5 Tips to Help You Succeed in the Rated Pilot Interview

BogiDope, an F-22 rejoins on the tanker prior to refueling.

Most active duty pilots have never sat through a formal interview in their life—they went straight from the Academy or ROTC to pilot training. Now, at the age of 35, they are trying to figure out something that most professionals learned when they left college in their mid-20’s: the importance of interview prep. 

As is often the case in aviation, the best way to learn is from the mistakes made by other pilots.  Here are five tips that will help you overcome the common mistakes witnessed during rated hiring boards and ultimately land you your dream Guard/Reserve gig.

1.  The amount of preparation you put in—or lack thereof—is obvious!

Congratulations! Your resume, reputation, and network just got you an interview at your dream squadron.  Unfortunately for you, however, there are nine other guys and gals with impressive backgrounds that got the invite too—and there are only three spots available.  With those odds, do you feel comfortable just winging it in the interview?  Or do you think this opportunity is worth a few nights of preparation to ensure that the board can’t say no?

If you assumed the latter was true for all applicants—that everyone arrived studied up and prepared—you might be surprised.  There have been more than a few applicants who I assumed would nail the interview based on their impressive resume and reputation.  But once it was revealed little to no effort went into preparation, the interview (and applicant’s chances) fell flat.

The simple fact is that you will be making a first impression on at least one member of the hiring board at this interview; you’d be surprised how the strong opinion of one board member can make or break your chances. So, here are a few easy ways to show them that you are absolutely the person they need in their squadron for the next decade:

  • Know the basics of the squadron (e.g. ops tempo, alert, mission types, etc.)
  • Be ready to explain how your unique background can help the squadron. Maybe you have a background in Test that will help the squadron transition to an upcoming weapons upgrade. Perhaps your multiple deployments to country X will become a vital resource for their upcoming deployment to the same region.  The key here is to relate your experience to the target squadron.
  • Make a list of common interview questions and think of the basic points you want to get across.  Sometimes it helps to write the answers down.
  • Record your practice answers into a phone or computer to see your facial expressions and mannerisms.  Gauge the length of your answers; are you getting to the point or are you droning on a bit too long?
  • Think about any skeletons in your closet and prepare to address them straight on.  Emphasize what you learned as a result of the challenge and how the experience made you a better pilot and leader.
  • Formal interview prep companies are expensive ($300+), but can be worth it—and you only have to pay for it once.  A professional interview prep course can prepare you for airline interviews down the road as well.
  • Continue to interact on the BogiDope forums to get your specific questions answered.  Information is power!

2.  Someone on the interview board should recognize your face.

Imagine that you are the CEO of a small business.  You have been tasked with hiring an executive that is going to work within your company for the next 8-10 years.  Someday, they might even be in a position to take it over.  Would you want to meet that person face-to-face at some point before you offered them the job? 

Of course!  That logic applies to hiring pilots, too.

It is understood that many of the pilots interviewing are stationed overseas or can’t physically make it to the interview due to other competing priorities.  Although it will always be advantageous to interview in person, I’d say about 50% of our interviews are conducted over the phone (see #3), which is completely fine.  However, if you cannot physically make it to the interview, you should have at least visited the squadron at some point within the last two years.

Since you can’t predict if you’ll be able to physically attend an interview that hasn’t been scheduled yet several years in advance, start scheduling opportunities to visit the squadrons on your short list now!  If you are within two years of separating, plan out a road trip for the next time you’re in the country and visit as many of these units as you can.  Take your spouse! Getting your other half involved in the process will help make the change a smooth transition for your family—and who doesn’t like a road trip?

It may seem expensive and a lot of work, but then again, it’s for the next 8-10 years of your life!  It’s worth the effort to make an informed decision.  If that’s not enough motivation, just remember that the majority of the guys interviewing have visited the squadron.  Don’t be a faceless name on a resume that nobody recognizes.

3.  If interviewing over the phone, prepare yourself for the lack of non-verbal cues.

Phone interviews are often required and are almost always awkward.  Imagine that you just completed an answer and the other end of the phone is completely silent.  Are they still listening?  Do they understand what you’re saying?  Should you keep talking?  Are you talking too much?  This doubt naturally creeps in due to the lack of non-verbal communication signals.

