Airline-sponsored or self-financing pilot trainees can now receive high-quality aptitude testing.

Harry Hopkins/LONDON

AIRLINES ARE GENERALLY judged on the skills of their crews, and passengers usually remember a flight by the standard of service from the cabin crew and the smoothness of the landing.

Airlines use selection procedures to screen out from the beginning those pilots, or candidates for training, who are unlikely to succeed. Young would-be pilots, seriously considering investing large sums of money in their own training to commercial-pilot-licence standard, can now assess their aptitude for that success before they begin training.

With applicants jostling to enter every profession, rigorous selection makes sense as a filter, as well as a cost-saver. Professional bodies and institutes of higher education look to reputation and the need to maintain high standards, while the airlines monitor the cost of training, where failures occurring late in a pilot's course can be particularly expensive.


Specialist task

Large businesses often contract out selection and training to commercial specialists - and pilot selection is definitely a specialist task. The objective is to test an individual's aptitude for the control of an aircraft and for the management of the whole flying/navigating task. "Aircrew aptitude is the innate potential to develop high-performance skills, but the Holy Grail is the elusive quality of capacity," says an introduction to the Royal Air Force's aptitude-testing scheme, part of its selection process.

The RAF now markets its pilot-aptitude-testing system, selecting tests from among the two dozen used to vet various personnel. These have proved reliable, and far more cost-effective, than grading on an aircraft or simulator. At the RAF Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at Cranwell, south of Lincoln, Sqn Ldr Dick Woodhead reveals the modern form of the basic written and mechanical tests familiar to RAF pilots selected in much earlier years.

Self-financing pilots started going through the course in November 1995, and so, according to Woodhead, it is too early to say whether those so far assessed to be suitable for pilot training are actually achieving their goals. Airline interest has been slow, but then Cranwell has deliberately held back on promoting its course. British Airways runs its own course, based on Cranwell methods; while Qantas and Malaysia Airlines have, says Woodhead, "-bought a licence to use the software themselves".


Long pedigree

The RAF Directorate of Recruiting and Selection at Cranwell is housed in new, purpose-built, offices. Its red-brick facade is anonymous, apart from a huge golden eagle over the entrance which welcomes candidates imposingly.

The first aptitude tests, originally devised by Cambridge University psychologists, reduced Second World War training fall-out by 50%. Carefully controlled evolution, continuity and 50 years of feedback have sustained the centre's reputation. A continuing database of training records has constantly validated these tests, which do not assess abilities specific to any machine or task. Only some non-pilot tests assess attained, rather than innate, abilities.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the full use of computer-based aptitude testing. All pilots now take five tests and, by faithfully adapting the pencil-and-paper tests and mechanical exercises, continuity has been maintained. Since the validation of any new tests cannot usually be undertaken with fewer than 200 samples, their evolution is tightly controlled. New ground was broken in 1993, however, when digit-recall and vigilance were added to existing tests. These benefit particularly from computer control and screen displays.

Space and staff have been reduced; a team of three can run two full sessions a day. A host SUN computer boasts a UNIX operating system producing real-time graphics and the RAF-prepared software, written in "C" language, was updated in 1995, to improve development capability. As in computer-based training, scoring, final marking and recording is automatic.

Candidates, for the various RAF branches, can spend up to 5h in the test room, with test sequences usually broken hourly. A raised dais, with two master-control suites for invigilators, overlooks 40 identical test-booths, soundproofed with blue-carpeted panels. Each has a keyboard, joystick and pressure-sensing rudder pedals. Screens are set to identical colour and illumination values.

Predicted performance correlates best with training results in the elementary and basic units, where tasks and equipment are less variable than at the advanced and operational units.


Wide usage

This one centre is attended by all UK service users: RAF personnel, those from other service arms and police-aviation pilots/observers - as well as 500 or so holders of RAF flying scholarships, each of 20 flying hours, offered each year. The total test throughput in 1995 was 4,633 prospective pilots - 582 of them non-military, including about 400 police students.

The RAF also offers use of the centre for aspiring commercial pilots, who attend under the supervision of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN), whose Education and Training Committee developed a tailored-selection procedure with the RAF. The tests are widely used outside the UK, and two more national air forces have been licensed to use the RAF system.

Psytech, of Bromley, Kent, UK, as agent for overseas sales, adapts the software for personal computers. It serves other government departments, and prepares similar aptitude tests for volunteers to the University Air Squadrons, a prime focus for RAF recruitment. Each candidate has a particular education, training and experience. It was concluded that candidates should be tested "as presented" without weighting. The RAF used to give a weighting to the scores of those with previous flying experience, but this was difficult to quantify or justify.

Airline demand for pilots is highly cyclic, putting a strain both on selection systems and on civilian flying schools' capacity for ab initio training. More direct-entry pilots may be considered, but, with their wider span of ability, many will fail. British Airways, over decades of applying careful ab initio selection procedures, has found that a pilot's aptitude and early training path has considerable influence on later standards (Flight International, 7-13 February, P36)

Among experienced applicants, some "self-improvers", unfiltered by military or airline aptitude testing, will not make the grade - despite the cost. The new GAPAN-managed selections for aptitude testing at Cranwell are directed largely at avoiding such disappointments.

The RAF's testing, still impressive to see, has a pedigree and high standing among other air forces and commercial outlets. Would-be pilots are now able to find out whether they are made of the "right stuff".



Source: Flight International