Pilot Selection and its role in the future of aviation

Pilot Selection through History

Pilots at the dawn of aerial combat were traditionally trained horsemen; selected because at the time, they had the most practical experience for this job.

Until the last twenty years Airline pilots were traditionally ex-military pilots who had completed their service and settled to complete their career in Commercial Aviation. (Bent, 2010)

With the Aviation industry experiencing continued growth in modern times, the need for pilots is at an all time high, but with the military breed of Airline pilots is reaching retirement.

Today there are many Pilot Training Organisations worldwide which train cadet pilots. These pilots on completion of their training have considerably less experience than the ex-military breed of pilots and this means that the average experience on flight decks is decreasing.

With introduction of Low Cost Airlines, the perception of the glamour which once surrounded the Piloting trade has vanished, primarily because the salary for pilots has been markedly decreased.(Bent, 2010)
Along with the rising cost of training in the aviation sector, the initial interest in becoming a pilot has also diminished.

Pilot Selection Processes

As shown in the Functional Model of a Safety Management System (Perezgonzalez, 2005), Selection, along with training is used to manage expertise or knowledge that new operatives (this case being the pilots) in the system have.

Through the Selection Process model (Perezgonzalez, 2005) we can see that the expertise of newly selected pilots will also influenced by the existing personnels expertise. However, with the retirement of the Ex-Military Pilots who formed a large percentage of all Commercial Pilots, the expertise in some aspects of modern pilots is shrinking. Therefore, the overall expertise levels of pilots worldwide will be decreasing.

Why did ex-military pilots make good commercial pilots?

-Because pilot selections for Military applications are typically very stringent, so only the people best suited to become pilots are trained and,
-Military pilot training explores the limits of the aircrafts performance with a large emphasis on stalling, spinning, aerobatics are core elements gave better flying abilities. ie. training quality is increased

The Royal New Zealand Airforce (RNZAF) requires applicants who wish to train as aircrew to sit seven different aptitude tests including mathematics and science knowledge, psychometric testing, practical leadership testing and personality testing.

Relating this back to the previous points about expertise, the RNZAF chooses to use a long and probably costly selection process as it helps manage the expertise and skills the that new pilots have. This ensures that these candidates will be able to use the training given and will become good pilots. The cost of the selection process is then justified because by selecting the most suitable individuals costs will be saved in training.

The standards required to pass selection has always been high and this to an large extent allows for fairly predictable level of expertise among new pilots. Which makes training much easier and will further reduces costs justifying the selection process.

Pilot Training Organisations, on the other hand must rely on paying students and in order to generate a profit. Therefore they must attract a minimum number of students per intake to break even. If there are not enough students applying that the selection process shows to have the required attributes to be a pilot, some kind of compromise must be reached. This means consistent standards of expertise at the intake level cannot be guaranteed and therefore the level of expertise among the candidates will be much harder to predict.
As is opposite in the case of the Air Force, this may increase training costs, however for the most part, this will be of little concern to the Training Organisation as the financial cost will be met by the either the student or their sponsor. The cost to the organisation may be in terms of time or the requirement to provide extra resources to help a struggling student. Surveys have shown that the quality of training is not considered as an important challenge in the short term or long term to organisations as the price of fuel or weak demand (CAPA, 2009)

In order to effectively utilise the available resources, Pilot Training Organisations will likely have a tight schedule for the trainees in order to keep their student turnover up. We can assume that time pressure will negatively affect training quality, however, we cannot say by how much. We can say that Selection is not a one stop solution, a person with all the abilities that will make a good pilot, will not be a good pilot unless given the time and resources (training). This is where Organisational Culture or in the Functional Model of a Safety Management System the managers commitment will have an effect.

So does stricter Selection mean more Safety?

Imperical research suggests that there is little correlation between selection and safety and efficiency. However, common sense tells us that this cannot be true, otherwise selection would not be such a common process in the Aviation industry.