That nod, smile, yawn, and eye contact the interviewers give you can tell you a lot.  For example, a nod can reinforce that they understand what you’re saying while shifting eye brows may indicate that they are confused or that they disagree.  We use these subtle cues constantly in our daily lives, which is why an interview over the phone and the subsequent lack of non-verbal cues can sometimes throw people off.

Here are some basic techniques for combatting this awkwardness:

  • Keep all answers under 2-3 minutes.
  • Have a note pad with some key points you want to address in front of you.
  • Write notes, names, and anything else important on the same notepad during the interview to stay engaged.
  • Talk with a smile.  I know it sounds cheesy, but it helps your voice sound energetic and upbeat as opposed to monotone and boring.

4.  Posture, language and appearance matter regardless of how comfortable you are.

Rated pilot boards can trick you into letting your guard down.  Perhaps you flew with various members of the squadron during a previous assignment or drank beers with a couple of the guys on the hiring board while rushing the unit.  Both of these things can be huge assets in the hiring process, but regardless of how much rapport you think you’ve created, don’t forget that this is a formal interview.  If you don’t have the discipline to sit up straight, look people in the eye when speaking, dress appropriately and refrain from using bad language during a 45 minute interview, you risk giving someone the wrong impression.  Again, chances are good that there is at least one person on the board that doesn’t know you.  This is your only chance to make a good first impression.

This may seem basic, but recently I heard of a hiring board with several well qualified applicants.  One of the applicants was an Air Force Weapons School graduate who had rushed the unit for several months and attended several roll calls leading up to the interview.  Another applicant was a Marine Corps pilot with a relatively average resume who didn’t know anyone in the squadron.  On paper, the Marine stood little chance, comparatively speaking.  However, the two made vastly different impressions on the board during the interview.  

The Air Force pilot conducted his interview with his flight suit sleeves rolled up, slouched back in his chair, and dropped several F-bombs as if hanging out at the bar.  His familiarity with the squadron had made him overly comfortable for the situation.  

Conversely, the Marine owned the interview room.  He leaned forward in his seat making eye contact with each board member and answered each question with enthusiasm and poise.  That was enough to win over the commander who was not impressed with lack of respect displayed by the Air Force pilot.  Despite having no connections and needing significantly more training to transition into the squadron, the Marine got the position simply by staying disciplined, recognizing who his audience was, and not letting his guard down.

5.  Have a plan for feeding your family outside of the squadron.

Although full-time orders of varying length will almost certainly be available to you at some point, it is typically assumed that you will become a DSG (Drill Status Guardsman, aka part-timer) once you get settled into the squadron.  So, make sure you’ve formulated a realistic plan for how you’re going to support your family. 

We understand that it is a difficult transition from a consistent paycheck on the 1st and 15th of every month to the relative uncertainty of civilian life.  We don’t expect you to already have something lined up (although it’s even better if you do), and we know that finding the right civilian job may take several months or even years.  However, part-time employment is a fundamental part of the reserve component of the military, so we want to hear that you’ve at least thought it through. 

During the interview, you might explain how you’ve planned ahead by saying, “Ultimately, I’d love to be full-time in the squadron because I think I could help the squadron significantly with X, but I understand that full-time orders may not be available right away.  So, I have submitted my applications to X, Y, and Z airlines.”  

As long as your plan seems achievable and you are still able to contribute to the squadron, you’ll be fine.  

A word of caution: be smart about what your immediate plans are once joining a new squadron.  For instance, starting law school three months after you’ve just transitioned into a new airplane and a new squadron may come off as setting yourself up for failure—in both the squadron and the classroom.  At least make it appear as though you’ve given the transition some thought and that you have a realistic plan.

Rated hiring boards are nothing to be intimidated by, but they are something that requires preparation.  Make the effort to visit the squadron, think through the common questions you’ll likely be asked, and avoid the common pitfalls experienced by those who came before you.  Do those things and you’ll knock the interview out of the park!

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