The case for general aviation psychometric testing

The one adage I’ve never quite been able to get my mind round is: “There are no bad students – only bad instructors.”! It was said by a very experienced instructor many years ago. I never quite got the hang of that one. Maybe because it implies that all students are the same. And that, any instructor will tell you is simply not true. If it were, the Air Force and Airlines wouldn’t bother with the hassle of selection boards and psychometric tests. And in the case of the latter, that process takes place when selecting pilots from an already well very qualified group. I think what he was really trying to emphasize was the quality of instruction in the learning process. But any instructor will tell you of both good and bad students – and how to tell the difference.

Take Ronnie. A youngster with a dubious Commercial License from a foreign country. He arrived with a logbook full of hours and a plan to convert to multi-engine aircraft so he could clinch a commuter airline job in his own country. It didn’t take more than one check flight to call his aviation experience into question.

When a pilot starts a steep turn with rudder and then follows up with aileron you become a little suspicious of his 300 flying hours. And that was just the start of it! It transpired we couldn’t even consider training him on a twin before literally retraining him on the basics. But was this the students fault or his instructors? At this point I diagnosed him with a severe case of ‘Parker-Pen-itis.’ No instructor – from any country, could possibly have been this bad! After quizzing him we ascertained he had a fairly good grasp of his academics. Indeed he wrote the South African Commercial exams and passed them without too much fuss. However his flying skills proved so awful that we declined to train him on the twin until he’d improved his skills to fixed wing Comm standard. This effort nearly cost us the services of two of our best instructors – from shear frustration! Eventually he was converted onto a Cessna Cutlass in preparation for the Commercial flight test.

After a pre-flight briefing we fired up the engine at Mossel Bay and he set about doing his after start checks. Glancing out the windscreen I observed another aircraft joining the circuit and I asked Ronnie why we couldn’t hear his anticipated radio call? Well, that set about a flurry of hands that resulted in absolutely naught! Not once did it occur to him that maybe he should check the radio’s volume with the squelch switch! I was utterly dismayed. Even if he only had ten percent of the hours he claimed – he should still have been able to operate the radio! Just counting his flying with us alone!

No – this had to be another problem. One we obviously couldn’t fix. We did fly that day, but more out of a desire to vindicate my instructor’s frustration. And also to satisfy my own curiosity whether they’d been exaggerating. They had not. If anything, they’d understated the problem. There was clearly a learning capacity problem. Like a computer short of RAM. The knowledge was in the hard drive of the brain but there was an inability to access it at short notice under pressure. After we landed I was faced with the unpleasant duty of telling him the truth. Something his original instructor should have done almost at the beginning. Then the lamenting began: “How could this be,” he wailed. “My parents have spent so much money. They want to see results!”

The first mistake, I pointed out, was that money can’t buy you everything in life. Your parents should have taught you that! When you’re in command of an aircraft of any size – it doesn’t care how wealthy you are – you’re just another bum in the seat, riding this bronco along until the inevitable end. The weather feels zip for your incompetence. Your blood, smeared across a mountain is the same as any others. And your riches and status won’t impress your passengers one iota when they see the fear in your eyes and realize their lives hang in the balance because of your inability to do the job. Best you hear it now and save the lives of your passengers, and your own – rather then play Russian roulette with an aircraft!

It was brutal – but it was honest. It was the first time I had to be so graphic. Unfortunately it was not the last and I had to give the same speech to another youngster a few months later.

Why, he reasoned, had no one told him this before? Why indeed. I have no doubt a psychometric evaluation would have picked up what had become obvious – and saved these young men and their parents many thousands of shekels and much anxiety.

Civilian instructors try to be the good guys. Their job depends on it! Nobody wants a hard-arsed bombastic flying instructor. And these days it’s almost taken as a blemish on your name if you can’t get your student up to standard. So if he’s worth his salt, instructors will generally try very hard to get a student up to scratch and are understandably reluctant to suggest when it’s time the student throw in the towel. No one wants to destroy a person’s self-esteem. Not in the civilian arena anyway. With CRM we’ve become so sensitive to Life Positions and Ego States that maybe we’re not as honest as we sometimes aught to be. In the civilian environment students often have multiple instructors and sometimes it’s just easier to leave it to the next guy to be the bastard. But in shying away from this distasteful duty, an injustice has been done. Some kid’s parents have hocked themselves to the limit for no good reason and their money would have been better spent at university doing something else. It would hurt a lot less to hear the awful truth somewhere near the beginning than it most certainly will if someone gets killed.

I’m sorry to say it – but there are some people who just shouldn’t fly! They aren’t difficult to identify. The egomaniacs. The braggards. The overly timid. The laizze faire. Eventually you develop a sixth sense about these things. You can tell with alarming accuracy who will make it and who won’t. You see it in their eyes. You hear it in their questions. Do they have a passion for what they’re doing? If not – they shouldn’t be there! Please understand, I’m not knocking the guy who just wants a PPL to get himself from A to B. I’m talking about the guy who wants to spend his life in and around aeroplanes. If by luck they’ve made it to an airline job without having a passion, and are just there for the status and a reasonable pay cheque – then they’ve robbed someone more deserving of their dream. For various reasons they won’t last to retirement either – ultimately making them a bad investment in the long run. Contrary to popular belief, this can be quite a tough job – particularly for a family.

Regrettably though, this is not unusual in these days of quotas and affirmative action. In South Africa there are literally dozens of well qualified, passionate pilots who can’t get into a decent airline job because they’ve been sidelined by politics. Airlines with cadet training schemes have psychometric tests to help identify the wheat from the chaff. I think its high time general aviation did the same. Just like the new student requires a medical, he should also be required to take a psychometric test. The doctors know the students physical state – but what of his mental state? Is he a risk taker? Is he over or under confidant? What is his mental capacity? How will he cope with stress? Even if he has no intention of an aviation career, the information would be invaluable to his training. Like a pre-start filter. It would be in the student’s own best interest to know what profile he falls in. He can identify his strengths and work on his weaknesses. I’m not aware of any crash statistics that involved a pilot who couldn’t read the bottom line on his eye test – or because his blood pressure was 160/100 when it should have been 120/80. But many people have died because the pilot was over confidant or just plain negligent. Doctors are happily nit-picking the pilots physical state – which no one is denying, is important – but ignoring their mental state! Would a psychometric test have identified Mohamed Atar’s mental state before he took flying lessons? Who knows – maybe it could have prevented 911.

The author is a Senior A340 Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College in George.

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