Questions are being asked about the mental health of a co-pilot thought to have deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane. But pilot aptitude tests are designed to weed out such cases, expert Michael Müller tells DW.
Deutsche Welle: Are there international standards for psychological assessment tests for pilots that Germany must also adhere to?
Michael Müller: There are no international standards, as every airline decides itself what selection process is suitable to its needs.
That means that Lufthansa and Air Berlin use different tests?
Exactly. There are different selection processes. Of course, these all have official approval in some way. For example, the DLR test, which is the test that Lufthansa pilots have to pass, is one of the best known and probably simply one of the best in the world, and is used by various companies, not just Lufthansa. But there are other test batteries that are used, for example the COMPASS test and the PILAPT test. The airlines select the right procedure for them.
What do these tests normally include?
First, they test cognitive abilities; that is, what a person, compared with a computer, can achieve in terms of computation. Capacity is also tested, as well as things such as the psychological profile. Empathy is tested, and assertive ability and other things like that as well.
Stress management also plays a role, as does team orientation - whether the pilot is in a position to work meaningfully in a two-person team so that two people together achieve more than a single person, particularly in critical situations. But certain subjects also play a role in the selection tests, such as mathematics, physics and English.
Applicants who are not yet pilots, but want to be, are tested as to whether they will be able to cope with the material they will have to learn during training.
Is the background of applicants taken into account; for example, whether they have had treatment in the past for psychological or other problems?
Yes, of course, a thorough medical examination is necessary. An applicant's past is examined in a purely medical regard, but the personal history also plays an important role in the general test procedures, especially in the so-called interviews: where the applicants come from, what they have done previously, what kind of family background they have, where they grew up, how their normal development was, and so on and so forth.
Very practical things are also considered, such as the number of traffic offenses they have committed, or whether their behavior has ever aroused suspicion. So, the personal history of a pilot - and I would say that this is a worldwide standard - is scrutinized very closely.
And would you say that such tests are suitable for weeding out precisely those people with psychological problems?
Prospective pilots are subjected to a variety of stringent aptitude, medical and psychological tests
The tests are eminently suitable, and the DLR test - the procedure that has been used by Lufthansa for many years now - is certainly absolutely a world leader in terms of its fault tolerance, which we, too, have observed to be very, very small. An applicant that the DLR test has stamped as suitable will really be suitable as a rule. This is shown by the fact that only very minimal corrections are sometimes needed afterwards.
If an applicant does pass such a test and then displays suspicious behavior during training, where one feels that he or she no longer conforms to the norm, then very restrictive measures are applied; there is no tolerance at all for such things. For this reason, that which has just happened, the background about which we are speaking, is likely to be an absolute exception.
How would you describe the ideal pilot with regard to his or her psychological make-up?
That is, of course, a difficult question. It has to do with the fact that psychological profiles are very diverse in general, in other companies and professions as well. Pilots also display a wide range of psychological profiles. But a stable character is certainly important, and such a character is formed on the basis of a stable social background, the way someone grew up, however that was.
Someone's previous development is an important factor, but what a pilot needs on the job is an established personality; he or she must be empathetic, that is, to be able to understand the thoughts of another person or a work colleague.
But a pilot must also be assertive, because the job does not involve just operating systems and observing instruments, but observing the captain as well. A co-pilot is somewhat lower in the hierarchy, so to speak, because co-pilots have less experience. But they still have to be capable of correcting the captain if he or she makes a mistake, which perhaps sounds easier than it really is.
For this reason, aptitude tests carefully take into account whether the applicant is empathetic and has a good psychological make-up on the one side, but on the other whether he or she is assertive enough to correct mistakes, to intervene when a mistake has been made, and to assert him or herself against a captain if a captain does make a mistake. A pilot has to fulfil a range of demands, and so the airlines make sure that the procedure they use guarantees that applicants really have the characteristics that are necessary.
Michael Müller is the managing director of ATTC, a company that helps applicants prepare for pilot aptitude tests.