In order to obtain a pilot certificate of any kind in the United States, a pilot must take an FAA Practical Test, better known as a checkride. The checkride you might take tomorrow is not much different from the checkride I took ten years ago. That is about to change. The FAA recently announced that the practical test standards that we all know so intimately will be overhauled. But will pilot training change? Will the actual checkride be conducted differently than it has for decades? Will aviation safety improve?
After the creation of the Air Commerce Act in 1926, which introduced new rules for pilot certification and the first ever regulations pertaining to aviation, along with a host of other things like new navigational aids and designated airways, the nation's first certificated pilots were born. The first official pilot license was issued to William P. MacCracken, Jr., after both Charles Lindbergh and Orville Wright declined the honor, with Orville boasting that he did not need a piece of paper to prove to the world that he was the first pilot.
This first pilot certificate was awarded as an honor in recognition of service to civil aviation. Subsequent certificates were awarded based on the personal judgment of examiners, which could be subjective. To standardize and make more objective the requirements for checkrides, the FAA eventually introduced the Practical Test Standards. These practical test standards outlined more specific expectations for pilot applicants and gave pilot examiners a rubric with which to evaluate pilot applicants. The test standards began mostly as a maneuvers-based evaluation, making sure the pilot could take off, land, recover from stalls, navigate by means of pilotage and dead reckoning, and others. Today, we still use these same practical test standards, although they've been modified over the years to include advanced navigation and new safety protocols. Yet, the practical test standards remain primarily maneuvers-based: The PTS lists what the applicant should be able to do, the conditions under which each task is to be performed and an acceptable performance standard for each maneuver or task.
The trouble, as accident data suggests, is that mastering a maneuver to a certain level, while it requires effective airspeed and altitude management, is not the most effective indicator of a safe pilot. The Nall report, for example, tells us year after year that improper decision-making and improper planning are common causes of accidents. The 2010 Nall report states that, "After excluding accidents due to mechanical failures or improper maintenance, accidents whose causes have not been determined, and the handful due to circumstances beyond the pilot’s control, all that remain are considered pilot-related. Most pilot-related accidents reflect specific failures of flight planning or decision-making or the characteristic hazards of high-risk phases of flight."
The PTS was created principally to provide objective standards for evaluating and certifying pilots. We have since learned that most of the qualities and abilities that separate safe from unsafe pilots are very difficult to quantify. In an effort to focus attention on these more subjective qualities – knowledge, discipline, risk assessment and management – the flight training community has in recent years created training techniques designed to incorporate these concepts. These techniques would include scenario-based training, FITS (FAA-Industry Training Standards), and training focused on technically advanced airplanes. Most thoughtful flight instructors already make every attempt to include risk management in the training regimen. The question remains as to how to evaluate these principles, which are really processes of thought, mental and emotional approaches to flight, in the course of a practical test. In recent years, these concepts have made their way into the existing PTS as front matter called “special emphasis areas," but only now, with the FAA's new Airmen Certification Standards (ACS), has there been a serious attempt to integrate these concepts into the specific objective tasks of the PTS.
But what exactly does this mean? Will it accomplish anything productive or valuable to flight training? The most prevalent change you'll see will be in the task list included. What we know currently as the PTS will be incorporated into the ACS, and the task list items, which were fairly brief, will be expanded to include many more specifics. For example, the current version of the Private Pilot PTS has 10 objectives listed for the Soft Field Approach and Landing task. It looks like this:
The new ACS project will have much more specific tasks in four different areas under the Soft Field Approach and Landing task: Objective, knowledge, skills and risk management. From a reading of the draft of the proposed ACS, this will be true for every task in the ACS. Knowledge and risk management are now made more specific by referring, in the standards for each task, to ways in which these somewhat amorphous and slippery concepts apply specifically to that task. It goes into much more detail about what could be evaluated on the check ride, including an entire section on risk items. It will look like this:
Along with the added emphasis on risk management, some students and instructors may be relieved to know that there will also be a change in the FAA's written knowledge tests. The FAA admits that over the years, parts of the knowledge test question bank have become redundant and outdated. With the new ACS, we should see the demise of old questions about NDBs and and irrelevant and poorly worded questions that include multiple calculations and interpolations. That's good news. As for when the new ACS will take effect, the FAA is proposing a rolling introduction beginning in late 2015 with the Private Pilot, the Commercial Pilot ACS and the Instrument Rating ACS and revision of the corresponding knowledge tests and codes. A Frequently Asked Questions document recently posted by the FAA admits that this schedule may slip into 2016, but advises that examiners, now called evaluators, may already use the draft ACS as guidance for the administration of checkrides.
The FAA wants us to look at the new ACS as an improved upon PTS, a long-overdue plan to make the qualities now known to correlate with safety an integral part of flight training and testing. They define it as "a holistic, integrated presentation of specific knowledge, skills, and risk management elements and performance metrics for each Area of Operation and Task." I'm not entirely convinced that this will be anything new or unusual for those of us training pilots. The performance standards will remain the same, and, according to the FAA, the ACS will not change the check ride. Instructors should already be teaching risk management and decision-making at every step of flight training, although the specific bullet points now included under each task may suggest specific ways in which these qualities pertain to every task we perform as pilots. In the end, the ACS is a change that is past due and should align the evaluation of pilots with the principles we should have long since been teaching.