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The End of the PTS? What the New Airmen Certification Standards Will Mean for Pilots


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.

Why the P-51 is Still the Most Beloved Airplane at the Air Show

Perhaps the most influential warplane of all time, the P-51 Mustang is still one of the most beloved aircraft in the air show circuit today. Seventy years past its prime, the Mustang remains a steadfast and prominent part of air shows, only occasionally and temporarily overshadowed by the appearance of a modern fighter jet. Reliable and distinguished, people who know the P-51 recognize it and greet it the way they do an old friend - with respect and admiration. Why do people love the Mustang so much? After decades of innovation and an abundance of new sleek, capable aircraft, why do people still marvel at the sound of the Merlin engine?

A war hero…
The Mustang is an airplane with a story. It's a war hero - a sigh of relief in a dark time, a ray of sunshine that helped end an uncertain era in our nation's history. It's quick, easy on the eyes and music to our ears. The P-51 Mustang is so well loved and so respected because it tells the story of innovation, speed, valor and beauty during a time of difficulty.

As the first aircraft designed around a laminar flow wing, the Mustang was ahead of its time. And it wasn't just the 425+ mile per hour airspeed that made it impressive. The aircraft was rolled out in record time -about 100 days - making it one of the fastest aircraft to be produced, even during wartime. In a 1943 Popular Science article, author Andrew Boone predicted, "When the history of this war is written, there may be a hundred days underlined in red pencil - a period in which a young engineer and a veteran designer took a theory on airflow and turned it into the deadliest change-of-pace fighter airplane this stage of the war has yet produced." He was right.

The production of the P-51 was a demonstration of our nation's ability not only to innovate, but to innovate rapidly and on demand. The P-51 was designed by request of the British Purchasing Commission, and around 100 days after signing the first contract with the British Purchasing Commission, North American rolled out the first P-51, initially dubbed the NA-73X.

The British ordered 320 more aircraft from North American in March 1940, and soon after, America jumped on board, too. The U.S. Army Air Force took possession of its first Mustangs in March 1942. The airplane flew in every theater during World War II and continued to serve throughout the Korean War. By the end of World War II, it had destroyed 4,950 enemy aircraft - more enemy aircraft than any other fighter aircraft in Europe.

That engine...
There's no doubt that the P-51 Mustang, with its numerous capabilities, had a tremendous effect on the outcome of the war. But we should give credit where credit is due, and the Merlin V-1650 engine, originally designed by Rolls Royce, was a game-changer.

Early on, the P-51 was fitted with an Allison V-1710 engine and used as a dive-bomber and for reconnaissance missions. But the Allison engine, as good as it was, lacked performance at high altitudes, and in 1942, Mustangs were fitted with more powerful 1,430-hp Packard-built Merlin V-1650 engines. The aircraft's capabilities expanded greatly, marking a turning point in the war.

With the Merlin engine, the P-51 could fly up to 441 miles per hour at almost 30,000 feet. Flying at altitudes without losing power made the Mustang capable of both long-range, high altitude escort missions as well as its low-altitude reconnaissance missions that it was known for.

The sound of the Merlin engine is one that's not easily forgotten. It's a slow, rumbling sound that sneaks up on you, maybe startles you, only to put you at ease, knowing that behind the whir of the engine is the sound of victory that many people know and remember. In a 1943 article in Popular Mechanics, the author describes the airplane as fast and quiet. "There is no distant engine drone, growing louder as the plane approaches, but a sudden screaming roar overheard and the wild horse is upon you."

Pure elegance…
Today, we marvel at the history and the airplane and the sound of the Merlin, but we also stand in awe of an airplane that is not only fast and practical, but absolutely stunning to look at. With its bubble canopy, its sleek lines and silver wings... the P-51 Mustang is simply one of the most beautiful airplanes in the word.

Never has an airplane surpassed the P-51 when it comes to utility and beauty in one. It's strong and powerful, yet quiet and elegant. It's a natural performer, and it demands respect without the dog and pony show. For those who witnessed its prowess during the war, it's evocative. For the others who marvel at it during air shows today, those who can only look into its past and wonder, it's an airplane with a strange pull, an often unexplained attraction.

