Pilot Selection: Individual Difference and Pilot Performance


Pilot selection in aviation, whether it is for military purposes, commercial aviation or for even basic flying training, has always been of great importance because of the high costs involved in the training of pilots. The result of this was the implementation of certain tests and criteria for the selection and training of pilots in order to reduce the time and cost of the training and also, to improve safety by choosing the most suitable candidate for the ‘job’.

Of course, each applicant will differ in their capabilities and abilities and therefore, these selection tests are designed to identify the limits of these differences in ability which may in the long run indicate their performance once selected. This article discusses the implications of these individual differences in the area of pilot selection and performance when it comes to ab- initio pilots versus professional pilots.

Individual Difference

A good starting point would be to ask the questions, what is individual difference? In what ways do individuals differ and how does it apply to pilots? As mentioned in Shakelton & Fletcher (1984), ways in which individuals vary from one another in general processes or trends is known as individual difference. It is sometimes called ‘differential’ or ‘correlation’ psychology. The degree to which individuals differ depends upon their personal characteristics such as, age, sex, personality, education, intelligence, religion, ethnicity etc.

As far as pilot selection goes, individual difference is an important part in determining pilot performance. How this is done is the important factor as the tests and devices implemented to define these limits of individual difference should give a relationship to the pilot performance. Whatever the difference is, the idea is to single out one of these personal characteristics and correlate it to other variables, in this case pilot performance.

Pilot Selection Process

A structured pilot selection process will more or less consist of the following major steps:

  • Criteria- Prerequisites of the organisation and the type of individuals (personality wise).
  • Testing- written tests and computer based aptitude test, intelligence tests etc.
  • A Process of elimination (i.e. stages of selection)
  • Decision aids- statistical methods relating test scores to selection criteria.
  • Feedback loop which predicts the validity of the whole selection process. (i.e. The newly hired pilots or training pilot’s performances should correlate to their initial test scores achieved during selection).

To see a detailed description of a pilot slection process see Pilot Selection

According to Martinussen (1996), in the most crucial step of Testing, the components airlines and training organisations look for are the potential candidate’s performance in the following:

1. Psychomotor skill and quickness
2. Intelligence and aptitude
3. Personality and character

Therefore for the rest of the steps to be of any use, a solid testing scheme should be implemented for effective pilot selection.

Testing Criteria and Measuring Individual Difference In Pilot Performance

The selection testing schemes can be divided into further categories and how an individual differs in performance can be correlated to the test scores. The categories are:

1- Cognitive tests that include written tasks, measuring mechanical orientation, spatial orientation, time sharing, visualisation, perceptual speeds, instrument comprehension and attention.

2- Intelligence tests aimed at measuring global intelligence rather than separate abilities.

3- Psychomotor/information processing tests which is usually done using some form of apparatus or computer and involves measure tracking or complex coordination.

4- Aviation information tests or knowledge about the field used to measure the motivation for flying.

5- Personality tests.

6- Academics which are either school grades or tests that measure the candidate’s language and mathematical proficiency.

7- Training experience- which is flying experience prior to selection. This can be a pass or fail during pilot training, ratings of pilot performance by instructors or even grades from pilot training in theoretical subjects. (For trainee or student pilots this may well be their initial selection test scores correlated to their training performance).

(Martinussen, 1996, p.4)

Studies conducted on tests based on the above categories show the following trends as far as pilot performance is concerned:

  • The psychomotor/information processing tests category was a better predictor of pass-fail than theoretical criteria.
  • Instructors’ ratings were also better predicted by this test category than the theoretical criteria.
  • Aviation information was a better predictor of pass-fail than theoretical grades.
  • Instructors’ ratings were also better predicted by aviation information than by theoretical criteria.
  • Intelligence, personality and academics are the three categories yielding the lowest correlations with pilot performance. This statement makes sense as in the initial pilot training period, personality and attitudes do not influence much on the outcome of a flight as most time will be spent adhering to the commands of the instructor rather than personal preferences and attitudes. Therefore it is fair to state that, intelligence, personality and academics will not predict training performance but rather, job performance when the training and selection period is finished.

(Martinussen, 1996, p.8-14).

Does Individual Difference Affect Pilot Performance?

From the above discussions of different categories of testing and its processes in pilot selection, the following explanations can be drawn:

1. When selecting student pilots and professional pilots, aptitude tests and simulator assessments can significantly predict individual difference in flying performances (when test scores are correlated to their abilities in different areas).

2. Personality differences affects performance once the initial training phase has been passed and when pilots go out into the job market, (i.e. the professional airline pilots). “ ..attitudes and personality become more important after the pilot has over learned the basic procedures on flying and after the potential honeymoon effects have ceased” (Hormann & Maschke, 1996, p. 172). Therefore it is fair to state that as far as selection of student pilots are concerned, the effects of differences in personality on pilot performance are very limited.

3. Overall performance of professional pilots will be higher than that of student pilots purely because of their levels of experience and time spent ‘on the job’.

1. Hormann, H.J., Maschke, P. (1996), On the Relation Between Personality and Job Performance of Airline Pilots, The International Journal of Aviation Psychology 6(2), 171-178.
2. Martinussen, M. (1996), Psychological Measures As Predictors of Pilot Performance: A Meta-Analysis, The International Journal of Aviation Psychology 6(1), 1-20.
3. Shakleton, Fletcher (1984), Application of Theory and Technique in the field of individual differences, Shakleton, Fletcher (1984), Application of Theory and Technique in the field of individual differences, Retrieved October, 02, 2011 from, http://www.massey.ac.nz/~bffrey/190207/

Want to know more?

Pilot Selection Testing
A Simple Breakdown of the Pilot Selection Process
Human Performance: Perspectives and Models
An Indtroduction to Human Performance

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Authors / Editors

Mishma HameedMishma Hameed

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