main accommodating the changed management skills required by new-technology aircraft.


Selecting the selectors is a vital first step, says Jenkins. "It is essential to pick the right people for the job of assessment, give them clear targets, and train them well for the task. Most managers - and pilot managers are no different - fondly imagine that they can interview and choose people without any training at all. Regrettably, experience shows that the opposite is true, but training will help them in making better selection decisions. The course should also include a clear exposition of the company's training aims and person specification, so that all can share in the same vision of what needs to be done."

For quality control and consistency, the number of individuals involved in selection is limited, so that a small and cohesive group controls all related activities. Jenkins also believes it essential that the user department has a strong say throughout the process. "In my view, it is essential that flight operations controls the selection process, with expert assistance from personnel. The assessment teams should therefore be a mix of pilots and psychologists, with the pilots retaining the final decision on who is acceptable for their department, since they will probably have to work with the results of their selection for the next 20 years or more," he points out. He adds that it is well worth picking "your best role models" as trainee assessors.

Emirates limits its ab initio process, to UAE nationals and tests are adapted to suit cultural and educational differences. Jenkins identifies eight distinct phases. "The advertisement is our first filter. We state clearly and unambiguously our educational, age, height, nationality, and other requirements," he says. Noting that a single advertisement in the UK for sponsored training produced over 10,000 inquiries, Jenkins points out that the process must remain "user friendly" because the selection process may well be the only interface between the majority of candidates and the airline. "Since aspiring pilots are likely to be in that influential top 5% educationally, they are, at the very least, your potential customers. We would like them to think well of us, even if they are rejected," he adds.

All applicants who meet the requirements undergo an English-language test and intelligence tests. Those who pass are invited to attend an assessment centre, where their ability to get on with others is assessed, their basic co-ordination tested through ball games, and their leadership skills examined by means of a structured leadership test. This phase, conducted by the airline's human-resources department, assesses ten major competencies which highlight the adaptation to automated cockpits crew-resource management and teamwork - managing change; coping with detail; adaptability; planning ability; team orientation; communication skills; determination; decision making; initiating; and customer awareness.

The next stage is conducted by a management pilot and a personnel manager, and includes interviews and psychometric tests. The results are fed back to the candidate in a short interview with a company psychologist.

"Among the characteristics probed is the degree of motivation," says Jenkins. Two-crew aircraft mean that, unless there is dramatic expansion, pilots can expect to spend half their working career as co-pilots. Unless they retain strong motivation, this can be difficult for bright young people, who might have been senior managers in other professions by their mid-thirties.

All evidence is objectively assessed at a review meeting; board scores are allocated for each of the categories, and a decision to accept or reject is made.

Next, a comprehensive company medical is a further filter, followed by 5h in a Piper Warrior, to assess the candidate's ability to accept training. The final decision is made on the basis of the grading report, with the successful candidates moving on to ab initio training.


Emirates plans to change the process this year when its own fixed training device is installed. "This will enable us to assess psychomotor ability at the initial stages of selection, where I firmly believe it belongs," says Jenkins. "Assessors are only human and there can be occasions when an otherwise splendid candidate obtains only a mediocre flying-grading report. The tendency is to give the candidate the benefit of the doubt and the result is a training problem."

For commercial schools, the path is sometimes less clear. Also, carriers and training institutions are now beginning to question some of the best-established tenets of pilot training in ways, which could again overturn current selection guidelines. The head of training at the Oxford Air Training School Bruce Latton says that it is time for some of these to be re-examined by airlines, and at regulatory level.

Similarly, British Airways' senior manager of training, Capt Bob Salisbury, questions as possibly wasteful the system of progression from basic training in light singles, through a series of increasingly advanced types, unlearning and re-learning at each level: "For modern heavy-jet-transport training, should we be trading in these old concepts and moving to a totally new product designed to totally new requirements?

Salisbury continues: "For the sceptics who believe that you must fly a light aircraft first, I would suggest you watch a modern full-flight simulator being flown by a young man or woman with no previous experience, but with good instruction. They have known no other environment, so the simulator is the one they adapt to - and they adapt quickly and fly it well."

Source: Flight International