You may wonder why you're so drawn to an airplane that is before your time, why this particular airplane is such a showstopper. Because whether you know the history of the airplane or not, the Mustang is an airplane that stops you in your tracks. Its beauty captivates you, lures you in, and makes you want to hear its story. And it's a story worth repeating, air show after air show.

The Ultimate Barn Find? Bid On a P-51 Mustang for $150,000!

In a dusty hangar in southern California, at an unassuming airfield, there sits a forgotten treasure: A P-51D Mustang, a legendary World War II warplane that could become the find of a lifetime for one lucky buyer. One of the few remaining 425-knot piston-powered airplanes - the fastest piston-powered airplane of its era and perhaps of all time - lies in a hangar at Torrance Airport in southern California, waiting to be auctioned to its new owner.

As the inheritor of the fabled Merlin engine, the most admired sound ever produced by twelve cylinders marching two-by-two in the classic V-12 configuration, the P-51 Mustang was the best fighter aircraft of its time, shooting down 4,950 enemy aircraft by the end of the war in 1945.

According to photographer and historian Dick Phillips of Warbird Images, who researches the history of P-51 Mustangs, this airplane, serial number 44-84896, was manufactured for the war effort in 1944 and ended its military career in 1956 as part of the 169th Fighter Squadron in the Illinois National Guard. According to Phillips, the airplane was stored in California until it was sold on the civilian market for $867 dollars to P.J. Murray of Oxnard, California and was registered with the tail number N5416V.

According to Phillip's records, N5416V would be sold 10 additional times in the next five years before being sold to James Keichline for $8,950 dollars. Keichline owned the aircraft for ten years before selling it to its most recent owner, Ken Scholz in Playa Del Rey, California in 1973. Scholz originally kept the aircraft tied down on the ramp at Torrance Airport, but vandalism caused him to move it to a hangar in 1978. Scholz, a retired aircraft mechanic, apparently never flew the plane, but intended to restore it during his retirement. It seems he would never get the chance.

Starting June 2nd, this old 1958 P-51 Mustang will be auctioned by Scholz's estate, and the starting bid is only $150,000. It's a little rough around the edges and needs an extensive restoration, but it's complete - or at least advertised as "appearing complete," which we know is hardly a guarantee. The Packard Rolls Model V-1650 engine is being auctioned separately, starting at $8,000. And there are no logbooks or any other documentation for the aircraft. Add to this that the aircraft is being auctioned "as is," and, according to the listing, there is a host of problems that will require extensive efforts on behalf of the owner, including crazing and discoloration on the canopy, oxidized paint, corrosion, and a total overhaul of all instruments and gauges.

We know that the aircraft will need to be almost completely rebuilt, but what about the logbooks? How much do the missing logbooks decrease the value of an aircraft? We know that with a typical aircraft purchase, the logbooks are vital for determining airworthiness, and can reduce the value of an aircraft significantly, sometimes by up to a third, but for an aircraft restoration project this may not be accurate. Without logbooks, an active airplane may not be airworthy until an A&P mechanic or IA recreates each AD or service bulletin and attests to its performance and compliance, an expensive prospect that may end up repeating service that was previously performed but not evidenced without proper documentation. But a project as extensive as this P-51 Mustang is likely to be documented over the course of its restoration, providing proper documentation in the form of logbooks by the end of the project.

Rumors are swirling that the bid price will come in around $400,000-800,000 (minus the engine) but the cost of this restoration project will far exceed that dollar amount. According to a few of our Facebook followers, a restoration like this will likely cost at least $1.5 million. The airworthy P-51 aircraft on the market right now seem to be going at a market rate of $2.0-$4.5 million. This 1945 Mustang is listed for $2.14 million.

How much would you guess this P-51D Mustang will bring at auction? How much do you think it will cost to restore it? How much would you pay for the privilege of owning it?

8 Important Questions to Ask Before Buying Your First Airplane

Buying an airplane isn't quite as simple as buying a car. From operating costs, maintenance requirements, storage and insurance, there are many elements to consider when purchasing an aircraft. If you're a first-time buyer or are considering an aircraft purchase, take the time to investigate the process, learn about the market and ask a lot of questions. To get you started, here are a few things you'll want to consider:

  1. What's your budget?
    This seems obvious, but first-time buyers should take a detailed look at their budget. There are many costs associated with owning an airplane beyond the price tag. You'll need to consider the loan payment, insurance, maintenance, operating costs, hangar or tie down fees, and other surprise costs that might occur out of your control like mandated avionics upgrades.

