Sanita Aišpure-Dronka is one of only two psychologists in the Baltic States who have been certified by the European Association for Aviation Psychology. Ten years ago, she helped airBaltic to set up psychological tests for evaluating airline pilot candidates during the recruitment of new employees. In this interview, she outlines the stringent pilot selection process and reveals how to overcome a fear of flying.

The first question is pretty straightforward. How did you come to join airBaltic?

It was the result of an interesting and unexpected job opportunity. Since I enjoy taking on new challenges, I jumped at the chance. At the time, I was still working in a psychiatric clinic, where I conducted court-ordered mental health evaluations. A colleague called me up and recommended that I apply for a particular vacancy at airBaltic. The first assignment was a project to conduct psychological tests on six pilots. I worked out a concept for conducting the tests and presented it to the airline's top executives, despite not having any previous experience in aviation. A few days later, I received a phone call and was told that the green light had been given for me to continue with the project. Currently, prospective airBaltic pilots are selected not only on the basis of their flying skills and knowledge; their mental work capacity and personality traits are also evaluated. There are a lot of educated people with pilot's licenses, but not all of them have what it takes to be a reliable and competent commercial airline pilot. And during the past ten years, we have raised the bar in the standards that we expect our pilots to fulfil.

What exactly is an aviation psychologist?

I am actually a clinical psychologist by education, but I have been certified by the European Association for Aviation Psychology. In evaluating a pilot, I have to spot existing or potential risk factors that, when summed together, might reveal the small tip of a dangerous iceberg. I have to get a feel for whether something invisible and potentially hazardous lies underneath the surface, such as undesirable personality traits that might compromise safe commercial air travel. 

Can you describe a typical work day for you, and what are your responsibilities?

Most of the time I am involved in the selection of pilots for the airline. The personnel department announces pilot vacancies and conducts the initial screening process. It also organises the interviews. The selection takes place in several stages. In the first stage, the candidates are put into a flight simulator together with an instructor. They undergo a simulated flight with all kinds of complications such as bad weather and engine failure. That's followed by a technical interview, which is conducted by experienced pilot instructors; then another interview with an HR pilot selection specialist. The last hurdle is an interview with a psychologist.

How does a psychological evaluation take place?

All day long, in parallel to the evaluations of their technical knowledge, the prospective pilots are given tasks that they have to continually fulfil. That's part of a test to establish their personality profiles. This is followed by a meeting with a psychologist that lasts several hours and is divided into two parts. In one part, we try to establish the candidates' cognitive efficiency and mental work capacity. How good is their short-term memory? Do they think logically? How do they make decisions? How good are their visual-spatial orientation skills? How do they fare in mathematical logic, long-term memory and attention assignments? How observant are they and how long does it take them to process information?
Commercial airline pilots have to be among the most psychologically healthy people around, which means that they have to perform almost perfectly. The second part consists of an interview, tests, questionnaires and various other methods to establish the candidate's personality, ability to withstand stress, character traits, ability to work in a team, emotional stability, ability to withstand fatigue, etc. Through all of these indicators, we establish the suitability of the candidate. Whenever people go to a job interview, they of course want to leave a good impression and try to come prepared. However, for the most part, one can prepare oneself only for the technical part of the evaluation. We've had candidates perform brilliantly in the flight simulator but fail to pass the psychological tests. The psychologist must get the candidates out of their comfort zone and feel out potential risk factors. It takes an entire work day to evaluate a single pilot candidate. 

So, what qualities must a commercial airline pilot possess?

Regardless of all the instruments and gadgets in the cockpit, the most important factor for a safe flight is the flight crew itself. This means that they must be more than just good at flying a plane. They must be psychologically balanced, flexible and largely satisfied with their lives. That includes their personal lives, relationships, free time and physical fitness, because then there’s a greater chance that they will have the resources to deal with the stresses of their job successfully. Many people come here with their entire life's focus on flying a commercial aircraft. They ignore other aspects of their lives, and this is dangerous in the long term.

So in other words, some candidates might succeed in the technical part of the tests, but fail in the psychological part?

Yes, that's happened on more than one occasion. I don't have the final say in this respect; that's the prerogative of those who are in charge of the pilots. We've come across such risk factors as unstable personality traits, insufficient cognitive abilities, behavioural deficiencies and inadequate handling of stress. Any of these might present a risk that is unacceptable in this line of work. It's not good enough to have the required technical skills and enthusiasm for the job. 
This is a tough profession that involves a continually changing schedule, night flights, long work hours, extended periods of absence from home and many other factors. From what I have seen, the most successful and stable pilots are those who have found a balance between their private and professional lives. They have a large resource base that they can rely on to stay fit for their work duties. We subconsciously choose professions that correspond with our values and personality types.

How would you rate the overall psychological condition of airBaltic's pilots?

First of all, I'd like to give my colleagues and myself a pat on the back for everything that we have achieved in the pilot selection process. Our recruitment concept and standards are in line with those of the world's leading airlines. Often candidates who apply for a pilot's position are surprised at the rigorous standards that we apply. Some people from abroad still see Latvia as a post-Soviet country with a lower quality of life and inferior work ethic. They're in for quite a shock when they come here. We've had candidates cancel their applications after they find out what they will have to go through in order to be selected. We also have candidates who openly admit that they have found the recruitment process to be extremely difficult, but who nevertheless thank us for the experience, which they say will help them in their future careers even if they don't end up being hired by airBaltic.

Following such a rigorous pilot selection process, it seems that nobody should be afraid of flying anymore. Yet a fear of flying is one of the most prevalent phobias in the world. How would you explain that? 

This fear has been around ever since people started to fly. At its basis is a complex combination of several other phobias. Fear is irrational and hard to control with one's mind. Each of us possesses a psychological construct that takes form from the moment that we are born. Either we feel a secure attachment to this world or we don't. In the case of an insecure attachment, we feel fear and discomfort in situations that we cannot control.

What should people do to overcome a fear of flying?

Even if you feel that things are beyond your control, you can always control your breathing! Whenever we feel afraid, we start to breathe more quickly and shallowly. Our heart rate quickens and we activate an alarm system in our bodies. Don’t be afraid to ask the cabin crew for an explanation about what’s behind an unfamiliar sound or why air turbulence occurs. If you have a fear of flying and know about it already before you step onto a plane, then you have to work on managing it before the flight to prevent a panic attack from setting in. There are various computer apps and support programmes for those with a fear of flying. 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Something completely different from what I do at work. Since my work demands a high degree of mental concentration, I like to spend my free time in the countryside. I have studied the art of conducting a proper pirts [Latvian sauna – Ed.] ritual and like to do so with my friends. I prepare the bunches of tree twigs for the massages, the herbal teas and the scrubs beforehand. I spend several hours in the pirts, without any hurry; it's like a rejuvenating ritual. During the summer, I like to go to arts plein-air sessions and make pottery, draw and take photographs. I also have a group of female friends with whom I do various women's things, like singing songs of strength and meditating. BO.