ACS Survival Guide for Flight Training and Testing

ACS is here…what does that mean for the CFI, Pilot and Examiner?

The new Airman Certification Standard format for the Private and Instrument flight tests hits the ground on June 15th. Let’s all try not to panic and remember to breathe! The very best people in our industry and the FAA gave this new testing standard their best efforts. Remember, the ACS is really only an enhanced version of our out-dated Practical Test Standard and contains the exact same maneuvers and completion standards. It is, unfortunately, written in a challenging tabular format that can be initially confusing. But it *can* be deciphered (with effort) and will soon become a familiar working document for all of us. And all the test prep companies are rushing to comply with this new standard so help is on the way.

This ambitious pilot testing overhaul developed out of the SAFE Pilot Training Reform Symposium in 2011. All the industry alphabet players (including the FAA Administrator) were in attendance and you can view the whole 2 day event on-line here. This initiative that progressed into the ACS was developed by a diverse group of FAA and industry players. The original intention was simply to get rid of the “profoundly irrelevant, confusing and out-dated” knowledge test questions. (John King’s words from his article in Flying Magazine on the ACS).
Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 7.06.21 AM

“The FAA established the Airman Testing Standards and Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) on September 21, 2011, with the objective for industry to provide the FAA with its experience and expertise in the elements of aeronautical knowledge and aeronautical experience required for safe operation in the National Airspace System.” ATST Rulemaking Committee

Remember the “non-movable card ADF questions” (and similar) on all the pilot knowledge tests?  All of these crazy (and never pedagogically validated) questions are now gone! Also gone is the unfortunate game of dispensing the FAA question banks so students could memorize and regurgitate the answers in a rote fashion, multiple-guess format. The new knowledge test incorporates more risk management questions to test the exact same subject matter areas as the flight test. This should make the student training process much easier. A student now should only need to study and learn one body of relevant information and skill to pass both tests. This should be a big win (depending on how well they construct the new questions) for everyone.  Along with the “knowledge test purge” the ACS change agents felt it necessary to also reformat the PTS with a face-lift called the “Airman Certification Standard” for flight testing as well.

PrivateTestRobBgAs a pilot examiner I applaud the intention of this group. The old PTS (very similar in fact to the older Flight Test Guide) had become bulky, repetitive and confusing. Every time we needed to add a human factors area it was pasted into the preface as a “special emphasis item” with no indication where exactly how it integrated this into the rest of the evaluation. Additionally, though we DPEs were encouraged to perform the testing in a scenario-based format and assess judgment and risk management, there was no real guidance or justification for this process. The ACS attempts to integrate these important “soft skills” of pilot evaluations with the flying “yank and bank” skills and give them more emphasis and gravitas.

Did they succeed? We will find out as we put this process in motion on the 15th of June. I have personally conducted over 2,000 flight evaluations as a 141 Chief Instructor and FAA DPE. Usually it is very clear when an applicant is properly prepared and meets the pilot testing standards. Remember this test is pass fail, not a scored evaluation. Just like I brief every applicant; if something in the flight is “unsatisfactory” in flight, we usually will both know immediately. “Unsatisfactory” is usually not a mystery or a close call issue. The harder, and more important areas of concern for future pilots (based on accident data) are the judgment and risk-management areas of flight. These areas now receive full focus in the new “Know, Consider, Do” ACS format. As John King points out in his Flying Magazine Article, these judgment and attitude “soft skills” are the areas that keep you up at night as an instructor or pilot examiner. I have had applicants that fly a pilot flight test very well (and pass) but sometimes they still scare me in these judgment areas. The new ACS will provide the CFI and DPE tools and granular justification to be more rigorous here. Human factors will always be the “final frontier” for every CFI, pilot examiner and also conscientious pilot(!) if we want to improve our safety record. I know there are “ACS haters” out there, we have already heard from you. Please remember though, the ACS is a courageous effort by the best people in our industry to improve our flight safety record. I think it deserves a fair chance and our full support.

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Author: David St. George

Master CFI, 141Chief Instructor, FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE)

4 thoughts on “ACS Survival Guide for Flight Training and Testing”

  1. Interesting article, here are a few questions that popped up after reading the article a few times.

    If the ACS is “only an enhanced version of our outdated PTS” why was the PTS not revised?

    Are the questions on the ACS truly pedagogically validated? Who validates them? I ask this because there seems to be some uncertainty about how the questions will be constructed.

    What guidance and justification has been provided to DPEs to perform flight tests in a scenario-based format and to assess judgment and risk management? The article mentions that this is something missing from the PTS.

    How will you measure success of goals of the ACS? What kind of testing was conducted and what were the results? I cannot imagine implementing a change of this magnitude without any data that clearly shows what results are expected.

    John King’s article in Flying magazine mentions that the GA accident rate remained high even after the implementation of FITS. And yet the next step is not to evaluate whether we are on the right track with scenario-based training, but to look at the knowledge tests. FITS didn’t do the job and so the reaction is maybe the knowledge tests are inadequate. I do not quite get the connection. Has anyone considered that maybe the scenario-based training approach should be reevaluated?

    Perhaps we should do away with the term “ACS haters.” A tactic sometimes used when one’s argument does not hold up to close scrutiny is to apply labels and names to those who hold a different viewpoint. Is there room for those who are safety-conscious and in agreement with the need for better risk management training but uncertain as to the method and implementation? It would be add insight to all to have a thorough and robust discussion about this topic. I get it that the ACS is here and upon us, you can’t fight City Hall. However, do we not deserve to have straightforward answers to honest questions? Otherwise we are left with anecdotal accounts, tragic stories, and the motivations of the authors of this initiative as reasons for change.

    I hope the comments section here is open to many viewpoints.


    1. Great questions Arnold. Thanks! I certainly can’t answer at the level of detail you request however. Perhaps future subjects for exploration by academics in search of a thesis? (An investigation of the FITS failure would be especially illuminating…its the third rail of modern scenario-based training!) Real scientific data, at the level you suggest takes *years* of careful research and inevitably seems to yield inconclusive and contradictory results (Think of the continuously evolving gov’t dietary suggestions: “good egg, bad egg”).

      ACS development, as I understand it, was more at the level of moving beyond the “known bad” such as the embarrassing rote memorization of irrelevant questions. By embodying the best of modern learning theory and embedding judgment and risk management into the mix, a better testing standard was evolved. It is the best effort of committed industry experts in academia and everyday flight training. Tested…yes. But at a scientifically verifiable level? Probably not. But it is a big improvement over the usual gov’t “fire first, aim later” technique. Involving industry professionals was an enlightened improvement.

      Yes, “ACS haters” might be too extreme and dismissive. The new ACS is an “ambitious experiment” by committed experts I trust. In the perfect world it can/will be tweaked as it’s deficiencies become apparent. Fingers crossed!


  2. David, you make many good points. I agree, the PTS needed a makeover, partly because the “special emphasis items” had become an extensive list, pasted into the preface as a with no indication exactly how it integrated this into the rest of the evaluation. The ACS now integrates the appropriate special emphasis items directly into the current Objectives and Tasks and takes the guess work out of what is expected of a private pilot. So for the flight portion of the evaluation, the ACS is the same as the PTS, just clearer and better organized.


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