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Life after pilot training

by First Officer Jevan Burchell BALPA nextGen Steering Group

Emerging from your initial pilot training can be a daunting prospect and full of mixed feelings. Initial relief that the training is complete, excitement that you are one step closer to achieving the dream of becoming a pilot and then anxiety about how to take the next step and get a job.

I was a freelance sound engineer and full-time university lecturer when I made the decision to begin training towards my PPL and commercial licence. At that time, I was a home-owner and I became a father in the process, so it took three and a half years of studying part-time to secure my commercial licence and instrument rating (IR). Then came the challenge of getting my first job. It’s a challenge I subsequently met when I was taken on by Ryanair who I now fly for as a first officer.

So, I know from experience how hard it can be to take those fledgling steps. That’s one reason I joined BALPA’s nextGen Steering Group; to assist others in securing their entry into the airline industry and to help improve transparency in the world of flight training.

If you are reading this article and you have completed your initial flight training, congratulations! The perseverance, sacrifice and commitment that you have demonstrated to get to this point should be commended and demonstrates your competence and dedication to securing your dream job as a commercial airline pilot.

The Holy Grail: your first job.

Now is the time to search for the Holy Grail; your first job. So how do you do it? How do you stand out from the crowd?  Who do you contact? How do you prepare for interview? What do you do if you are turned down? These are just some of the questions all cadets ask at some time after their initial licence issue. They can be complex to address, and the answers vary for each individual.

For all though, mastering the concepts involved in passing the interview is just as, if not more important than being able to fly the aeroplane. You might be the best pilot in the world, but if you cannot pass an airline interview, your skills will be reserved for self-hiring aircraft from your local flying club. With hundreds of modular and integrated cadets in the UK who hold a CPL/MEIR but have not yet found their first job, competition is tough.

The importance of contacts and networking

Don’t limit your job search to the airlines hiring at that particular time. All airlines have at least some access to a pool of candidates that can be reviewed when they begin to hire again. Whether this is an official arrangement or not, it is likely the recruitment teams will already have an idea of who they want to contact when they need more pilots. Getting your CV into that file can be challenging and requires strategy, networking and interpersonal skills in addition to being qualified to the right level.

You must have all the correct licences and ratings, remain current and also open a channel of communication that permits your details and CV to be forwarded to the correct place. You can achieve this by being recommended by your flight school or by cultivating a relationship with the airline recruitment team in an appropriate manner. Good networking and communication skills are vital and therefore careful preparation and practice are a must.

Airline recruiters are busy people and will only be interested in accepting communications from professional, polite, qualified pilots so tact and good manners are essential. Take full advantage of situations in which these people are open to talk to you. Good places to do this are at industry social events, ATO open days, ‘Airline Pilot Training’ and ‘Pilot Careers Live’ events, which are held across the UK and Europe, and BALPA’s ‘Flight Crew Futures’ event, taking place next on the 16th May in Gatwick.

Established airlines also often run their own career days, and while these may be tailored to experienced direct entry pilots, it is worth asking the airline directly if you may attend as a cadet. The answer is often yes. A positive introduction to the right person in a more informal setting is exactly the foot in the door you are looking for. Seize the opportunity to open conversation and pass the recruitment team your CV or business card when you meet. Talk through your background, flight experience and aspirations in a confident and polite way, citing the reasons you want to work for them on the flight deck.

When interviewers sit across the table from someone they have met before and remember in a positive light, the scope for success may be subliminally increased which is undoubtedly beneficial. You may also feel more comfortable answering complex questions from an assessor that you have met before at a recruitment or social event. Demonstrating that you are able to dress smartly, introduce yourself courteously, network, pass on your details and subsequently stay in touch with a recruiter is worth its weight in gold.

Effective communication is key

There are 3,896 valid instrument ratings in the UK, so determining how to make yourself stand out when you have zero professional flight experience is a talent that requires effective communication from the outset. One approach to avoid is sending a generic email to a central email address at your target airline. A “Dear Sir/Madam” email to HR@yourairline.com will either not be received by the correct person or go straight into the recycle bin.

If you are serious about reaching out remotely to someone in recruitment, you must do so using suitably formal language; identify yourself properly and reference from where you got their contact details. It is worth noting here that a referral from a friend/colleague/flight school is preferable to an unsolicited message from out of the blue, so call in every favour possible from your current contacts.

