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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 0: The interview

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In Part 1 of this series, I went over my qualifications and gave some suggestions of things to consider when choosing an airline to apply at. This time, I'll get into more detail about what the interview itself was like. And, no, there will be no "dress nicely" or "smile and make eye contact" tips in this post to waste your time.

I mentioned before that a resource I wish I would have known about before my interview is the excellent overview book The Turbine Pilot's Flight Manual by Greg Brown & Mark Holt. (If you prefer an eBook, there's a paper copy bundled with the e-formatted version here.) It is a gentle introduction to the world of the bigger aircraft you'll be interviewing to fly, and it will make your life easier in ground school once you get hired. This book is definitely worth the money, and I'm not just saying that because if you purchase it with one of the links above or the picture below, Keyboard & Rudder gets a small commission. Seriously, if you haven't bought it yet, do it now and thank me later!

There are tons of sites covering airline job interview questions. Some airlines even post their own list of topics you might be asked about during your interview. For example, here's a "helpful" pilot study guide from Endeavor (PDF). The reason I put "helpful" in scare quotes is because when you look at it, it almost boils down to "just study everything."

However, there is an easy way to get way more specific information on what to concentrate on: interview gouges. If you search "[airline name] interview gouge", you'll find not just a vague list of topics, but specific questions people were asked in that specific interview. Not only that, you'll also get other useful information about how that airline structures its interview day, how many people you'll talk to, etc.

No matter which airline you're interviewing for, your day will look something like this:

  • Welcome and company background presentation
  • Written test(s)
  • Human resources interview
  • Technical interview with one or more current company pilots
  • Sim evaluation


 Welcome and background presentation

Every company does this. The only difference from company to company is how long they spend talking about themselves. Your only requirement here is to pay attention, smile, and nod occasionally without nodding off.

Written test(s)

Every company also has one or more written tests. You will definitely get one that has several dozen questions either straight from the ATP written test bank or extremely similar to the ATP written. Although it hadn't been that long since I took my ATP written, I brushed up for this hurdle by re-reading the Gleim ATP written test prep.

Some airlines administer other tests, usually ones that measure personality or general intelligence (like the Wonderlic). You can't really study for these, and you're not expected to, since they're not exactly pass/fail exams. The Wonderlic is the same test that NFL prospects take, and there are a lot of places you can practice for it, but don't spend a lot of time on it. Get a feel for the flow of the test and get back to studying the important things, like your ATP or instrument questions. After all, if you bomb the technical written portion, your day is going to be a short one no matter how well you did on the non-technical one(s).

Human resources interview

This isn't all that different from any HR interview you'd have for any job anywhere. The questions are general and pertain to your personal background and history. Chances are you're going to be only with the HR specialist, who probably doesn't know much about aviation besides what they'll need to know to make sure you're qualified. (Don't take that as a given, however, because many of them are very sharp people.) That means you're going to get generic TMAAT ("Tell me about a time...") questions, why you chose this company, what are your career goals, etc. at this point in the interview.

Some companies use this as another screening point to cut the field down before proceeding to the technical interview. If you don't get chosen to proceed to the technical portion, that doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with you. You may have just had the bad luck of interviewing on a day when there are 30 applicants and only 8 spots, in which case HR will eliminate half of the people on the spot and the next interviewer will eliminate half of the ones who made it through to them. Or you may have just drawn the short straw that day and the next lowest person compared to you had three times as many hours as you do and a fistful of type ratings. No matter what happens, use it as an opportunity to hone your interviewing skills.

Technical interview

You may get this next, or you may do the sim eval first. In many places the order it takes place just happens to be luck, as the schedule will have some people in the sim while others interview. Once you've made it past the first two hurdles, the interview starts becoming more fun, because now you have a chance to sit down with someone who already flies for that airline and talk flying. As a pilot, isn't that what you love to talk about most anyway?

One of the things you'll find the most help when preparing for this part is a humble instrument guide. Dust off your old instrument oral exam guide and the FAA's Instrument Procedures Handbook.

