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The Ten Commandments of Getting Hired

by George E. Nolly

As a check captain with a major airline and a career consultant, I am often asked for employment advice. Since airline pilots have never been known for their lack of ego, and because once you make captain you start to think of yourself as a kind of god, I've listed the most important aspects of your job campaign as the New Ten Commandments (with all due apologies to the author of the original Ten Commandments!).

I : Know Thyself
When you're in the market for an airline job, you're a salesperson selling a product: yourself. And, as any successful salesperson can tell you, you need to know your product inside and out if you want to succeed. The first step is to conduct a complete personal inventory.

A good way to do this is to ask the people closest to you to tell you every good point they can think of about you. Make a list. Next, ask them to tell you about all your bad points. Again, make a (hopefully shorter) list. Now, take every item on the list and write each one on a 3-by-5-inch index card. On the back of each card, write what you're doing to address that particular point. (Example: Front of card — "smoke a pack of cigarettes a day." Back of card — "using nicotine patches and attending a stop-smoking clinic.")

Now, if you've done a really thorough personal inventory, you'll have a lot of cards stacked up. You can use these when you're preparing for your interview, when you're writing your resume, and when you're prioritizing what area of your life needs attention. Be sure to have an answer for each negative comment. You never can tell when the interview will take a totally unexpected turn and you end up on a subject you would have preferred they not address. If you've prepared yourself, you can put a positive spin on virtually anything, especially if you've learned from the experience.


II : Get Thy Ratings
Landing an airline job is a competitive endeavor. Most airlines advertise minimum requirements for a pilot position that are nowhere near the "real" requirements. If you have a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating and 1000 hours, you have the minimum requirements to be hired by most airlines. But you won't be even remotely competitive if all of the other candidates have their ATP-multi and 3000 hours.

So visualize ratings being kind of like money: more is better. Many airlines assign points to your application or résumé based on your ratings and hours, then use a computer to score the applications to determine which applicants to call in for further processing. Extra ratings might give you the additional points to get called in months earlier.

If you have the required 1500 hours, get a full ATP certificate. It's much more impressive than just the writtens. By all means, get the FE writtens, and, if you can afford it, get the full rating. Early in the next century there will be very few aircraft that even use flight engineers, so it's a judgment call, but the rating could be the tie-breaker between you and a similarly-qualified candidate.

I think a type rating in air carrier equipment, such as the Boeing 737, will be worth every penny it costs (and it's a lot of pennies!) when it comes to getting a competitive advantage. In fact, a B-737 type rating is a requirement for some airlines.


III : Get Thyself In Shape
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer, such as an airline, cannot medically disqualify you if you can pass a physical exam with the minimum requirements for the job. So, now the physical is given after the rest of the screening process. After the interview, testing and simulator check, if you're accepted, then you will take your physical (basically a Class I medical exam) and if you pass, you're hired.

This would lead some to believe that physical condition is less important than before. Au contraire! I contend that being in great health, and great shape, are more important now than ever before. In the past, you could prove it with lab results showing your great blood pressure and cholesterol ratio. Now, you have to prove it by your appearance alone. For starters, unless everyone you know is always saying you look skinny (mothers don't count), lose weight.

Check with your doctor, then start an exercise program that consists of both aerobic and anaerobic activities. Ideally, you would do aerobic exercises, such as running or swimming, at least three times a week, and anaerobic activities, such as weight lifting, three times a week. After a month, you'll look and feel incredibly better. And remember, if you feel better, you'll come across better in your interview, with more confidence.


IV : Dress Thyself For Success
Everyone you are competing against has read Dress for Success. You really must read and master it just to keep a level playing field. Every now and then I meet a maverick who feels that's just a bunch of nonsense, and the airline should accept him on his terms. After all, clothes don't really make the man; the airline is hiring pilots, not fashion plates.

There are a few problems with that attitude. First of all, if you show up in a green corduroy suit wearing loafers, for example, you're nonverbally saying a lot about yourself. You're saying that either you didn't go to the trouble of finding out what the airline expects (which means you can't plan ahead) or you felt it didn't apply to you (which means you don't follow rules very well). Either way, you're sending a very negative message.