Of course not everyone has a fantastic network of contacts when they graduate from their CPL/MEIR. That is why it is vital to use the tools at your disposal such as professional networking websites. Searches within your target company for “pilot recruiter”, “talent acquisition specialist”, “pilot recruitment specialist” etc will allow you to find exactly the right people to initiate contact with.

Think carefully about the best way to make a good first impression. Remain mindful that whilst email is an easy and universally used communication tool, it is very easily discarded. A phone call is more likely to achieve an open human response and a postal letter will garner the attention of its addressee in a far more effective way than an email ever would. Consider both as a way to open a dialogue with the company which could then be followed up later with an email if no response is received.

If, after a second attempt, you still receive no response, do not keep trying. Being pushy or over-assertive is not a desirable quality in a candidate and could possibly worsen your chances further down the line.

It is crucial to have done your research and tailor your message(s) to each company. While there are elements that may be universal, such as your introduction, who you are and what qualifications you hold; make sure to compose a bespoke communication which is exclusively intended for the recipient, otherwise it will lose its value.

If a recruiter feels they have received a generic message, they will not believe you really want to work for them; even though at this stage you would probably work for any company on earth if it meant flying an aeroplane every day. How you do this is up to you, but specific research into the airline’s core values, slogan, aircraft, operating routes, bases and employment terms and integration of this information into your communications will demonstrate you are serious about joining the organisation and that you are proactive in your approach to securing a place in the recruitment file.

Cultivate your CV

Everyone is different and will have differing levels of experience, but how you display that information is very significant in a CV. It should be a to-the-point document with no ’filler‘ as this is easily spotted and ultimately pointless. There is no disguising that you’re a low-hour pilot, so only include your personal/contact details, flight hours, licences and ratings, education and qualifications, work history, and two references. There is no need to include a photo, your date of birth, your hobbies or your inside leg measurement.

Keep it simple, clear and concise. Avoid flashy graphics that are of no actual value. One A4 page is perfect. When this is occupied with succinct and relevant information, nothing else is required. If you have a number of years of experience in other industries or other relevant experience then great, expand it to two A4 pages, but never more than that. There is a plethora of information available online about CV creation and maintenance, but for specific hints and tips for flight training graduates, I suggest you review BALPA’s CV & Interview Guide.

Consider an enhanced MCC/JOC

Enhanced courses are available that aim to bridge the gap between training and employment by offering mentoring, targeted coaching and guidance. It is hugely desirable to finish your training with a provider that will offer this kind of support after you graduate, and the extra training on offer is vastly beneficial to your interview and simulator assessment performance. An enhanced MCC/JOC may just be what you are looking for, as the additional instruction in crew resource management, pilot core competencies and the simulator will put your performance at a more advanced level than a regular MCC course.

These options also have the huge added bonus of guiding you into your first job with mentorship and support the whole way through, which really is the cherry on the cake that you need at the end of your training. There is a requirement to interview and be accepted for these and the process is vigorous; so prepare for them exactly as you would an airline interview.  See offerings from the Wings Alliance and Kura’s Best Pilot scheme for further details.

Stay current

Your activities in the time after training are no doubt going to be governed by your finances. You will be aware of just how much it has cost to attain your commercial licence and ratings, and suddenly self-hiring a Cessna becomes a less attractive prospect. However, when you come to interview, two questions you are almost guaranteed to be asked are, “when was the last time you flew?” and, “what have you done to stay current since passing your IR?”. If your answer to these questions is “nothing”, it is a red flag to the interviewers and perhaps signifies you are not fully committed to the cause.

If you can’t afford to fly regularly, don’t worry – this is very common. However, do all you can to take up an aircraft a few days before your interview. When you are able to answer “I flew a couple of days ago” it demonstrates you are maintaining your interest in aviation and keeping your skills up-to-date.

Even better, if you can secure a weekend gig as a jump pilot or banner/glider tow pilot, it is an excellent talking point at interview, even if it is unpaid!  Time in simulators is also extremely valuable and should be used whenever possible, and certainly in the run-up to an airline assessment. It may even be possible to spread the cost of these sessions with a friend – do whatever you can to make things easier for yourself. If you can arrange a session the day before your interview, the complexities of the cockpit will be fresh in your head and your capacity to execute the company’s SOPs will be greatly increased; so again this is worth doing.

