Certifying pilots: the new Airman Certification Standards

The FAA is gearing up to start replacing the Practical Test Standards – the FAA’s checkride guidance for applicants, instructors, and designated pilot examiners (DPEs). The PTS has been the “Cliffs Notes-to-the-Checkride” for years. Why in the world would the FAA mess with a good thing?

Because it just makes sense.

PTS book
This familiar book is going away. Why?

The PTS is specific to the last stage of the certification phase – the practical test is the final exam for a new pilot certificate or rating. The new Airman Certification Standards (ACS) covers all tests applicants must pass to earn their wings.

Airman Certification Standards – What is it?

The ACS makes sense because it connects specific, appropriate knowledge and risk management elements to specific skills. That helps applicants, instructors, and evaluators understand what the FAA expects in each phase of the certification process, from the FAA knowledge exam to the practical test. It also helps everyone understand how knowledge, risk management, and skill work together for safe operation.

The ACS is basically a souped-up version of the PTS. Like the PTS, the ACS is organized by Areas of Operation and Tasks. Each Task includes an Objective, References, Knowledge task elements, Risk Management elements, and Skill elements. The result is a comprehensive and integrated presentation of the standards for what an applicant needs to know, consider, and do in order to pass both the knowledge and practical tests for a certificate or rating.

The Knowledge task elements reflect the subjects previously defined by the FAA Test Guides (FAA-G-8082 documents) and covered in the Knowledge Exam.

The Risk Management task elements come from the Aeronautical Decision-Making and Special Emphasis Items in the PTS Introduction. Incorporating them into a task allows evaluators to see an applicant’s judgment and decision making in the context of actual flight operations.

Readers will recognize the Skill task elements as those from the Practical Test Standards. Aside from some editorial clean-up and combining redundant tasks (such as combining Runway Incursion Avoidance with Taxiing), the skill demonstration and acceptable tolerances are the same as they’ve always been.

The PTS Introduction had grown into an extensive bunch of widely-ignored material. The ACS Appendices provide the information readers need in easy, digestible chunks. This approach streamlines information previously presented (and sometimes contradicted) in a multitude of FAA documents. The result is a single-source document for airman certification: PTS (FAA-S-8081 series) + Test Guides (FAA-G-8082 documents) + Learning Statement Reference Guide + FAA Knowledge Exam Test Matrix = Airman Certification Standards.

If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it: Why the Change?

Pilot in cockpit with instructor
Can the ACS make checkrides less focused on checking the box and more about real flying?

One of the reasons the ACS works so seamlessly is that the FAA recruited several diverse and highly-qualified groups of aviation training industry experts, as well as FAA employees from a variety of Flight Standards offices, to develop it.

The ACS started in 2011 as an effort to fix the airman knowledge tests. At that time, too many knowledge test questions were outdated or irrelevant. With many that seemed more “tricky” than “meaningful,” test preparation became an exercise in memorizing correct answers solely for the purpose of passing the test.

The FAA was receptive to improving the Knowledge Exams. We initially considered a “Knowledge Test Standard” (KTS) comparable to the PTS — a document to help test writers keep questions meaningful and relevant, and to correlate training and testing so an applicant is by default prepared for the FAA Knowledge Exam through regular ground and flight training curriculums.

After extensively discussing the KTS, this FAA/Industry committee concluded the knowledge test could not be effectively (and sustainably) fixed without taking a systematic approach to the overall airman certification system.

So After All This – Are the FAA Knowledge Exams Better?

Yes, the result is indeed better FAA Knowledge Exams. Every task element in the ACS has a designated code. The FAA established an ACS exam review board, which is coding the test questions to the ACS-defined task elements. If a question doesn’t fit anywhere, then it is either thrown out or modified to align with the task element defining what an applicant really needs to know to be a safe pilot.

Get used to this document.

Using this approach, the FAA has extensively cleaned up the Private Pilot Airplane and Instrument Rating Airplane Knowledge Exams. The board has removed questions on NDB/ADF, slaved gyro, TWEB, obsolete fuel grades, tricolor VASIs, and the height of blowing sand, to name just a few. That lets applicants focus on learning things that really matter in each phase of flight.