Why the instrument stuff? Because that's what 80% or more of your technical questions will be about. Once you start flying in the airlines, all your flying is "in the system". Much of it will be into busy airports like EWR, ORD, ATL, etc. and in conditions you might not have experienced before. Being sharp on instrument procedures will help you the first time it's 300 overcast at Newark and New York Approach is so busy you can't even check in and they just spit out at you "Foobar4762decendandmaintain3000toTeterboroflyheading170tointerceptthe22Llocalizer190orbettertoGIMEE." Yeah, that's going to happen, believe me, and maybe 10 minutes after you got out of a "hold as published over COATE" that was sprung on you 90 seconds before you made it to COATE intersection. (Seriously, that is a real example from what happened to me my second week on the job.) Flying into New York is fun, but your interviewer is there to make sure you've got what it takes first, or at least enough knowledge to figure it out on the fly.

Since you're going to the wayback machine and reminiscing about the good ol' instrument rating days, you'll also find that the list of tips I wrote for acing an oral examination also apply quite well here. After all, the technical interview is basically an oral exam, with the difference being passing one gives you a signed new certificate and the other gives you a signed new offer letter. The principles of both are almost identical.

My technical interview consisted in large part of flying a short flight along a Jeppesen low-altitude en route chart. I point out that it was a Jeppesen because if you're used to government charts, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the Jepp symbology, since that's what the airlines use.

Although it was made a little more difficult by me being so much more used to government charts, a lot of the questions were more about general instrument navigational skills and procedures. For example, "How many ways can you identify this intersection?" "What does this racetrack mean?" "How would you enter this hold?" "What do you have to do when you enter it?" "Here's the METAR. Do you have the minimums you need to shoot an approach?" "Will you have them three hours from now according to this TAF?" "If you don't, how far past the final approach fix can you go to attempt the approach?" As you can see, most of these are general knowledge and not Jeppesen specific, and almost all of it comes from the instrument rating.

While you won't be asked questions about this next thing, your interviewer is also silently evaluating whether you're the kind of person they'd want to be sitting next to in a cockpit for several hours. Given the choice between a candidate with fair skills and a fun personality versus one with great skills and an overbearing personality, the "lesser" skilled one will get the job 9 times out of 10. That's because technical skills can be trained and polished, whereas personality can't.

Of all the questions I was asked, by far the hardest one was, "What will make you a good captain?" Even though you're interviewing for a spot as a First Officer, airlines don't want to spend tens of thousands of dollars training someone who would be a bad fit come upgrade time. I knew this company would be a good fit when I thought for a bit about his question and admitted, "I can't think of a way to put it without sounding arrogant," and he replied, "That's OK; we're all pilots here," and we all had a good laugh.

Sim Eval

Most places also have you perform a short ride in a simulator. It may be a large, expensive one that is also used (or used to be) in their training department or it may be a small desktop sim. Either way, it's not usually a company's way of abusing you; its purpose is mainly to separate those who are great at memorizing canned interview answers but can't fly from those who are great at memorizing canned interview answers and can fly.

Relax and enjoy the flight. Your evaluator understands that you're most likely totally unfamiliar with the equipment you're being asked to fly. They're there to get a general feel for your ability, not to give you an IPC. Just follow their instructions and have fun, because a large part of it is their way of finding out simply whether you can follow instructions. Those who can will usually do well in training, after all.


Prepare to be there all day, and possibly for more than one day. A short airline interview still consumes about four hours, and 8-12 hours is common. After all that, you may get the offer you came for right away! However, if you don't, don't despair. If you've been there 12 hours, then so have the interviewers, and they may simply not have the energy left to put their heads together and review everyone that day. An airline hire is a five-figure investment by the company, and it's a decision they may not want to make without rest.

Almost all airlines have a policy of notifying you within two weeks either way. If you don't get it, remember what I wrote above and don't take it personally. There are many factors that are totally out of your control that may have played a part. Debrief yourself about your own interview by reviewing what you think went well and where you could have done better. Just as with anything else in life, keep what worked and work on what didn't.

If you got your offer, congratulations! Now you're in for even more long days ahead, and come sim training you'll be wishing for something as easy as an all-day interview! Get ready to spend some quality hours at home with a pre-class study packet and some cockpit diagrams:

What my dining room table looked like for weeks.

And now it's on to the post-offer stage!

See the series index here.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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