Second, we all react best to those who seem the most like us. I assure you the interviewer will be dressed in a conservative suit and will feel closest to those dressed the most like him or her.

I recommend, for men, a navy blue, single-breasted, two-button, very conservative suit with a single vent in the back, worn with a white shirt with a conservative tie with a bit of color. For women, the female equivalent of that: a conservative navy suit with a white blouse. The suit should be of excellent quality, preferably a little on the pricey side. No matter how you try, a cheap suit looks cheap. I think the material should be wool, since wool wears the best. There are many great uses for polyester, such as cleaning the dipstick of your car, but your suits and ties shouldn't be made of it.

For further guidelines, see "First Impression, Lasting Impression" in the January 1997 issue of Airline Pilot Careers.


V : Know Thine Airline
Your goal when you go into the interview should be to know more about that particular airline than the person interviewing you. That's not as difficult as it may seem, since the typical employee at any company is so busy with day-to-day business that he or she may not be aware of all that's going on in the company and the industry now and especially the past or future plans. AIR, Inc. offers the book Flying Through Time, which gives a financial and historical overview of the global and major airlines from the beginning of air carrier history up to 1993.

As a minimum, you should know what types of aircraft are flown; how many of each are owned, leased and on order; approximately how many pilots are employed; where the pilot domiciles are; what major routes are served and anticipated; and what the stock price is. You should know what union, if any, represents the pilots, and the amendable date of the contract. You should have a good working knowledge of the history of the airline, and what the industry analysts think of this airline.

Getting this information is not as difficult as you may think. If you're on line, you can get a lot of this information through both CompuServe and America Online in their Investor's Forums. Your local stockbroker can get you a copy of their latest annual report. And read, read, read. The Wall Street Journal has excellent coverage of the airline industry. After a while, as you immerse yourself in the industry, you'll start to develop a feel for the industry that will give you excellent insight into the airlines you're considering.


VI : Send Thee The Right Signals
Experts tell us that 80 percent of all communication occurs nonverbally, and only 20 percent consists of the words themselves. In other words, your body language, gestures, posture and appearance are far more effective at delivering your message than your words alone. You can really use this to your advantage at an interview to sell yourself to an airline.

One of the first things an interviewer will notice is your posture and the way you carry yourself. It tells a lot about you. Next time you watch television, turn the sound down and channel surf for a while. Try to determine the social status of the players in the shows — actors extensively study posture and walking as it relates to social position. You'll be surprised how easy it is. Now, try to catch yourself as you walk by a mirror or, better yet, ask a friend to videotape you as you're just being yourself. What message are you communicating about yourself?

In general, the more erect your posture, the smaller your arm swing and the higher you hold your head, the higher your perceived status. Now remember, you want to be a future captain, so that's the message you want your posture to communicate.

When you meet your interviewers, you will undoubtedly shake hands. The handshake is a very important social ritual. It's the only occasion in which touching a total stranger is permitted and even encouraged. So, practice your handshake. Keep your hand vertical — offering your palm up is perceived as passive and palm down is perceived as superior. It shouldn't be bone-crushing, but it definitely shouldn't be limp. I recommend the pregnant pause at the end of a handshake. Just at the time you are ready to let go, count "one potato two" to yourself, then let go. It's almost imperceptible, but it makes you a more memorable candidate. Go up to friends, shake their hands, and then ask for feedback. You'll be amazed at how quickly you can improve with practice.

You also need to practice what to do with your face. Here's my suggestion: say the word "airline" and hold your face in the position it's in at the end of the word. Now, look in the mirror and practice getting your face that way at will. You want your lips slightly apart, the hint of a smile, and the look of self-confidence. Unless you're in a discussion that requires a different expression, that should be your "neutral" and "between-questions" face.

Few of us know how to use our voices to their best advantage. I recommend the book Winning With Your Voice, by Dr. Morton Cooper. It's really a mini-course in improving the quality of your voice, to allow your best, most natural-sounding voice to emerge. Dr. Cooper has been a voice coach to many famous and highly successful people and really knows what he's talking about.


