If you are a current or potential student pilot, or if you are a certificated pilot considering a new certificate or rating, you may have checked 14 CFR part 61 to find out what the rules require for you to qualify for that credential. If so, you will have noticed that for each certificate or rating, 14 CFR has a list of topics for aeronautical knowledge and another list for flight proficiency. In broad terms, these two sections list the topics that must be taught, and then successfully tested, via the FAA knowledge test (aeronautical knowledge) and the practical test (flight proficiency).
Many years ago, the FAA developed the Practical Test Standards (PTS) to standardize the practical test by defining acceptable performance of the required skills. However, there is currently no such detailed and explicit guidance for the knowledge test. This situation has complicated development of knowledge test questions. It has also led to growing aviation community concerns about the quality and relevance of airman knowledge testing materials.
To address these concerns, the FAA chartered the Airman Testing Standards and Training Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) in September 2011 to make recommendations on improvements to airman knowledge testing. This group, which included representation from universities, training providers, and associations, determined that there is no way to “fix” the knowledge test in a meaningful and sustainable way without a knowledge test standard akin to the PTS.
What is the ACS?
The ARC briefly considered proposing a “Knowledge Test Standards” (KTS) document that would be the knowledge test companion to the skill-focused PTS. However, ARC members feared that separate KTS documents could result in divergence between a KTS and the PTS.
The ARC concluded that aviation safety and community needs would be best served by integrating task-specific aeronautical knowledge from the areas listed in 14 CFR part 61 into the appropriate Area of Operation in the existing PTS, and by adding task-appropriate risk management elements for each Area of Operation. This “Airman Certification Standards” (ACS) approach would thus define not only the performance metrics for knowledge and skill, but also the required content for guidance materials such as the FAA-H-series handbooks and for relevant knowledge test questions.
As envisioned by the ARC’s aviation community members, the ACS framework does not increase or expand any of the skill evaluation requirements in the existing PTS, but it significantly improves the PTS in several ways. Specifically, the ACS approach provides integrated guidance that defines performance metrics for aeronautical knowledge as well as flight proficiency (skill); strengthens the PTS by explicitly defining the aeronautical knowledge needed to support each Area of Operation/task; enhances safety by using the risk management section in each ACS Area of Operation to translate abstract terms like aeronautical decision-making into specific safety behaviors relevant to each task; and eliminates “bloat” by consolidating duplicative or overlapping tasks in the existing PTS.
Upon receipt of the ARC’s report and recommendations, the FAA asked the industry-led Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) to establish an Airman Testing Standards and Training (ATST) Working Group (WG) to develop proposed ACS documents for the private pilot certificate, the flight instructor certificate, and the instrument rating, as well as recommendations for improving associated handbooks, and for aligning test questions to the defined knowledge and risk management standards in the ACS. At the request of this industry group, which included many members of the original ARC, the FAA established several dockets in order for the group to receive public comment on its ACS proposals.
To take this work to the next step, in December 2013 the FAA asked the industry-led ARAC to establish a third group, the Airman Certification System Working Group. The ACS Working Group is charged with completing work on the “foundational” set of ACS documents (i.e., for the private, commercial, ATP, and instructor certificates and the instrument rating), mapping standards to guidance (e.g., handbooks), and – importantly – prototyping use of the ACS approach to training and testing. As of this writing, the first ACS prototype training course for a summer private pilot certification course is underway in Florida.
Both the aviation community experts who developed the ACS and the FAA employees assigned to monitor the effort believe the ACS approach will improve airman testing and training. It could also decrease training time and costs by focusing more closely on what an applicant really needs to know.
The FAA will continue to work closely with the aviation community to refine and, at the appropriate time, introduce the ACS approach more broadly. (FAA Safety Briefing – SepOct 2014)