In the ideal world research would show a link between the two, although in the real world, research cannot find a comprehensive link. This may be because there is a large distance in the Safety Management System (SMS) between selection and the output of safety. In the real world the links between each component of the SMS do not translate with 100 percent efficiency therefore the safety gains provided by selection are progressively lost by the output stage of the system.

Meeting the needs of a Growing Industry

As mentioned earlier, the older generation of pilots is reaching retirement, however the current global economic situation has resulted in a stagnation in pilot turnover. Given the current growth rates of the aviation industry there will come a time where a large number of new pilots are required, but due to the rising costs of training and loss of the glamour around the career of piloting there may not be the necessary number of candidates to fill these positions.

Aviation is a cut throat business, with small profit margins compared to many other industries. As competition increases due to industry growth, managers will look to reduce costs wherever possible in order to remain competitive. The trend towards low cost operations demonstrates this.

Low cost carriers often specifically target those with less experience for employment or use specifically trained cadet pilots because these pilots will not expect to be paid as much as more experienced airline pilots. For example, Jetstar’s Advanced Cadet programme requires that applicants have less than one thousand hours.

By comparison Air New Zealand requires a minimum of 2000 hours to apply and states that most successful applicants will have over 3000 hours. These selection criteria serve different purposes for both companies. For Jetstar it allows the selection of the most desireable ab-initio pilots who meet the criteria to become good airline pilots. These pilots are targeted because they will not expect wages which are as high as the more experienced pilots and Jetstar will tie these pilots into service until they recoup the costs of training. Jetstar has been criticised for employing such pilots (ABC, 2011), however it could be argued that such pilots could be better pilots than those with comparitvely more hours if they recieve quality training.

For Air New Zealand the selection criteria acts to filter out ab-initio pilots because it wants its pilots to have a level of real life experience and it is willing to pay more for these pilots. However, flight hours by themselves are not an accurate indicator of experience, the number of flights and types of flight must be considered (Hope, 2010). Expertise can be said to be a combination of knowledge and awareness. The high level of expected experience reflects the current low level of pilot turnover within the industry throughout most parts of the world. Virgin Blue reported a pilot turnvover of less than one percent in the year to 2010.

While this stagnation is occurs the attractiveness of aviation as a career will continue to diminish. When the Aviation industry requires new pilots in the future, it may be challenging to find the number of pilots to fill flight crew positions. The level of expected expertise will have to be reduced when more pilots are required than are available and Pilot Raining Organisations will be under more pressure to produce trained pilots. To what extent can selection standards then be lowered to meet the demand? The trend of reducing training towards the legal minimum will surely continue. If this is the case, the solution must then lie increasing training quality ab-initio pilots recieve and ensuring that it is targeted to reflect the challenges they will face in their flying careers (Bent 2010).

If salaries of pilots continue to decrease, to increase the appeal of being a pilot airlines may begin to pay for more of a pilots training (Bent 2010), however, these costs will likely be passed back to the pilot through expected years of return service or simply through a loan scheme as Jetstar operates now. This being the case the trend of selection prior to ab-intio training will become more common as airlines will not want to spend money on candidates who will acheive adequately.


Bent (2010). Future Needs - Pilot Selection and Training. http://iaftp.org/wp-content/uploads/papers/Bent-Future_Needs_Pilot_Selection_and_Training.pdf
AAP (2011). Virgin Blue to train cadet pilots. http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/virgin-blue-to-train-cadet-pilots/story-fn6cbu6v-1226024184159
ABC (2011). Safety Concerns raised over Jetstar pilot training. http://www.efarming.com.au/News/general/05/05/2011/137807/safety-concerns-raised-over-jetstar-pilot-training.html
Hope (2010). What makes a good airline pilot http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:what-makes-a-good-airline-pilot

Want to know more?

http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:pilot-selection-testing - Pilot Selection Testing Detailing types of selection tests in use

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