Navigating the Airman Certification Standards

The ACS now prepares you for both tests. fizkes/Shutterstock

Ten years ago, the aviation industry was fed up, and the FAA needed help to fix the problems that had developed within the process of testing applicants for pilot certificates and ratings.

So, what was the issue? Essentially, instructors and prospective pilots had two separate tests (the written exam and the practical test) to prepare for during the course of training for each certificate—private, commercial or airline transport pilot—or the instrument rating, and those tests followed two separate sets of standards. A committee composed of FAA and industry experts convened to resolve this, and it created a single standard that would apply to both knowledge and practical tests, otherwise known as check rides. At the same time, the group addressed the modern relevancy and appropriateness of the test questions and task elements along the way.

The airman certification standards were first released for private pilot airplane applicants in June 2016, and the ACS for other certificates have been issued periodically ever since. When the ACS process was crafted, it included a means of improvement, so updates, corrections and revisions could be properly considered and implemented in a timely manner.

So How Do I Use It?

So, what is the ACS, really? You can think of the document for each certificate as an outline for you to follow in your training.

Each ACS begins with an explanation of what it proposes to accomplish, as well as the philosophy, rationale and strategy behind the overall plan. The introductory material clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of the applicant (you) and the examiner during the course of the practical exam. The appendices at the end of the document go into further detail on various subjects, such as the knowledge exam and use of flight simulation.

Tables in the appendices pages give you a matrix through which you can determine what parts of the ACS apply to adding on a new class rating—for example, if you hold a private pilot “airplane” category certificate with a “land” class rating, the tasks you will be required to demonstrate when pursing a “sea” class rating.

The main body of the ACS is divided into sections called “areas of operation,” and each of these is divided into tasks and elements of each task. Each task includes the reference material used by the FAA and the objective behind testing on the task. The elements within a task are divided into knowledge, risk management and skills. These elements carry a code that can be used to place the element within a course of training; they also correlate to questions on the knowledge exam (see the sidebar, “Elements of the ACS”).

Read More: Learn to Fly

All active knowledge-exam test questions relate to the ACS and have been aligned, and you’ll see these codes show up on your Airman Knowledge Test Report once you’ve taken the written exam. Your instructor will use these codes to determine the areas you need to review and understand more completely, and your designated pilot examiner will refer to these codes when conducting your practical test to make sure that you have mastered these areas.

In fact, the codes showing what you’ve missed are just one part of your check ride. The DPE will compose your test using the full ACS for that certificate or rating. The plan of action includes from each task: at least one knowledge element, at least one risk-management element and all of the skill elements—plus those subjects you missed on the written, if any. All told, though, your check ride shouldn’t take any longer than check rides did in the past, but it does require a bit more orchestration on the part of the DPE to integrate all of the required elements.

What if you don’t pass the check ride the first time around? First of all, don’t panic—a failed test happens to a lot of pilots who go on to be successful in their careers. Using the ACS, you should have a clear understanding from the examiner where you missed the mark. Regroup with your instructor to go over those elements where you were weak, and practice again for a retest. If that second test takes place within two calendar months of your original check ride, the elements you passed before count toward its completion. After two months, you’ll need to retake the entire test.

What if I Need More Info?

The FAA’s ACS website includes a repository of useful tools for you to access during your training—from the time you begin to when you prep for your check ride. Not only are the downloadable ACS guides for each certificate there (such as for private pilot, commercial pilot and instrument rating), but you’ll also find FAQ, a slide deck outlining how the ACS was built and how it’s used, sample knowledge exams, and a “What’s New” document to keep up with any changes as you go.

As of press time, the most recent update to the Private Pilot Airplane ACS was made in June 2018, with a Change 1 effective date of June 6, 2019. You should regularly check in on the FAA ACS site to ensure that you are working from the latest version—or ask your instructor to show you so you can work together on following the plan.

With the ACS as a road map for both the knowledge and practical exams, you should have a clear route to your next level of achievement.

Elements of the ACS

A series of elements abridged from the Private Pilot Airplane ACS might look like this:

Area of Operation: Navigation

Task: Diversion

References: FAA-H-8083-2, FAA-H-8083-25; AIM; navigation charts

Objective: To determine that the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management and skills associated with diversion.

Knowledge: The applicant demonstrates understanding of:

PA.VI.C.K1: Selecting an alternate destination.

Risk Management: The applicant demonstrates the ability to identify, assess and mitigate risks, encompassing:

PA.VI.C.R1: Collision hazards, to include aircraft, terrain, obstacles and wires.

Skills: The applicant demonstrates the ability to:

PA.VI.C.S1: Select a suitable destination and route for diversion.

PA: Private Pilot Airplane

VI: Area of Operation (Navigation)

C: Task (Diversion)

K1: Knowledge Task Element 1

R1: Risk-management Task Element 1

S1: Skills Task Element 1

This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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