The Road to Victory: My First Airline Interview

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Captain George Nolly, who has helped prepare thousands of pilots for their airline interviews, recounts his own first interview with a major air carrier. Just out of the Air Force, age 33, balding, and with crooked teeth, he'd applied to a dozen airlines but they weren't exactly beating a path to his door. When he was finally called by one for an interview, he was understandably nervous as hell. We won't spoil George's story by telling you the ending.

TrainingThe contrast was remarkable. For months I had been canvassing the airline personnel departments, making phone calls and personal visits — with no luck. Of the dozen airlines I had been following up on weekly, none would give me the time of day. Only one had even acknowledged receipt of my application. But as soon as I was invited in for screening, everyone's attitude changed.

United DC10It was like being "Queen For A Day." In a few days, I would be back on the outside again. The telephone voice of the personnel department would again be impersonal, repeating for probably the thousandth time, "If we hear anything, we'll contact you." But for now, I was part of the "In Crowd," and the folks at Personnel were genuinely pleased to meet me and anxious to help.

Testing, Testing ...

Altogether there were a dozen Flight Officer applicants (a term it took a while to get used to) in the testing room that Wednesday. Six had already had their interviews and untimed testing the previous day. We would all have our timed tests together, then my group of six would return the next day for our other tests and interviews. Although we were seated at random at the six tables in the testing room, it was easy to pick out the "old heads." They were on the downhill side, relaxed and confident, now that their interviews were over.

The battery of tests we had that day did a lot to take the edge off and relax me. Frankly, there was very little I wasn't ready for. I'd been well briefed by FAPA [Future Airline Pilots Association, now defunct] on what to expect. Since my full-time job included teaching an ATP ground school, I felt fairly confident on instrument procedures. And since I'd just taken my CFI written the previous month, I felt pretty confident in the basics, too. It came in handy in the aeronautical knowledge testing. I'd read several memory books and learned some memory tricks, mostly in anticipation of meeting people and remembering their names. It really helped, though, on the vocabulary test. We were given a list of 50 common words and 50 nonsense syllables associated with them. For example, "want" might be "erg." They gave us five minutes to look at the list, then they took it away and gave us a sheet with the 50 words in one column, the 50 nonsense syllables in another, and we had to match them. I got them all.

I knew ahead of time that everyone feels bad about the Stanine General Knowledge test, so I didn’t let it bug me. In my opinion, there are some questions you should be able to answer, and some a normal person can't answer like "How many steps in the Eiffel Tower?" I thought some questions didn't even have a correct answer. "What wine do you drink with Chateaubriand?" didn't even list Ripple as an answer choice!

After testing, the girls at Personnel explained our schedule for the next day. We would perform untimed tests and be individually called out of the testing room for a mini-physical and for an interview.

That night I speed-read Dress For Success and Body Language for the fiftieth time, checked the closing price of the airline's stock, and got a good night's sleep.

Interview Day

The next morning I got up at about 5 a.m. and went jogging. For me, it was a good way to dissipate some of the excess tension that might show up as nervousness in the interview. And as I ran, I went through a mental inventory of my qualifications. I had 3000 hours, mostly military time, a full ATP, a full FE, and was just completing a CFI course. My undergraduate degree was in Electrical Engineering and my masters was in Systems Management. My college and grad school grades were excellent. I was in great physical condition, running about 50 miles a week. On the negative side, I was 33 years old, mostly bald, and had crooked teeth. And, although I have a face that both my wife and mother love, I've never been sought out as a male model or recruited by the movies. Well, you can't have everything! By the time I finished running, I felt good. I felt confident.

The physical that day was pretty much routine — about like an FAA flight physical. We were called out of testing individually for it, then returned to the untimed tests. Test items like, "Choose the most correct: I am a) arrogant, b) stupid." At one point, about a half hour before my interview, the secretary came by my desk and asked for the documents I'd been told to bring: copies of all FAA certificates, school transcripts, etc. I also included an updated resume and a copy of my CFI test results.

Finally, I was called in for the interview. I was escorted into an office and introduced to the Chief of Personnel, who stood behind his desk, and two pilots, who stood by their chairs alongside his desk. They gestured for me to have a seat at one of the chairs in front of them.

Which chair? Was this some kind of nonverbal test, like the infamous "rocking chair" test? What the heck, I sat down in the closest one.