VII : Commit Thyself To Aviation
In my opinion, it would be a mistake to get into this career simply because you've heard that airline pilots make a lot of money and have a lot of time off (both of which, generally, are true). When I was working on my second master's degree, I conducted extensive research on the subject of midlife crises. As the result of my findings, I became an absolute believer in the expression "Do what you love, the money will follow." So, first and foremost, don't become an airline pilot unless you are totally committed to aviation.

Then, if you really are committed to aviation, make it a major part of your life. You should be doing something flying-related every day, whether you are studying for a rating, reading about aviation or actually flying. I'm talking total immersion. If this starts to seem like a chore, I'd suggest rethinking your career objectives. In my own case, I can't think of a single day in the past 30 years when I wasn't engaged in some aspect of flying. All of the satisfied airline pilots I know are the same way — reading all of the aviation-related magazines, talking about flying and quite often shooting down their watches with their other hand while demonstrating some sort of aerial maneuver. It's part of the life style.


VIII : Set Thy Goals
Foolhardy indeed would be the pilot who launched off on his first flight to a faraway destination without plotting his course on a map. Yet many airline hopefuls are like that when it comes to charting their course to an airline job. There are many goals and sub-goals involved in getting to the ultimate goal of becoming an airline captain. Writing these goals out is an excellent way to focus your efforts.

Management studies have repeatedly shown that those who write out their goals are much more likely to achieve them than those who only verbalize them. For one thing, having a set of written goals gives you a convenient, tangible yardstick to help you make career decisions. The goals and sub-goals will help you keep track of your progress and make the right moves.

I know it sounds terribly New Age, but placing these written goals where you'll see them and concentrate on them every day will work wonders. The bathroom mirror is a convenient location, since you look in it every morning. Take two or three minutes every day and concentrate on your goals. Visualize yourself getting that interview. Use your imagination and put yourself through new-hire training. Call it affirmations, call it prayer, call it what you want, it works!


IX : Have Thee A Job
It's axiomatic in employment circles that no one wants to hire someone whom no one has hired. Being employed is absolute proof that your services are of value to someone. Being unemployed makes everyone wonder why you couldn't get hired.

So, get a job. Now, ideally, it will be a job flying, preferably some quality flying time in a jet, but any job — even flipping burgers — is better than no job. And use those jobs the way Tarzan used vines, to move on to better ones, but never letting go of one until you have a firm grasp on the next.


X : Kick Thyself In Thy Butt
Remember the old expression "If nothing changes, nothing will change." It's easy to get discouraged when you're doing everything you can to enhance your credentials and prepare for an interview, but you don't get called in. You could go for months or longer without the slightest feedback from an airline. A lot of candidates get discouraged and just give up.

When that feeling of hopelessness grabs you, that's the time to give yourself a swift kick in the posterior and redouble your efforts to make yourself a better candidate. Go out and get that seaplane rating, or take a course in aerobatics. Hang around some homebuilders. Get involved in some aspect of aviation that will get your juices flowing again.

It's very difficult to get an airline job, but it's almost impossible to fail. To fail you would need to be actively pursuing that job and not get hired until you turned 60, when it would be too late to get hired because of mandatory retirement. Of course, lots of people drop out of the race. That's quitting, not failing. I've met lots — dozens — of pilots hired over age 50 who just would not give up, even when it seemed obvious they wouldn't get hired. I recently gave a check ride to a Boeing 727 first officer who was in his mid-40s. He hadn't taken his first flying lesson until he was 39! Now he's got about 15 more years to fly, at least 10 of which will probably be as a captain.

If you need inspiration, get Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story and read about scores of famous people who wouldn't quit when any intelligent person would, so they kept trying and became world-famous successes. People like Col. Harlan Sanders, who just wouldn't give up even after trying over 100 recipes for chicken.

I can even think of a kid some 35 years ago who was such a ham-fist it took him over 21 hours to solo! All he could think about was someday becoming an airline pilot. Today he's a check captain with a major airline. He even dabbles on the side as an aviation author.

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George E. Nolly is a check captain for a major airline. He is also president of Nolly Productions, Inc., which produces and markets aviation videos.

Copyright ©1997 AIR, Inc.