A number of times each year, the Honourable Company of Air Pilots offers the chance for you to visit the impressive setting of RAF Cranwell and take a test to determine your airline pilot aptitude. Elinor Evans joins a group of aspiring pilots to find out more…
The dream of becoming an airline pilot is a common one. The enduring glamour of air travel, the sheer buzz of having 400 tons of machinery at your fingertips to fly halfway around the world, even the crisply-cut pilot’s uniform… it’s all pretty aspirational stuff.
But before you get anywhere near to the right-hand seat of an airliner, you will need to invest a huge amount of time and money to get there. In many cases, two years of pilot training will cost in excess of £100,000 and will be followed by many more years of meeting repayments.
It was with this sizeable investment in mind that retired British Airways Training Captain, Clive Elton, decided to introduce an independent assessment of pilot aptitude, first established in 1994 through an organisation known as the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN). He decided that if students were going to invest all those hours and pounds into a career, shouldn’t they first know if it’s a career that they’re actually suited to? These days the company is known as the Honourable Company of Air Pilots (HCAP), and 20 years on and more than 1,400 candidates later, the tests have recently introduced two new modules, designed to bring them up to date with the skill-set required to operate the latest aviation technologies.
The tests are carried out at the impressive setting of the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at the RAF College at Cranwell and are selected straight from the battery used by the RAF in their aircrew selection, although the six tests used by HCAP are chosen to measure key skills which are relevant to flying modern airliners. These are: Strategic Task Management; Spatial Reasoning; Work Rate; Attentional Capability; and Psychomotor Ability. After the test, each candidate gets the chance to sit down with a current or former pilot for an in-depth discussion of their results. On this particular assessment day, candidates were to benefit from the experience of Rick Thomas, a former British Airways Training Captain who flew for the carrier for more than 30 years, and Malcolm Hunt, who is volunteering his considerable experience of more than 46 years as a Squadron Leader, A1 Qualified Flight Instructor and Selector with the RAF.
Rick is also the coordinator of the assessment days. He explains, “It makes so much sense to undertake some form of aptitude testing before you begin – your dreams can carry you far, but unless you have the skills to succeed, you may end up burdened by your choices. Our independent test is aimed at making sure the candidates leave with plenty of information and an awareness of their own situations. We also want to make people aware of the real nature of the work; it’s hard, it’s sometimes grubby and always challenging. But we also want to share our own experiences of the wonderful moments, the times where you’re flying back just as it’s becoming dark and you’re able to see the whole of the UK spread out in front of you like a fairy land – that’s special.”
What is the test and how long does it last?
The tests that the candidates will sit are a closely guarded secret – the RAF’s procedures are strictly copyrighted and only leased to a limited number of charities and overseas air forces – though you can certainly expect to find a rigorous, completely unique testing programme. Hywel, 24, from Peterborough, was one of the candidates to sit the test and he was surprised at how different the test was to other aptitude tools he’d encountered. “This was really different to other stuff that I’ve looked at online before – they were general, but this was very specific and in-depth. Plus, some of the tests used a joystick and rudder pedals – not many people are likely to have those in their bedroom at home so it was great to have access to that kind of resource!”
Since two new tests have been added, raising the number of exercises from four to six, the HCAP test takes candidates approximately two to two-and-a-half hours – but as the candidates are assured by SERCO’s Alastair Lang who oversees the process, there’s no ideal time; if you finish the tests a little way behind someone else’s time, it may not be an indication of a lesser score. The candidates enter the room at around 10am and should be done before lunchtime.
In contrast, the RAF’s own process to test for the proverbial ‘Right Stuff’ is a stretch longer, with candidates put through their paces over eight hours. Alex Ritchie, who works in RAF Officer and Aircrew selection, explains more. “Yes, our own test for aircrew is considerably longer and will also include additional tests for officer potential, leadership skills etc. The changes we made to the battery of tests in 2011 reflect the changes in the forces’ fleets. Aircraft such as the Typhoon and Voyager are all glass cockpit, so the nature of flying is very different to how it once was – the tests reflect the new abilities required, mainly the abilities to manage and multi-task amid plenty of distraction.
“The tests evolve with us; as our technologies progress and as we grow to know more about psychology, our testing methods have to change to keep up with the times.”
The RAF’s tests are also hugely successful; Alex adds that the Force has a 96% prediction success rate – a statistic which makes the results pretty difficult to argue with.
Can I prepare?
The short answer is no. These tests are designed to spot inherent ability, so it’s very different to a school exam in that there is no real way to revise or prepare. The team advises, “Make sure that you’re well rested, that you’ve eaten enough that morning, and that you’re in top form. Give your body and your mind the best chance to function well. Plus, perhaps practise some mental maths, as that may come in helpful.”
