I attended the SAFE Pilot Training Reform Symposium in Atlanta (with FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt and all the “aviation heavies”) in 2011 and supported the need for change in our system of training and testing pilots. This reform was initially aimed mostly at removing the outdated (and frankly irrelevant) knowledge test questions (e.g. height of blowing sand and non-movable card ADF) from the computer testing bank. The FAA Manuals were evolving to focus on scenario-based training and higher order thinking skills but the question banks contained lots of the same questions I took with a pencil on bubble sheets in 1970!
The pedagogically suspect process of memorizing and regurgitating a pre-studied series of rote questions also needed to change. This test was embarrassing for any true educator and was more a “right of passage” than a true educational experience. Once this change process was put into motion, the Airman Certification System Working Group (composed of industry professionals from every alphabet group) also realized they needed to coordinate the knowledge tasks (and guidance from the newer FAA manuals) with the PTS test format, and so the new ACS was born.
When the new ACS was finally introduced, I was intensely curious to see what the committee had created and how this would work in the field (we try to achieve “results” but we often get “consequences”). Frankly, it looked a little scary (and complicated) to me. I have been an FAA DPE and 141 Chief Instructor since 1994 and given over 2,000 FAA evaluations. Imagine if you had used the same script for 20 years and suddenly you were “performing” with a whole new set of expectations…this was unsettling. I fully understand the objections and discomfort I have heard in the press and online probably more than most of you. Remember, this is a document that controls everything I do everyday!
As you are probably aware, every FAA Pilot Examiner is required to conduct their FAA evaluation from a written script called a “plan of action”. An examiner creates their own POA for each test, reviewed by their Principle Operations Inspector (FSDO handler), to organize their evaluation into a smooth and efficient experience. So the first task for any DPE with the ACS is sitting down and combing through the new “guidance” and determining the “rules of engagement” for conducting a valid “FAA-Approved” evaluation. Examiners are required also to attend annual training at FSDO and go to FAA OKC training every other year. All this is to insure the examiner evaluation follows the FAA guidance carefully, achieves consistency and does not deteriorate into some personal version of the test. We all understand that focus may vary depending on the examiner but content must be valid and accurate and carefully follow the current standard.
Anyway, none of the maneuvers or completion criteria have changed in the ACS (except for that slow flight debacle). What I discovered is the ACS codifies what examiners have already been using in their plans of action over the last 10 years. Increasingly we have been instructed by the FAA not to fire off rote-based questions; “How much fuel? What is Vx?” but instead guide an applicant through a realistic, scenario-based experience or “thought experiment.” The intention of each evaluation is to discover how our future pilot will think, decide, judge and perform in a myriad of realistic situations we could not safely or efficiently create in an aircraft. Instead of “what and how?” applicants should “describe and explain” if their test is going well and maintaining a correlative level. I think the ACS does a very good job of codifying these required pilot tasks and elements into usable, discrete, higher-level experiences. In my experience so far, the “new” ACS oral runs the same length as the PTS but more accurately embodies what a good examiner should already be utilizing; scenario-based, experience simulation to test real higher order pilot knowledge and judgment skills. The ACS is right on track and accurate to the intentions of the FAA manuals and guidance.
There will, of course, be some friction in the testing process since most current pilot applicants were trained with the older PTS guidance. And there may be some longer tests initially as examiners attempt to accurately assess the PTS-trained applicant’s knowledge and judgment. Remember, every good examiner wants an applicant to succeed. Less than two hours to discover everything a pilot knows to be a pilot (for the rest of their lives) is surprisingly minimal. Current applicants’ flight training may not have specifically focused on and developed the higher order performance standard found in the ACS and newer FAA Manuals. As this increasingly becomes the training as well as testing standard, I personally sense the ACS will make stronger, safer pilots.
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