Goodbye PTS, hello ACS?

The Practical Test Standards (PTS) have been the guide for student pilots for decades, spelling out exactly what tasks will be covered on the checkride. As the saying goes, if you measure it you aspire to it–so pilots have long followed the PTS religiously. If a skill isn’t on the list, it usually doesn’t get much attention.

PTS book

Could this well known book be changing soon?

Unfortunately, the PTS haven’t changed much since they were first introduced, and there is no guidance at all for the knowledge test. Questions about GPS are few and far between, while dead reckoning and NDB navigation get lots of attention. The result is a test that encourages memorization instead of understanding, and trivia instead of important subjects.

But this could be changing soon. An industry group was recently formed to design an enhanced version of the PTS that is more suited to the 21st century. The Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee Airman Testing Standards and Training Working Group (yes, that’s really the name of the group) recently submitted a proposal to overhaul the Private Pilot and Instrument Rating standards.

The new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) will focus far more on decision-making and risk management, and less on memorizing obscure data or reading performance charts to the third decimal. It seeks to influence not only the knowledge and practical tests, but also FAA training publications. You can read complete details here and the group’s frequently asked questions here.

The new ACS is strongly supported by many in the industry, from the Society of Aviation Flight Educators (SAFE) to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), who see the new ACS as an important way to improve the flight training experience and increase safety. Not everyone agrees, though, including some long-time flight instructors. They believe the ACS will increase the time and expense involved in earning a certificate, and possibly accelerate the decline in stick and rudder skills.

What do you think? Is the proposed ACS a long overdue fix? Or is it a misguided effort that will negatively impact safety? Add a comment below.

13 Comments

  1. Bobby says:

    I’m with Rod on this one. This sums it up for me (from his reply to the FAA linked above):

    “The HFACS study suggests that we are no longer teaching pilots how to physically fly airplanes. Instead, we’re teaching them how to mimic the behavior of airline pilots in hopes of achieving the low accident rate of commercial aviation. The problem is that nothing about flying big airplanes pertains to flying small ones, while everything about flying small airplanes pertains to flying big ones. Were we to emphasize stick and rudder skills during the training and the practical testing process, we would most likely see immediate gains in aviation safety. It’s clear to me that the proposed ACS is a step away from testing an applicant’s stick and rudder skills, not a move towards it.”

    • Matt E says:

      You can count me in the same camp as Bobby and Rod.

      I may not be “that old,” but I am almost constantly butting heads with a lot of other pilots my age when I speak out about over-reliance on new “stuff.” Don’t get me wrong, G1000s and electronic E6Bs and other whiz-bang electronics are cool, but when push comes to shove, none of that matters if you’re a weak pilot.

      During my primary training, I once watched a pilot in a sweet-looking, new SR22 burn through over 4000 feet of runway before he touched down and something occurred to me. Though I never saw that particular plane again, unless that was a fluke, all the new electronics and safety devices in that state-of-the-art airplane (except the airbags) didn’t matter much, because they likely ran off the end of a much shorter runway somewhere. At best, the pilot’s poor landing skills prevented the use of most general aviation facilities.

  2. Tom Yarsley says:

    The preliminary documents I’ve seen are an improvement over what we’ve got. Anybody who’s been in the flight training business for more than a day knows that the real problem is the instructors/schools that think that their job is to train a student to pass the written and practical tests – as contrasted with training the student how to fly. I’ve always believed that you could do the former without the latter, but that if you taught a person how to fly, they’d be able to pass the tests as a consequence.

    Over the years, I’ve encountered fewer and fewer licensed pilots who knew how to fly. Instead, they had learned (with varying degrees of success) how to operate specific vehicles (just like the airlines). It’s always depressing to see a pilot who appears to be proficient in a C-152 exhibit utter bafflement when placed in the left seat of a C-172. S/he never learned how to fly. Consequently, s/he learns how to operate a C-172. This works just fine ( ? ) until s/he encounters a C-182, or a Warrior, etc. Or until s/he learns how to fly – with or without help from a flight instructor.

    In my experience, the biggest missing link is airspeed control. The vast majority of instrument-pilot-wannabees enter the program completely unable to vary the vehicle’s airspeed from high cruise to MCA and back, while maintaining a heading and an altitude. Even more amazing/depressing is that most of them claim that “nobody ever showed me how to do that.” Seriously.

