Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Into the lion's den

The British Airways Future Pilot Programme will almost certainly open for applications again, although I have no idea when... watch their website! As I'm sitting surrounded by bags, boxes and suitcases at a bit of a loose end, I thought I would make a few observations about the selection process that I went through.

We were requested not to reveal the details of the selection process, so I won't. What I can offer are suggestions of ways to prepare for the selection that I found helpful.

Preparation 1: Learn to fly

It seems a significant minority of successful applicants to the scheme do not have any flying experience. Indeed, none is required as they train cadets from scratch.

But I find it very strange that anyone would put so much at stake without knowing if they actually enjoy flying an aircraft and if they have any talent for it. What if you suffer from chronic air sickness? What if you find the experience totally unnerving? Or boring? Or you don't have the ability to multi-task or decent hand-eye coordination?

Personally I think you'd be mad to jump through all the selection hoops without being certain that flying was what you wanted to spend your life doing. Fortunately, I already knew this through a lot of gliding (thanks again to my lovely wife for the trial voucher!) and a bit of time on light aircraft.

FSX has a remarkable level of detail
The most economic way to get started is with a flight simulator "game" on your home computer such as FSX or if you like gliding, Condor. You will need a reasonable PC, a decent size screen or a projector, a joystick and — importantly — a set of rudder pedals.

Then simply work through the in-game tutorials. I only have experience of FSX, but I have to say these are remarkably accurate and detailed, reflecting what happens in real flying lessons closely. Enjoy the program but take it seriously too — try to do everything correctly and accurately and no crashing just for fun, that's not something you want to practice.

Flight sims will rapidly teach you how the controls work, how to coordinate turns, the procedures and mechanics of flying and so on, and they will give you a great head start in flying for real. But it is not the same thing, and there is no substitute for getting your hands on a real aeroplane.

Any flight school would be delighted to take you up for a trial lesson in a light aircraft and I think at least one trip would count as essential research. It won't be cheap, around £150-£200 per hour, but can you really afford not to try?

Also consider learning to fly a glider. Gliders, contrary to popular belief, are 'real' aircraft that fly in exactly the same way and with the same controls and aerodynamics as any other sub-sonic aircraft. True, they lack the complication of engine management but they add much greater pressure on good judgement of circuits and landings, situational awareness and general handling skills. Do not write them off, they give valuable flying experience — and are also a lot cheaper.

Preparation 2: Talk to pilots

The single most useful preparation I did was to spend time talking to active pilots  — the more the better.

This will give you a real sense of what the day-to-day job is actually like without any of the hype or misconceptions that go with the image of a pilot. Find out how they deal with family pressures, how they cope with shift patters, what went wrong for them, what they love and hate about their jobs and so on. Really quiz them — everyone I spoke to was only too pleased to help.

I was even able to speak to pilots from British Airways. I found out about the latest staff and marketing campaigns, the current safety concerns and what is being done, how the fleet and crew are changing and all sorts of other relevant information. None of it secret, but equally not easy to get by reading websites.

The fact that you have done this should definitely be mentioned in the interview — it shows initiative, good judgement and that you are realistic about the job. They asked me why I wanted to be a pilot. I responded that I already knew I loved flying but more importantly all the airline pilots I had spent time talking to said they loved their jobs. This went down very well.

If you don't know any airline pilots, the place to start looking is your local gliding or flying club. What do airline pilots do in their spare time? Fly planes of course!

The interview... tell stories!

By "tell stories," I do not mean "lie."  Let me explain...

The trend these days is for competency-based interviews. This means you will be put on the spot, asked to give an example of something from you past, and how you dealt with it and learnt from it. It can be almost anything, but some typical examples might be:
  • When did you take a calculated risk and why?
  • When did you disagree with your superiors and how did you resolve it?
  • Have you experience racism and how did you deal with it?
  • When did you provide outstanding customer service?
  • Have you ever made a serious mistake at work? (Hint: do not say no!)
  • Give me an example of something you have done you are proud of (easy)
  • Give me an example of something you failed at (harder)
This type of questioning is the stuff of many people's nightmares — how can you prepare for this? Actually it's not that hard. I spent some time coming up with perhaps half a dozen interesting events in my life (not just professional life) and thinking of how they might be moulded to various questions. This worked surprisingly well, I effectively had answers ready to about half the questions.