  2. What can you fly safely?
    Everyone wants a larger and faster airplane, but don't be tempted to buy an airplane that's out of your league. Buy an airplane that you're comfortable flying safely and within your personal skill limitations. Even a slightly more powerful engine, or just a slightly larger airplane can have much different handling characteristics, and advanced avionics can leave you behind in a hurry if you're not familiar. Buying an airplane you don't have a lot of experience in can lead to regret.

  3. What's the purpose of the airplane?
    First-time aircraft buyers need to evaluate their reasons for buying an airplane. What kind of aircraft will provide the function you need? If you really analyze your purpose, you may find that the aircraft you initially have your eye on isn't actually in line with what you need. If you intend on flying an occasional joyride on the weekends in the local area, for example, you probably don't need an overpowered multi-engine machine with top-of-the-line avionics. If you travel long distances for business, an IFR certified, speedy, retractable gear aircraft might be more in line with your needs. Try to avoid buying an airplane based on emotion. Just because it looks cool or has large, powerful engines does not make it a good fit for you.

  4. How much is insurance? What are the requirements to be insured?
    Insurance is complicated. Buying aircraft insurance is not quite as easy as buying auto insurance. Nor is it as cheap. Make sure you know what the insurance costs will be before you start looking for airplanes to purchase. It's no fun to buy your dream airplane just to find out that insurance will be double what you thought it might be - after the insurance company requires you to attend an expensive training class and obtain a certain number of instructional hours in the airplane. These are standard procedures, but can be costly if you're not prepared prior to choosing an aircraft.

  5. Where will you keep it?
    Will you buy or build your own hangar? Will you rent one from the airport? Is there hangar space available at your airport, or will you be tossed out on the ramp? Do you have a back-up plan in place in case your hangar owner decides not to renew your lease? You'll want to ensure you have a place to store your aircraft, and you'll need to budget for those storage costs.

  6. Who will maintain it?
    Choosing a maintenance facility is probably the most important decision you'll make as a new aircraft owner. But don't wait until after your purchase the aircraft to choose a maintenance facility. Finding a trusted mechanic to help you with your purchase will save you time and money in the long run. A trustworthy mechanic can help you with a pre-buy inspection and can offer advice about certain aircraft types and model numbers before you make the purchase. And after the purchase, your mechanic will need to be someone you can completely trust and rely on to provide quality maintenance in accordance with the FAA and manufacturer's standards.

  7. What technology will you need?
    Taking a detailed look at aircraft technology is necessary when you're purchasing an airplane. Make sure you know what technology is necessary for your flying purposes, know what you're willing to sacrifice, and know how much you're willing to pay for the added conveniences of certain technologies. You might be able to get away with purchasing an older aircraft with outdated avionics if your flying is accomplished in good weather and in uncontrolled airspace. But if you often fly in Class B airspace, or mostly on IFR flight plans, you'll want to invest in modern avionics. And what about other technology, like aircraft anti-ice systems, digital engine monitoring, or weather radar? Do you need these things or, if not, do you intend to fork over the money for the added convenience and safety factor?

  8. What's the resale value?
    They say nothing lasts forever, and there will likely come a time when you'll want to or need to sell your aircraft. Do some basic market research about your aircraft to make sure that you'll be able to sell it easily when you want to. Is there a known mechanical problem with this particular make and model? Will the age of the avionics prevent people from wanting to purchase it in five or ten years? Is the safety record good, or is it a type of aircraft that has particular hazards associated with it? Is the logbook history complete and accurate? Has it been well maintained?

There's a lot to think about before buying an airplane. Talking to a number of skilled aviation professionals about the topics listed above will assure that you're armed with as much knowledge as possible before making decisions before, during and after the aircraft buying process. Still in over your head? Consider an aircraft broker.

Have you successfully purchased an airplane before? Share your advice with us!

Aviation's New Challenge: Software Glitches and Hackers?