    My curriculum for private pilot training requires mastery of that skill before the student encounters stall training(typically at about 4-5 hours total time). If you can’t de-couple airspeed, heading, and altitude, you’re not a pilot – you’re an experienced passenger.

    I think that the FAA has been counting on flight instructors/schools to teach students how to fly – in addition to the PTS stuff. As time has gone by, that’s happened less frequently. The new standards appear to be a step in the right direction. But ultimately, pilots need to learn how to fly. Unless you completely automate the aircraft, none of the fancy crap in the panel will save your butt if you lack stick-and-rudder skills.

  3. Mason says:

    Count me among the grumpy old guys who see a puzzling desire to ignore the basic stick and rudder skills in favor of a video game approach. Modern gear, such as GPS, glass presentation of information, and weather in the cockpit have the potential to greatly improve GA safety, but only when resting on a solid foundation of basic skills. Keep in mind that good basic skills have to be kept current through regular flying and practice, just like that necessary to a virtuoso musician or a tournament golfer or similar activity. There isn’t any real mystery about the nature of good flying skills – we’ve been doing it for over 100 years. Just work persistently until you own them and fly regularly enough to maintain them. Another pretty book doesn’t add much to that process.

  4. John Zimmerman says:

    I generally agree that stick and rudder skills are weak right now. And I completely agree with Tom’s point about airspeed control being a really forgotten skill.

    But I’m not sure that means this ACS effort is all bad. To me, it’s not an either/or situation. The PTS is pretty badly outdated, and the written test is an absolute joke. I would disagree with Tom on one point – you can learn how to fly and fail that test.

    So maybe I’m too optimistic, but I’d like to see the ACS reform take hold and an emphasis on stick and rudder.

  5. Tom Guyton says:

    Great comments so far!
    Ok, so SAFE (I’m a member of SAFE and NAFI) and others worked hard – Scenarios are good – touchy feely isn’t it? But basic flying skills come first…
    I am very pleased with the removal of NDB and other obsolete junk from the written tests. I really don’t think it took as long to eliminate radio range when it became obsolete as we have taken this time to clean up the trash on the written. PTS -> ACS evolution needs to focus on fundamental pilot skills in depth. Rich Stowell and others can certainly lead the way here. Focus on Private and instrument needs to be on fundamentals that will keep people alive and set them on the right path for their flying career. (Previous comments have covered this quite well)
    Some time ago I was going to participate with a group working on the update to the Private PTS (this group wanted a four figure contribution from me to their organization in order to let me work as a volunteer on their committee). This group consisted of big flight school people and an entity that puts out much of the cram material for the current written/oral/practical tests. I declined.
    Previous comments so far are going in the right direction. Private and instrument training should prepare the applicant to operate an aircraft proficiently and safely in the real world of high density as well as rural operations with low to no ATC services. All of private should be done in conventional instrument aircraft. Half of instrument rating should be done in conventional instrument airplanes, with the last half devoted to operation of G1000 or similar cockpits. (This concept will obviously require more hours of training than pilot mill schools will offer) The instrument pilot needs a good grasp of the fundamentals of where his data comes from (steam gauge technology) even if he is only going to fly glass in the future. We have already seen a number of accidents where pilots were unable to manage glass failures and revert to their (poorly placed) backup instruments.

  6. Brian Knoblauch says:

    With these upcoming changes, should I stop training (working on my Commercial) now and wait until they’re finalized? I don’t want to waste my time and money on hours that won’t be useful towards the new standards.

    • Eric Tallberg says:

      Brian, although the Commercial is based on tougher questions of the Private Pilot material, I’m not really sure that waiting is in your best interest. You’ve already started learning the current material. You’d also be delaying your chance to get paid to fly. To me, you’d only hurt yourself. After you pass the tests and these new standards are in place, you can return to “training” and learn the new material while getting paid for flying…
      I’m in the same boat, but I don’t want to hold my breath waiting for the FAA to actually implement these changes. If you’re close to taking the test, just take it (it’s not that bad as long as you’ve memorized the ADF stuff as mentioned.
      Good luck however you go about it!