When the FAA is ready to write new questions, they will use the ACS to create only those questions defined by the task elements within the ACS. As new questions and subjects are added to the test, the FAA has committed to keeping the public sample exams current to reflect the actual tests being given. That lets applicants ensure that their regular ground and flight training studies prepare them for the test.

What Does the ACS Mean For You?

After five years of ACS development, which includes successful prototype testing in Orlando and Seattle, the FAA is ready to begin the transition from PTS to ACS. The FAA is replacing the PTS for Private Pilot-Airplane and the Instrument-Airplane rating with the corresponding ACSs this June, with the PTS-to-ACS for Commercial, ATP, and Flight Instructor happening over the next 2-3 years.

Anyone using the ACS for training, teaching, or testing will be better prepared than ever before, not just for the certification process but for operating safely in the NAS.

The FAA is publishing a Notice stating “ACS = PTS,” and noting that the ACS does not require major changes from anyone in the certification chain. So if you’ve already completed the FAA Knowledge Exam, you don’t need to re-take a test. If you’ve completed ground and flight training and are gearing up for their Practical Test, you don’t need to do any retraining. The ACS will simply replace the PTS as the guidance document evaluators will use when conducting the checkride. Part 61 and 141 training providers can continue to use their existing curriculums.

The integrated presentation in the ACS does NOT mean the practical test will be any longer than it is today. In fact, the DPE’s increased confidence in the meaning of the applicant’s knowledge test score and in the quality of the instructor’s preparation should make the practical test a lot more efficient.

Want to know more? The FAA website’s Airman Testing web page is the “go-to” place for ACS information. Subscribe to stay informed of changes, and watch FAASafety.gov for an ACS orientation course you can complete for WINGS credit.


  • So…what does this mean for someone right in the middle of the CFI syllabus who might be ready for checkride in June?

    • As Ms. Spanitz mentioned, the CFI ACS won’t be out for several months so you will be examined against the current CFI PTS.

      Depending on your examiner, he or she may ask you about your familiarity with the ACS during your discussion on Area of Operation-II. Technical Subject Areas, Task J: 14 CFR and Publications. That task specifically indicates:
      Objective: To determine that the applicant exhibits instructional knowledge of the elements related to the Code of Federal Regulations and related publications by describing:
      2. Availability of flight information publications, advisory circulars, practical test standards, pilot operating handbooks, and FAA-approved airplane flight manuals by describing:
      a. Availability.
      b. Purpose.
      c. General content

      It will depend on the examiner but you should be familiar with Availability, Purpose, and General content of the Private ACS. Ms. Spanitz’s article is a good start for this (and may be more than the examiner knows). You can also download a draft from the link that she mentioned. Best of luck!

  • This doesn’t mean anything for CFI applicants right now. The CFI ACS is not expected out for at least 6 months. You should continue to prepare with your CFI syllabus for your June checkride — no changes.

    For applicants preparing for their Private and Instrument Airplane checkrides in June — who are in the midst of training — they also won’t need to do anything more or different. The PTS they’ve been training under is “in” in the ACS. The Knowledge Exam they’ve taken remains valid — no need to retest or retrain beyond what you would do anyways (retraining on any subjects found deficient per the airman test report). The FAA Knowledge Exam is a cleaned up version of what it has historically been; existing training methods remain valid — it just means the test is now better correlated with your training and more meaningful and relevant to your flight activities. Good luck on your CFI checkride!

  • I’m ready to take the PPL knowledge exam. I’ve been studying using ASA, King, and various other apps for practice. How will this change for the PPL. knowledge exam. Scores ranging from mid to high 80’s?

    • It sounds like you’ve been preparing using credible sources — you will be prepared. While you will likely see variations of the question you studied, the information you learned has prepared you for all iterations — they won’t be the “same” but they will be “familiar.” I’m sure you will do well. Best of luck on your test and future aviation endeavors!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *