The Practical Test Standards was a great tool for its time but clearly represented the dominant view of psychology back in the 1970s; behaviorism. The sum total of human evaluation was what you could see from the outside. As we prepared for our CFI tests many years ago we all recited “learning is a change in behavior as a result of experience” to prepare for our CFI evaluations and humorously referred to the government CFI training manual as “good dog, bad dog.” If a testing standard is a presentation of what a good pilot should look like, the PTS was clearly a one-dimensional, black and white sketch of a three-dimensional, color world. Of course we all knew there was more and the manuals were evolving to reflect more modern practices. For me personally, Greg Brown’s original Savvy Flight Instructor book changed my whole world view of the instructor’s role and brought motivation and inner psychology into a more central role. The government manuals at the time still presented  what you could see from the outside, how to “wiggled the stick”not think your way out of a problem. Good instructors, of course, always covered extensive cognitive topics…but these were not tested. As a consequence many unlucky pilots were trained without this “added value” and never developed higher order thinking skills like risk management.
And as a pilot examiner “back in the day” I remember writing out more than one temporary certificate (yes with a pen on carbon paper) for an applicant who had “performed” very well, but gave me a sense of unease. Though this new pilot clearly met the practical test standard, there were also most definitely missing elements that a safe pilot should know and consider; primarily judgement and thinking skills. And though as examiners we may counsel, advise (and pray) in the debrief, we are held to the legal government testing document. We give the “government’s test” and not some personal version. The PTS toolkit of the time did not include a lot of cognitive, risk management elements. As time passed, emphasis items in the PTS preface multiplied to reflect cognitive “best practices” but the PTS tool was outdated, limited and increasingly disjointed. The FAA manuals had evolved considerably over time but the testing standard had not.
The new Airman Certification Standard presents a more comprehensive vision of what a safe pilot should be. It includes the historic PTS skill elements but integrates the thinking skills of what a pilot should know and consider as well. There have been criticisms of its length (of course) but this document is designed to be more comprehensive. We now have a full color picture of a pilot rather than the PTS pencil sketch. And now that examiners have this tool to evaluate the whole pilot (skill, knowledge and judgement) the applicants as a group seem (to me) to be improving and better prepared to be safer, comprehensive pilots. In the past three months my pilot applicants, prepared to the new ACS, seem more thoughtful and well versed in the thinking/planning skills…because we can test this. Of course there will be some wrinkles to iron out in this new standard but it is a superior testing/training tool. My appreciation goes out to those who worked so hard to create this document (and endured the slings and arrows…) This is an ambitious move on the part of the FAA and a hopeful new step toward safer flying.

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About the author 

David St. George (Lifetime Member)

David St. George learned to fly at Flanders Valley Airport in 1970. Proving that everyone is eventually trainable, he became an FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor for airplanes (single and multi, instrument, and glider) and serves the Rochester FSDO as an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. In this capacity, he gives flight tests at any level from sport pilot to ATP and CFI. For 25 years David was East Hill Flying Club's 141 Chief Instructor and manager. David holds multi and single engine ATP pilot certificates, with pilot ratings for glider and seaplane and several jet type ratings. He recently earned his 13th renewal as a Master Instructor and owns an Aeronca Champ so he can build hours for that airline job!

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