Photo: FAA

The next generation of flying has arrived: From paperless boarding passes to paperless cockpits, we are moving to a completely computerized aviation future. It's almost like something out of a futuristic cartoon like The Jetsons with our tablet computers, internet-ready modernized passenger seats and synthetic vision glass cockpits.

Today's flights are planned on computers and sent to pilot's iPads, replacing the pounds of manuals, charts and checklists that pilots used to lug around. Outdated navigation systems are being replaced with a single, incredibly accurate, satellite based system called ADS-B. Inflight Wi-Fi service for passengers has not only become popular, but it's now almost expected from frequent airline travelers. And our nation's airspace system is getting a complete overhaul with NextGen, which includes programs like ERAM, Datacomm and many other communications systems.

This is all good news… until something crashes (or gets hacked). And we were recently reminded that sometimes computers do crash, when a few dozen American Airlines crews were left without proper charts after their iPads suddenly crashed on them while flying. The software glitch left dozens of flights and many passengers delayed.

Computers are clearly the efficient way to modernize aviation, and it's a welcome and inevitable progression toward a more effective airspace system. But there are a few things that haven't fully kept up with the fast-moving aviation industry, like software management and cyber security.

Are airplane computers secure?
Experts have warned that our industry's efforts to keep iPads, ADS-B and other onboard communication devices secure aren't comprehensive enough. An April 2015 GAO report evaluated the cyber security strength of the FAA's six major NextGen programs: Surveillance and Broadcast Services Subsystem (SBSS), Data Communications (Data Comm), NAS Voice Switch, Collaborative Air Traffic Management (CATM), Common Support Service-Weather (CSSWx), and System Wide Information Management (SWIM), which will all use an IP-based network to communicate with each other, as well as with thousands of aircraft flight deck technologies.

You can imagine that an entire system based on a computer network might be susceptible to hackers. Passengers are connected through in flight Wi-Fi. Pilots are sometimes connected to Wi-Fi via their company iPads, and will also be vulnerable to the hacking of onboard equipment through an IP network. And ATC is going to be on the ground, potentially connected to the same network. While the FAA has taken some measures to secure the networks, information in the GAO report demonstrates that the system is still susceptible to hackers.

"According to FAA and experts we interviewed, modern communications technologies, including IP connectivity, are increasingly used in aircraft systems, creating the possibility that unauthorized individuals might access and compromise aircraft avionics systems, " the GAO report states. In the past, on board systems have been insolated, but IP networking included in the many new NextGen technologies could leave not just one aircraft's systems vulnerable, but any other computer on the network.

How can operators avoid software glitches?
Besides choosing a reliable third-party developer and a company with a sound history in computer application design, there's not much an airline or an operator can do to avoid an occasional software glitch except to prepare for and expect the occasional software glitch. So far, the airlines have been lucky. American Airlines had a few delays, yes, but the problem was one that was easily fixed by handing paper charts to pilots or getting them to a place where they could re-boot, upload new charts and move on. At no time were they actually in any danger.

But what happens when a seemingly trivial software glitch isn't so trivial anymore? This is a question that was relevant yesterday, remains relevant today and will be relevant still in the future. Computers are already in use at most ATC facilities and in most aircraft. A software glitch in an aircraft is a problem, but not necessarily a dangerous one. Airplanes have backup navigation systems, backup electrical systems and backup instruments that are powered by something other than a computer.) A pilot can fly safely if their onboard computer crashes. It would test their skills, for sure, but that's what pilots train for.

A computer failure or software glitch at an ATC facility can cause major delays, possibly even for days. Remember that fire at the Chicago ARTCC facility? It not only knocked out both the primary and secondary communications networks, but it knocked out the whole region's ATC capabilities. Everyone survived, albeit painfully.

If we can glean anything from recent events, it's that in order for our industry to move forward in the world, we are going to have to rely on computers, and computers are not perfect. We have to do what's necessary to mitigate and control any associated risks, like those from hackers and software issues. And as we learn to protect our computer systems we'll likely have a few problems along the way similar to American Airline's software glitch, but the overall outcome will be an impressive, capable air traffic system that allows us to fly even more efficiently and safely than ever before.

What are your thoughts?