Prepare thoroughly for interview

Arguably the most daunting part of the whole process, the interview is the time when you will make or break your future career. Comprehensive preparation is crucial. The structure of most airline interviews is broadly similar. You will have a mix of a personal interview (usually competency-based), a group exercise, a simulator assessment and perhaps English and numeracy testing or a computer-based aptitude test such as Compass. With this in mind, it is relatively straightforward to prepare yourself for a battery of interviews with different airlines. Start by focussing on the similarities between them and move on to looking at bespoke research and investigation into each company, concentrating your attention on the specific requirements and core competencies they require.

You are aiming to present yourself as a well-rounded, intelligent, personable, critical-thinking professional who also just happens to be able to fly aeroplanes; so, delve deep into your past and carefully consider interesting stories you can use to answer competency-based interviewing. The interviewers are looking to gauge multiple personality traits from your answers in order to build a comprehensive understanding of who you are as a person. For example, when asked, “Give an example of a time when you bent the rules to meet an objective”, there are many pot holes you could fall in to with a reckless or hasty response, so you must be very aware of how the situations you describe come across to the panel.

To be ready for this, think about all the tough questions you could be asked. Hundreds of examples of competency-based questions can be found easily online, and there is excellent assistance out there in airline-specific group exercise preparation, interview preparation and interview technique from companies such as Airline Prep. Your character, communication, leadership and teamwork, problem solving & decision making, application of procedures, workload management and situational awareness are all core competencies that interviewers are looking for from pilot candidates, so the answers you give should demonstrate these qualities in a balanced and coherent manner.

As a minimum, aim for around 20 stories that could be used to answer an assortment of competency-based questions in the STAR format (Situation, Task, Action and Result). Rehearse them thoroughly and be ready to adapt them on-the-fly to fit nuances in the questions being asked. With that in mind be very careful not to over-rehearse, as a skilled interviewer can easily spot a scripted response which comes across as wooden and may not fully address the topic in question.

For those still searching

It is worth remembering that not every pilot career starts in a passenger-carrying CS25 aircraft with two turbofan engines slung underneath. There is a whole array of prop pilot jobs available in the industry, and most require even sharper navigation and handling skills than the average jet job which is an excellent start to your career. Flight schools up and down the country constantly need instructors and the experience would be hugely beneficial to your skills and understanding of powered flight. Ex-instructors are looked upon very positively by airlines, and the additional hours and experience could put you ahead of the crowd.

A top tip for digital online applications is that you should log in to the various portals and update a small detail every so often; perhaps every week. This can be a very small change, even just to add or delete a comma in the application and then resubmit it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this has the effect of putting your application back in to the top of the digital pile. While not every application portal functions in this manner, it is certain that regular updating improves your chances on others and is very simple to achieve.

If you have tried your best, applied to every available low-hour pilot job and still find yourself coming up against brick walls, it’s time for a rethink. Carefully consider each part of the process and specifically modify the areas where you encountered difficulty. If it’s at the initial application stage, perhaps the wording of your applications could be reworked.

If it’s at the interview stage, look carefully at your own performance and decide which areas you could improve on; for example, if you are nervous at interview consider investing in interview coaching or revising your interview answers. Perhaps it could even be as simple as buying a new suit to enhance your professional image, or researching different questions to improve your performance.

Consider getting in contact with BALPA’s dedicated career services team. They can point you towards some guidance, put you in touch with the nextGen Steering Group or set you up with a working line pilot mentor who can offer you a unique insight into their experience, through their Crew Connected services. Contact us at nextGenEnquiries@balpa.org

If even then you are struggling, remain determined and continue to work towards your goal. You have invested so much time and money to get to this point, that accepting defeat is completely illogical. Most important of all – don’t give up! Nearly all professional flight crew have been in the precarious position of searching for their first job after training for a few months, and it is an uncertain place to be. Keep busy, keep studying, stay informed about the state of the industry and keep your ear to the ground for all available jobs you are qualified to apply for. Good luck.