Hiring Best Practices for Helicopter Operators

By By Chris Baur | February 1, 2011
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Where do the best pilots and crewmembers come from? When you listen to different people talk, there is a sense they might have a certain technique for or “secret sauce” for selecting the best candidate. We’ve all heard and read disappointing examples of how bad pilots had penetrated various organizations but were identified over the course of time and eliminated. I’ve listened to the discussion of which pilot might be better—military or civilian. So while much emphasis has been placed on identifying the bad pilot or crewmember, it would be productive to discuss how to find the good pilot or crewmember.

So what makes a good pilot, mechanic or dispatcher? A good crewmember is a good employee. A good employee may mean different things to several people but there are some common threads. Does anyone want an employee that is unreliable, argumentative, or unable to respect and operate within the rules? A person that will call in sick on holidays based on both the Hallmark and Mayan calendar?

So what are the factors that make a good worker? Is it their pedigree, flight time, aircraft qualifications, or ability to assimilate into the group? We’ve all heard the stories about the pilot that misrepresented their experience. Or the pilot that is a great stick, but likes to operate the aircraft at the edge of the envelope. Then there’s the mechanic who is knows more about workman’s comp than troubleshooting a hydraulic leak. This guy seems to fall more than Jerry Lewis and Steve-O at a potato sack race. I’d have to say these types of employees represent that quintessential one percent—we’ve got them, as do many other industries. You need look no further than our banking industry for some current examples of “cooking the books,” pushing the envelope and falling down on the job. So how do we accomplish due diligence and avoid making the costly mistakes of not hiring the best talent for our organizations?


While there is no perfect way to accomplish this, there are some common threads. Who were your mentors? Who did you enjoy working with the most, and why? Before you can realize your staffing goals, you should devote some time towards quantifying what you want, not necessarily focusing on what you don’t want.

Create a recruiting mechanism. Not getting the pilot applicants you really want? How do perspective employees learn about your company and the opportunities it offers? What is your reputation as an employer? Do you advertise or strictly word-of-mouth? Have you considered subscribing to one of several professional database services such as the one offered by Aviation Today?

This type of online service will allow potential applicants to discover factual information about your organization and submit their qualifications, applications and referral letters online. This affords the opportunity to search across a wide variety of applicants using tailored criteria. Do you require applicants to obtain one or more referral letters from current employees or other industry professionals? If the size of your company supports it, have you considered a sponsorship program to identify, recruit and refer perspective pilots? One caveat. To keep the referrals from becoming boilerplate, hold the sponsor accountable for the people they recommend. There’s a bonus—all this activity can occur using one of the many web-based systems mentioned above, saving valuable time, resources and data corruption. (Somehow, you knew I was going involve technology).

Now that some potential candidates are identified, how do you screen them? It depends on the organization. In my experience, the U.S. Army spent a lot of time reporting, saluting, grooming and saluting. (Did I mention saluting?) The U.S. Customs Service had me sit in a chair in a hallway for three hours. The Air Force spent 18 months processing, losing, reprocessing and losing my flight physical. I guess you can have perspective candidates listen to Kenny G until they blackout. It’s a watershed opportunity for you to discover more about the perspective employee and for them to discover more about the organization.

Another way to avoid expending valuable and limited training resources is to allow a prospective employee the opportunity to respectfully decline if they don’t see a good fit. Can your company afford a repetitive cycle of recruiting, hiring, and training when a new hire quits due to misunderstood expectations? (Did you think it was all about you?)

There are several tools at your disposal to aid in the selection process. Think about a flight test in either an aircraft or simulator to evaluate basic airmanship. Consider a standardized profile that is no more than 15-20 minutes. Also consider a Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) scenario to evaluate their both the candidate’s experience and human factors skills. These can be accomplished in a flight training device (FTD) or a non-motion simulator, at a nominal cost. It will quickly identify the good, the bad and the ugly.

Similar practical scenarios can be developed for mechanics and dispatchers alike. Enlist the members of your team as a great resource to construct the scenarios used in the evaluation process.


In regards to the interview, do you want to make the applicant nervous or relaxed? Which candidate is more likely to present their real persona; the starched stiff one or the relaxed one? Is this a time to get to know your prospective crewmember or an interrogation? How many people do you need to conduct the interview, a panel of eight to ten, seated by rank or position, or will two or three suffice, casually seated? A bottle of water? No water?

Give some thought to using of behavior-based questions, available from several vendors. Examples of behavior-based questions are: “Tell us about a time you disagreed with your superiors,” and “Tell us about a time you had to work with someone you didn’t get along with.” While there is not a right or wrong response to an individual question, the interviewer can identify trends and develop an understanding of the candidate’s experience solving problems and leadership potential. This is also an opportune time to ask technical questions about previous aircraft flown, FAR/AIM, meteorology or present an approach plate for discussion.