Take your time to think before you answer, don't just babble away. Don't shy away from negative experiences or failures, provided you can show how you dealt with it positively and learned from the experience.

So where do the stories come in? The real trick here is not just to state your example baldly. What you need to do is involve your interviewers. Spin a yarn. Be enthusiastic. Draw them into your story. If possible, make them laugh.

There is good psychological basis for this approach. You are not just answering the question, you are establishing a relationship with your interviewers. By engrossing them in your story you are making them part of your life, you are in fact forging a friendship. You will stand out and be remembered, especially if you speak with honesty and emotion.

I can testify that it works. Thanks to my brother, a qualified psychologist no less, for giving me this tip.

Finally don't forget to bone up on the more traditional material. Find out about the company's fleet, finances, routes, people in charge and so on. Make sure you understand the training process in detail. Learn the basics of aerodynamics and how engines work (here is a good site). Find out about the state of the aviation industry. Read current aviation literature, including trade and business magazines.

If they ask a factual question and you don't know the answer, at least say how you would go about finding out.

Computer based assessments — stay calm!

There isn't a great deal you can do to prepare for these, but here are some observations that may help:

Some of the tests will overload you — they are designed to gradually increase your workload until you are saturated and beyond. You are not expected to complete them perfectly, the aim is to keep going and not get flustered. Pilots are not super-human, but they can remain calm and decisive in stressful situations. so if the test seems impossible, do not panic and do not give up.

Others will be very boring and go on forever, but require constant concentration. The key here is maintaining a kind of relaxed awareness, as concentrating avidly for long periods is not possible and will cause you to make errors when you do get tired. Again this is a key skill for the modern pilot.

Where a test is repeated several times, they are looking for a good rate of improvement. So don't worry if you make a hash of the first attempt, the important thing is to demonstrate you can quickly learn from your mistakes.

At both testing facilities we were told that flying experience was not necessary for the tests — but I have no doubt it helps. At least one test will require you to perform different tasks simultaneously with your hands and feet. Learning to fly (see 1 above) even on a simulator game will really help here.

Don't get despondent if you mess up a test, you won't be the only one and it is only a small part of the overall assessment.

The dreaded group exercises

These tasks certainly split opinion, some people hate them with a passion while others see them as an ideal chance to show off.

As a group you will be given a complex problem to solve, such as desert survival situation. The situation will keep changing. There will be a time pressure.

Firstly, realise the problem is artificial and whether your group completes the task or not is unimportant. You are really being assessed individually on qualities important to good leadership teamwork such as:
  • Ability to communicate your arguments quickly and clearly
  • Being assertive but not bullying or dominating
  • Seeing the 'big picture' (situational awareness)
  • Pointing out errors or problems but without blame
  • Seeking consensus (eg. suggest a vote to resolve disagreements)
  • Be organised — make notes, keep track of time etc.
  • Remaining friendly and positive (don't let anyone visibly annoy you — they could even be a 'ringer')
  • Be honest and realistic — say what you think
  • Remaining focussed on the goal
Finally we were given some current subjects to discuss from aviation and general news. This tests your knowledge of current affairs, but more importantly your ability to express your opinions and debate constructively with the rest of the group.

Good luck!


  1. Wow. These are really nicely written, pretty inspiring, when you mentioned the long training I couldn't help think of Blackadder Goes Forth.
    Blackadder: this is just the beginning of the training. The beginning of five long months of very clever, very dull men looking at machinery.
    Flasheart: hey, girls! Look at my machinery!

    I remember a Red Arrows documentary where the trainers were looking for pilots who learned quickly by getting a task right second time, not necessarily first time, it was interesting.

    Anyway best of luck to you and Bev in this adventure:) Jan

  2. Thanks Jan, I will try to keep it going time permitting and it's good to know I'm not the only one who finds this stuff interesting. J

  3. Thank you for this post, I'm preparing for the final stage at Heathrow at the moment and it gives me confidence reading about your success.

  4. Great advise! Any tips for the verbal and numerical side of things?


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