June 14

ACS Survival Guide for Flight Training and Testing

ACS, CFI Technique

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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).

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“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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About the author 

David St. George (Lifetime Member)

David St. George learned to fly at Flanders Valley Airport in 1970. Proving that everyone is eventually trainable, he became an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor for airplanes (single and multi, instrument, and glider) and serves the Rochester FSDO as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. In this capacity, he gives flight tests at any level from sport pilot to ATP and CFI. For 20 years David was East Hill Flying Club's 141 Chief Instructor and manager. David holds multi and single engine ATP pilot certificates, with pilot ratings for glider and seaplane. He recently earned his ninth renewal as a Master Instructor and owns an Aeronca Champ so he can build hours for that airline job! He is now flying charter: http://learnturbine.com

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