Strive to keep your process as standardized as possible so everyone has a fair opportunity and a consistent result. At the end of the interview, give the applicant the opportunity to ask questions of you and the panel. Take the time to ask if there is anything they’d like to share about themselves that you haven’t asked. That is another watershed opportunity for a relaxed applicant to provide some essential information you may never have known.

After the interview, be sure and offer the prospective employee the opportunity to have a tour of your facility and speak with other employees.

The background check comes next. There are several competent agencies that can perform the required Transportation Security Administration background checks and more. In fact, civilian companies can provide the same criminal and civil background checks that the military performs and supply your organization with the results even faster. Look beyond the difficult. Try a Google search and the popular social networking sites. Maybe your candidate is an amateur alligator wrestler, astronaut or Evil Knievel-type daredevil. When released by your prospective employee, their former employers have an obligation to supply their flight records for your inspection.

Indoctrination 101

So you’ve made your selections and are ready to move on. Not so fast! Many great employees get off to a not-so-great start when they are left to figure out how to successfully integrate into an organization. It’s not unusual to have anxiety when starting a new job, especially if relocation is also involved. If your organization can support it, the sponsorship program really helps during the transition. This is also another great opportunity for technology to extend your resources with computer based indoctrination and training media. Another cost efficient opportunity to impart your culture, company resources, policies and training using proven self-paced media. Employees can accomplish everything from processing their healthcare choices, W-4 and uniform purchases in a standardized, structured format that doesn’t drain your administrative staff.

This same medium can be used to provide web-based initial training so new pilots, mechanics and dispatchers have a familiarity and basis of knowledge prior to their first day of on-site training.

Students are more likely to absorb and retain information when they get familiar with the material in a low threat environment. How well do you learn when your mind is preoccupied with hazards, threats and uncertainty?

When you are paying crewmembers by the hour, you want them to receive maximum benefit from their training.

Ultimately, we all want to recruit and retain the best flight crewmembers so we can provide the safest, most efficient and highest level of service to our valued customers. Like many projects, it’s all in the prep work. Think about what your current process looks like and the results you are experiencing.

The best talent available doesn’t come from a specific branch of the military, a certain flight or trade school, college or university. Seldom does the best talent beat a path to your door. You have to create a viable passageway to your organization that provides open and clear communication with equal opportunity to all applicants.

Through the use of technology you can maximize your costs, time and opportunity to recruit, evaluate, select, indoctrinate and train the best.

Employee Loyalty

You’ve done your homework and hired the best. Now, how do you keep them? Replacing a lost employee costs 150 percent of that person’s annual salary. To increase the loyalty and engagement of your employees follow these 10 basic principles and action items:

1. Start by measuring employee engagement. Using a scale of agreement, a survey can express quantitative measurements of employee engagement. This can yield a rich source of inexpensive opportunities to make employees happy.

2. Gather compliments in addition to concerns. Companies can find out if their engagement efforts make a meaningful, lasting contribution to employees in this way. Engagement is most effectively measured both quantitatively through scaled questions, and qualitatively through open-ended comments.

3. Help your employees to see the big picture, how they contribute to a functioning whole. A ‘chain of customers’ exists from the bottom of the organization up to the top. Where outward facing employees serve a customer, supervisors must serve and empower retail employees, managers must serve and empower supervisors, etc.

4. Close training gaps. Make sure there are no major training gaps in your organization. Training should be up-to-date. Make sure employees know about training opportunities.

5. Train and encourage seasoned employees to be mentors. A mentoring program can facilitate dynamic skill growth throughout an organization.

6. Promote team-building activities among employee groups. There are well-documented benefits to creating trust and acceptance among work groups. Team-building activities don’t have to be expensive and can be found through a simple web search.

7. Build a supportive environment before addressing compensation complaints. Sometimes dissatisfaction with wages merits investigation. Often, dissatisfaction masks problems. Employees voice problems in terms of a compensation issue.

8. Don’t be afraid to tell them the truth. Respect your employees through degrees of transparency. Communicate how your business is doing at least quarterly. Give your employees confidence in the future and information to understand shifts in corporate policy due to economic or competitive environment.

9. Retrain or get rid of bad managers. One bad manager can pollute multiple layers of an organization. Your most talented employees will be the first ones to leave in the face of poor management. Poor managers bring down the morale of employees, which in turn spills over to the engagement level of customers and ultimately reflects that group’s performance and profits.

10. Recognize employee contributions. Recognition from a supervisor at least two ranks above an employee makes a meaningful, engaging difference in morale.

Adapted from “The Top 11 Ways to Increase Your Employee Loyalty” by Kyle LaMalfa, best practices manager and loyalty expert, Allegiance, Inc.

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