The tests are designed to be experience neutral, i.e. previous flying experience will not enhance or degrade the candidate’s performance. But they will test your abilities to multitask and manage information under pressure and all the candidates admitted to being surprised at the sheer volume of information they had to deal with.
Zoe, a 19-year-old student from London, explained, “It was much more difficult than I expected, such a lot of information to take in – I don’t think any of us feel like we’ve done that well at the moment, it’s very hard to judge! But I think it will be really good thing to have done. I’ve always been really interested in an aviation career, I’ve been involved in the Air Cadets in the past and I wondered if a flying career would be for me. Right now I’m about to go into my second year studying Forensic Psychology – I’d like to finish that first, and this will give me a good start in working out my next step.”
After a short break for lunch – during which the candidates try to relax, looking slightly dazed after staying so focused for two hours – the pilot advisors, Rick and Malcolm, split them up and discuss the results individually.
Rick explains, “The starting point for feedback obviously depends on what the candidate’s score is. We deal with the fact of the score, explain it thoroughly and then discuss what it implies.”
The unfortunate truth of it is that not everyone will leave the day with a good score and a recommendation that they reach for the skies. Some will leave with a letter advising that they scored below average, and as such they might be better focusing their attentions elsewhere.
“It can be quite brutal sometimes,” Malcolm adds. “It’s not a nice process to tell someone that perhaps they would better off looking at another career.”
But that’s not to say that if you get a bad score, the HCAP team will tell you that you absolutely cannot be an airline pilot.
“That’s certainly something we wouldn’t do,” Rick continues. “We’re not here to completely dissuade people from following a dream they may have held for a long time. But those of us who have had an aviation career have seen it before: the pilot who gets so worked up before a sim check that they’re making themselves ill; the pilot who resents going to work because it’s a struggle every single day. If a candidate scores poorly on the aptitude test, the chances are that they may be someone who struggles with the rigours of a pilot career – and surely knowing that now will save time, money and a lot of stress in due course – it’s a short-term disappointment which we hope will help them very much in their future.”
One candidate, Lee, 43, from Birmingham, wasn’t necessarily hoping for great results, but merely for some straight talk. “I’m about to take voluntary redundancy from my IT job – I’ve thought about this as a possible career option in the past, so I’ve looked on today as something which might push me either way. It won’t be a definite decision maker, but if I leave the day with good results, it would certainly encourage me to look into it further – or put the idea to bed, if they’re not so positive! Either way it will be good to know.”
For candidates who score highly, HCAP volunteers will provide a huge amount of support; in many cases they will point them towards the variety of scholarships offered by HCAP, which range from PPL funding right the way through to a Jet Orientation Course (JOC).
Malcolm adds, “Candidates who do well also need to take the time to make sure that they’re suited to the environment. They could have the best aptitude in the world, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get airsick when they’re in a real aircraft – the next step for many is to book a block of ten or so hours at their local flying club and see how they get on.”
As for today’s candidates and their results, that’s personal. HCAP will never share the results with a third party, so your results are yours and yours alone, to use as you see fit. Whether today’s candidates were advised to pursue a pilot career in earnest, or to perhaps consider a different path, one thing’s for certain; they’ll be going into the career with a lot more information than they had before.
How can I book, and does it cost money?
The day costs £155, though HCAP does not run the courses for profit. Rick explains that almost all of this goes back to the RAF to pay for the use of the assessment facilities – the rest goes towards HCAP administration costs. But as assessment candidate, Hywel, explained, “It’s well worth that, it’s been a really useful experience. I’d definitely suggest that others shell out, particularly early on, if they can. It’s worth knowing what you’re working with as soon as possible.”
So what’s the verdict?
The HCAP test is not the only aptitude test on the market, and many Approved Training Organisations offer their own assessment days (though it’s important to remember that many of these will cost more than the HCAP test, in some cases £100 extra). Also, while there are plenty of online assessment products out there which offer aptitude testing, the fact that these tests are taken straight from the RAF battery, which boasts such impressive prediction success stats, lends the test an undisputed authority.
More than the price though, what sets the HCAP test apart is its independence; the organisation has no axe to grind. Should you score well, the team won’t recommend that you immediately secure a loan against your house and sign up to a pilot training scheme, but it will offer support and future guidance if you choose to follow the challenging road towards a pilot career.
Whether you’re a student looking to find out more about your own aptitude before committing to a university or training programme, or someone who wants more answers before a change of career, these tests will give you an independent and honest look at your own aptitude, making sure you make any future investments with your eyes open.
For more information or to book onto a day, visit www.airpilots.org.
The Honourable Company of Air Pilots regularly exhibit at Pilot Careers Live London events.