The ACS is Here

The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) replacing the familiar Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the private pilot and instrument ratings went into effect and the earth continued to rotate about its axis. This should be a fairly seamless transition but I have heard a lot of anxiety and trepidation expressed by pilots in training, their instructors and even designated flight examiners. Most of that anxiety is about changes to the written (knowledge) tests.

There are actually two things going on that are related but really not earth shaking. The first concern I have heard is a fear that the knowledge tests are being completely revised and nobody knows the “new” questions. The tests are being revised for two reasons but the knowledge required hasn’t changed a bit so the ground school to prepare for the written really doesn’t need to change. 

When the FAA was developing the ACS they had to look at all the test questions to match them with a learning objective. This forced them to acknowledge there were some really irrelevant and stupid questions, something that the aviation community had been complaining about for years. Those questions were eliminated from the test question data bank. 

Prior to 2008 all FAA test questions were available in the public domain and metrics from testing sites clearly indicated that people were memorizing the questions to take the test. Applicants were taking 15 to 20 minutes to complete a test that should have taken around an hour and a half. So over the last two years the FAA has “changed” every question that was in the public domain but they are still questions about the same knowledge. The definition for angle of attack has not changed so there is still only one right answer. The only things that have changed on time, distance and fuel computations are the given conditions. You still use your E6B or calculator to get the answer. Changes in chart reading questions involve using different points of reference than the public questions. Things like finding an ATIS, VOR, or FSS frequency or the elevation of an obstruction. 

The practical test or check ride won’t change that much either. The ACS requires the same level of performance for each of the tasks as the PTS did. You still have to do all the tasks that were in the PTS but now you have a better idea of the questions relating to those tasks the examiner can ask you. What has been added to each area of operation is a clear definition of what knowledge you need to know and what risks you need to consider to perform the tasks in that area of operation. This should actually help you and your instructor as you prepare for the practical test. Besides asking you questions about topics you missed on the written exam the examiner is only required to ask you one knowledge question and one risk management question for each area of operation but you do need to be prepared to answer each of the questions listed in the ACS. 

Simply put, each area of operation has three sections: things you need to know, things you need to consider and tasks you need to perform.

The ACS should allow applicants to be better prepared and more confident going into the practical test and there should be a higher success rate for check ride completions.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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9 Responses to The ACS is Here

  1. Keith L. Kizziar says:

    So I ok I took and passed the writtens for both the IFR and the Commercial this time last year. The test results are supposed to be good for two years from the test date. I am still working on the flying part but hope to finish before the end of this year. Just wondering, does anybody know, will I be required to retake one or both writtens?

    • Keith,

      You’re good for 24 months after your test date with no need to take a new test until you go more than 24 months to take your practical (check ride). Your Instrument practical will definitely use the new ACS for the test. If you take your practical before the Commercial ACS is released it will be given using the existing PTS.

  2. Woodward Tom says:

    “The questions were being memorized?” OK, but you still have to memorize the answers, right? Show me one person on this entire planet through recorded times who has answered all the questions and “understood” all the answers and the logic or reason behind them? Just One! I have been flying for 50 years, 18000 hours, 8 type ratings and I can tell you I passed all my test by memorizing the questions and the answers? Isn’t that what the test is designed to achieve. Now did I understand every concept? NO! Do I still understand every concept? No but I have learned most of them along the way. The FAA can change the test and it won’t be 6 months before people will go back to memorizing the answers and the questions. I’m all for updating to freshen up the material and make it more pertinent for the “Magenta line Generation” but this looks like an attempt for someone in the FAA to justify their job. Hey, just my opinion..

    • Tom, without a doubt some things need to be memorized like V speed definitions but the applicant should have to work computational and performance problems with proficiency rather than just memorizing the answer because it’s available in a master question file and they recognize it. That’s why people were only taking 15 minutes to complete the 60 question test that had several questions that required they be worked through to get the answer.

      • Tom says:

        I guess the real proof is to go back several years later to those who memorized the answer, computational or otherwise, and see how they have developed as pilots. Are they proficient, safe pilots or did memorizing the answers stunt their skills and cockpit management. I didn’t know what particular questions you are referring to buy and thing to do with math these day can be done in a hand held computer or smart phone with an app. I flew professionally for 30 year and I can tell you that the last time I use math was calculating a descent on a B727, which all the math I needed was to decide the altitude by three to determine the distance from a point to begin a descent. Now computers do all that for the pilot. So I still don’t see the issue the FAA is trying to solve.

      • Tom, testing centers now provide an electronic E6B and calculator for working the time, distance and fuel problems and the question is do you know how to enter the data to determine how long the flight will take and if you have enough fuel to complete the flight. What the FAA is trying to circumvent is the applicant looking at the question and saying the answer is B just because they have seen that specific question before rather than working actually working the problem to validate their ability to solve it.

      • Tom says:

        I understand what the FAA is trying to accomplish philosophical but in real life I don’t think you will find anyone who answered “B” The plane needs 17 gallons of fuel…. For example because he memorized the answer yet would go out to his airplane and not calculate the actually fuel need based on his knowledge of his airplanes burn rate because he realizes that his but is in the airplane. My point is the written test doesn’t prove he knows how to do it or WILL DO IT. The proof is in Actually doing it which his instructor will insure or Darwin will grade!

  3. John Horn says:

    Tom nailed it when he indicated the real proof is to how they developed as pilots over the years. You can teach a monkey to fly if you have enough bananas but you can’t teach it judgment. So, over the years since receiving their license have they shown the judgement necessary to conduct operations safely? Or not? Will the new tests change anything in the end?

    • You still have to test to an entry level of knowledge and capability to get your “license to learn” and simply memorizing answers to canned computational and performance questions rather than being able to work them on the spot is not sufficient.

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