aviators, personalities, psychology, recruitment

The Right Stuff?

By Rob Neil

Few aviators are unfamiliar with the 1983 movie The Right Stuff. As its title suggests, it implies that the “right” personality traits for a (1950s) test pilot were gung-ho personal courage and an occasional disregard for rules and procedures in order to get the job done. With test pilots being killed at a rate of about one a week in the 1950s, perhaps the film title should have been punctuated with a question mark.

Today’s experimental test pilots (as opposed to production test pilots) are very different. They are not only highly competent aviators, but also must have extensive knowledge of aeronautical engineering and above average analytical skills—and have no tendency to ignore established rules or procedures.

Few would argue that the right stuff for today’s commercial pilot is very different from that of a test pilot and, further, many would also suggest that the right qualities differ for fixed-wing and helicopter pilots.

Research that began in the late 1930s led to general global acceptance in the 1980s of what is now known as the Big Five—the personality traits of: openness; conscientiousness; extraversion; agreeableness; and neuroticism (known by the acronyms of either OCEAN or CANOE). From both a safety and efficiency perspective, it is natural that operators want to assess pilot applicants against the Big Five to identify who will be safe, and look after their machinery, passengers, cargo and colleagues.

Much historical research into the right personality type for pilots was aimed at determining which people were most likely to pass flight tests and thus justify the significant expenditure involved in training them. Unfortunately, less research has been done into the personality types of serving pilots—not helped by the desire of unions to protect the rights and privacy of those they represent by withholding potentially useful data derived from in-service flight/simulator checks.

So how does a potential employer identify applicants with the right personality traits to pilot an aeroplane or helicopter? We have a good idea what the “right stuff” is (for example, slightly extroverted, assertive but agreeable, cooperative, energetic, conscientious, methodical and self-disciplined)—but can we predict this accurately?

One cannot help wondering just how valuable some of the psychometric tests used by employers might be when there are companies whose sole purpose is to train and coach applicants to achieve specific results in such tests; are employers getting the “right” personality or are they getting someone who is practised and skilled at sitting psychometric tests?

A scientific, evidence-based approach is obviously ideal, but perhaps there is still something to be said for the smaller operators and airlines with the ability to recruit someone they have got to know over time.

I suggest that as long as there are humans in cockpits, pilots will quickly identify which of their colleagues they’d rather have with them when the “right stuff” is required—regardless of the psychometric test results.

Helicopter pilots might be interested in this link to an interesting article by Paul Dickens Common Personality Traits of Commercial Helicopter Pilots: A UK Study, published in the summer 2017 issue of HAI’s Rotor Magazine.

Author: Rob Neil