Personality and Pilot Selection

Personality and Pilot Selection

The Challenge:

It is widely recognised that for an effective selection processes you must identify the critical Knowledge (K), Skills (S), Abilities (A), and Other (O) characteristics, i.e. the essential KSAOs (Damos 2011).  The KSA elements in selection have been widely developed for both ab-initio and experienced pilots but the ‘O’, the other characteristics, in this case, personality, still need to be formally addressed.

This need for the identification of the required personality traits for professional pilots, specifically in relation to the role in pilot performance is vital. Once again military research has led the way, recognising that aviators are a select, homogenous group and very different from the “nationally representative norms”. Furthermore fully recognising that human error is the most significant factor (causal) in accidents and serious incidents, understanding the personality characteristics of pilots is an essential element of any selection process. Pilots who possess the internal resource to meet the demands of occupational stressors have greater control and perceive the stressor as less threatening, this is an example of internal locus of control. Locus of control (LOC) was defined by Rotter (1966) as a personality trait reflecting the degree a person perceives that events are either under his control (internal LOC) or under the control of outside forces (external LOC). Research from the US army concluded that pilots with internal LOC are less likely to be involved in an accident and experienced less hazardous aviation incidents.

Personality disorders and emotional influences can also affect a pilot’s performance, Butcher (2002) emphasises exercising caution during the selection process and throughout the pilot’s career (i.e. command upgrade).  This has been recognised by the aviation regulators and the latest requirement for a ‘comprehensive pre-employment screening’ of pilots by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) resulting from the 2009 Colgan Air accident findings, but with no practical guidance of how to achieve this aim. Butcher (2002) further highlighted the need for a study of personality factors of active airline pilots and in selection, to identify the tell-tale signs that signal unsuitability: 

“To identify persons with more extreme personality characteristics that could affect flight operations”. 

This has been brought to the forefront of the aviation industry following the loss of the Germanwings Airbus A320 with the action of the First Officer  (BEA 2015, p. 29).

The Gap:

The current lack of a norm set for a proven, well performing professional pilot is identified as a key factor within the industry. The current industry requirements for comprehensive selection  (IATA 2012; FAA 2012; ICAO 2015) clearly demand the urgent investigation of the key personality traits as measured by the Five Factor Model (FFM), of well performing civilian airline pilots. Thus allowing assessment of a pilot profile based on actual airline performance, with the aim to improving selection processes using the associated predictive validity (in terms of the stable personality traits) identified with good performance in the multi-crew cockpit environment.

The Solution:

We can provide tailored norms for your organisation, making use of one of the most respected and widely used measures of personality. Develop and guide your selection and internal promotion processes, improving safety and cost effectiveness for your operation.


BEA 2015, Preliminary Report: Accident on 24 March 2015 at Prads-Haute-Bléone (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, France) to the Airbus A320-211 registered D-AIPX operated by Germanwings.

Butcher, JN 2002, “Assessing pilots with ‘the wrong stuff’: A call for research on emotional health factors in commercial aviators,” International Journal of Selection and Assessment, vol. 10, no. 1-2, Wiley Online Library, pp. 168–184.

Damos, D 2011, KSAOs for Military Pilot Selection: A Review of the Literature. Report No. AFCAPSFR-2011-000.

FAA 2012, “Pilot Certification and Qualification Requirements for Air Carrier Operations,” Federal Register, vol. 77, no. 40, pp. 12374–12406.

IATA 2012, Guidance Material and Best Practices for Pilot Aptitude Testing, 2nd ed, IATA, Montreal.

ICAO 2015, Potential Safety Risks Caused by Pilot Shortage, Montreal.

Rotter, JB 1966, “Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement,” Psychological monographs: General and applied, vol. 80, no. 1, American Psychological Association, p. 1.