  7. Stephen Phoenix says:

    In the car world, one can take a driver’s test in a Toyota Yaris and after about 15-20 minutes of demonstrating basic skills and some knowledge of the rules of the road, drive home fully licensed. Then, jump in a 20,000lb RV and head across the country for some driving in New York City. They don’t take you out on a skid pad to demonstrate your drifting abilities or any panic stops from 80 mph or your navigation skills; and it works ok.

    Why is it necessary to punish ourselves with a 2 to 4 hour checkride to a PTS during which the examiner tries to determine if we have good decision making ability as we read through long checklists before each move? And then, if the examiner determines that we have the right stuff, pay him $600 to get a piece of paper. Wouldn’t it be better to just demonstrate smooth, positive control of the airplane with a short flight, along with reasonable knowledge of the rules? A good examiner could tell if you were going to pass by the time you taxied to the end of the runway.

  8. JOHN B. DEITERS says:

    The fundamentals of stick and rudder are quickly lost when letting electronic advances do all the flying. I still have friends who have advanced to flying Boeing 777s continue to hand fly them to their cruise altitudes and enjoy flying their Cessna 172 on days off to maintain VFR skills as well as stick and rudder. The other loss I am seeing as a flight instructor is spatial orientation and knowing exactly “where are we on this approach”? Too many are resorting to letting ATC handle them in the IFR environment like “a kid being pulled in a wagon” rather than as pilot in command! Too much of “I can just find myself on the MFD display”! Good luck to us all!

    • John, I agree with you. One must become one with the airplane, ATC, airspace and the flying environment. The A/P and MFD and all the bells and whistles should be to help enhance the flight flow and situational awareness not situational distractions. The fundamentals of flying need primary focus.

  9. Eric Tallberg says:

    I’m not sure why anyone would argue against the change. I haven’t read all of the proposed changes, so I may be ignorant of significant holes, but in my estimation, the current system is failing as it is. Nothing has changed and it’s this lack of change that is failing, not new proposed standards. Stick and rudder is currently failing, with the current outdated system. Head-down operations are happening now, with the current outdated system.
    There has been a push for more ADM and CRM in the IFR test, a great improvement. However, I blame those “Long-time Flight Instructors” for failing to instill the proper skills, not the FAA and the test standards. It’s like the standardized tests in public schools, people will teach to the test instead of teaching the skills needed to become a good person or pilot. I had a hell of a great instructor and although I bonk it now and again, I know exactly why I failed to get down in 600 feet (Piper Warrior). The Long-Time Flight Instructors are the ones that are allowing students to fail to land their aircraft in 4000 feet. It is the Long Time Flight Instructor who signs off on a BFR, it’s also the Long Time Flight Instructor who signs off on the students logbook to take the practical exam or take the test.
    We can’t continue with the status quo since that’s proving to be a failing methodology NOW. I applaud the change and will seek to employ these new standards when I pass my Commercial ride and begin my training to become a Flight Instructor and can be chided in 20 years by someone pointing out that I’m probably failing that new class of pilots because I didn’t want to change what I was doing either.

  10. Jack Morris says:

    Having read the proposed new PTS (with the added Risk Management items) demonstrates that the bureaucrats and study groups can implement a very good concept in a very poor way. Some mention has been made that arcane and obsolete flight topics need to be removed and I certainly don’t object to that as long as the basic seat of the pants and stick and rudder principles are not excised in the process.

    But what bothers me is through the magic of electronic cut and paste editing, every tiny subsection of the old remaining PTS is peppered with basically the same Risk Assessment queries. It is as if someone with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) was put in charge of the project.

    The concept of Risk Assessment is important to making flight decisions, but it applies in a global sense that is implicit to each PTS category (subsection), not by incessant repeating of basically the same risk assessment questions. Not only is the proposed new PTS considerably larger than the original, its repetitive passage-work has to dishearten the applicant who is trying to make sense of things.

    I think the appropriate way to handle this, is to create one section of the PTS that deals with Risk Assessment concepts and principles as they pertain to flight and flight planning. And then remind the reader that these principles are to be applied to every aspect of flight as outlined in the various subsections of the PTS.

    A pilot examiner could then query the applicant (student pilot) on various selected subtopics and also ask how the applicant would apply risk assessment as part of the decision making process. The examiner, based on the applicant’s answers to such queries could then decide whether or not the applicant meets the risk assessment skill set necessary to satisfy the test.

    What I am talking about used to be called applying common sense.