The Personnel Director led off: "Well, George, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got interested in flying." I tried to encapsulate a history that began when my father took me up flying as a two-year-old, starting a lifetime love affair with flying. As a kid, I'd ride my bike to the airport just to watch the airplanes. I took formal lessons when I was 18 and went into the Air Force to fly. I'd wanted to be an airline pilot ever since seeing "The High and The Mighty" in 1956.

Tough Questions ...

A few questions followed on what types of aircraft I'd flown, what flying I enjoyed the most, and what I thought about Air Force flying.

Personnel man: "Why did you leave the Air Force?"

Me: "To become an airline pilot."

Pilot No.1: "Why didn't you leave the Air Force sooner? Eleven years is a long time to stay in."

Me: "I had a service commitment through 1973, and the airlines weren't hiring in 1973."

Pilot No.2: "Was it hard to leave the Air Force after 11 years?"

Me: "It sure was. My entire adult life had been in the Air Force. I had a guaranteed career and all the prerequisites for advancement. I had Command and Staff College, a Masters Degree, two combat tours, a lot of Awards and Decorations, perfect OERs, and guaranteed promotion to Major. It was a tough decision."

Personnel man: "I guess it was. How many airlines have you applied to?"

Me: "Twelve altogether."

Personnel man: "Have any others called you in for an interview yet?"

Me: "Not yet."

Personnel man: "I'm sure it's because of your age. Your credentials are outstanding."

Pilot No.1: "How did you do in pilot training?"

Me: "Pretty well; I was number 9 out of about 50, as I recall."

Pilot No. 1: "Pretty much had your choice of airplanes after graduation then?"

Me: "Yes, sir. Pretty much so."

Pilot No. 1: "Then why didn't you choose a transport assignment out of pilot training, if you really wanted to be an airline pilot?" (GOTCHA)

Me: "Well, to be perfectly honest, flying transports then was not a good deal at all. There was a war on, and the transport pilots typically spent 25 days a month away from home, flying into Vietnam, but not getting combat tour credit. After about a year they'd get sent on a one-year combat tour in a different aircraft. I wanted to get my combat tour over with."

... And Straight Answers

Pilot No.2: "How do you feel about spending 15 years as a Flight Engineer or Copilot?"

Me: "Of course I'd rather advance faster, but I feel I'll be a better pilot for watching a lot of other pilots. Some I'll agree with, some I won't, but all will influence the type of Captain I become."

Pilot No. 2: "Are you in the reserves now?"

Me: "No, but the Ontario Guard is holding a slot for me, pending my getting hired and assigned in the L.A. area. They don't want commuters. I personally feel that Guard flying is an excellent way to maintain my flying proficiency, but of course the airline job comes first."

Personnel man: "Why are so many pilots getting out of the Air Force?"

Me: "The Air Force has a real management problem right now."

Personnel man: "How so?" (BACK OFF, GEORGE, YOU TOUCHED A NERVE.)

Me: "Like all pilots, Air Force pilots love to fly. Yet, in TAC when I got out, the average jock only got about 19 hours a month. The price he paid was five 12-hour days a week filled with nonflying duties. There’s just no opportunity anymore for professional flying-related discussions, bar-talk, there-I-was talk, because eveeryone’s busy doing miscellaneous additional duties."

Pilot No. 1: "On your application you said that United Airlines is the best. Why?"

Me: "First of all, you’ve got outstanding equipment and routes. You’ve got teriffic management-piIot relations. I know a lot of your pilots. They love their jobs and are anxious to go to work. I trained on your simulators to get my Flight Engineer ticket. I saw firsthand that you spare no expense to have nothing but the best where safety is concerned. Management keeps employees informed on what's going on. Captain ——, who invented the DC-8 performance accelerometer, Captain ——, who invented a new type of fight computer, and Captain ——, who made refinements to it, all work for your airline. You obviously have an atmosphere that fosters professional growth. It's a team I want to join."

Personnel man: "We hope you can. We'll know your overall test results in about three weeks. We'll call you when we know the results."

And that was it. Overall, the interview lasted about 30 minutes. The attitude of the interviewers had been one of acceptance, cordiality, and helpfulness. In two weeks, I was called back for a simulator checkride and a very thorough physical.

And I was on my way in.