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The ABCs of the ACS

A Better Certification System for Future Pilots

Source:, By Susan Parson


The early summer of 1991 found me studying hard for what everyone back then called “the written” — the knowledge test for my private pilot certificate. Ground school had already frustrated me. Far too often, the instructor had introduced a topic with a “you won’t really need to use this after you pass ‘the written’” disclaimer.

As I slogged my way through practice test questions, for the life of me I couldn’t fathom why I had to make multiple interpolations across several badly-rendered charts, with the result being a two-knot wind velocity difference at altitudes I could not possibly reach in a general aviation (GA) airplane. And don’t get me started on the formula for using a fixed-card Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) to fly to the Non-Directional Beacon (NDB). Even then, fixed-card ADF had mostly gone the way of the horse-and-buggy. Besides, it was another of those subjects my ground school instructor said I would never actually need after the test.

The knowledge test prep process for subsequent certificates and ratings was no different. I suffered through silly and stultifying study of things that, by then, I knew first-hand that I would never need in real-world flying. I found myself parroting the “you-don’t-really-need-to-know-this” line to my own ground school students. And, by then, I had also acquired all kinds of far more necessary knowledge that was never presented or required for the test.

So, yes. You could say I had a quarrel with the “the written” as it was constructed.

It Took a Team

I was hardly alone. So when the opportunity arose in 2011 for the FAA to team up with experts in the aviation community to fix this problem, there was no shortage of eager volunteers. Since then, the FAA has worked with several diverse and highly-qualified groups of aviation industry experts to find a better way. The team includes advocacy groups, instructor organizations, academia, courseware providers, manufacturers, parts 61, 121, 141, and 142 training providers, and some very knowledgeable individuals, along with FAA employees from a variety of specialties and policy divisions.

By the time you read this article, the first fruits of this five-year effort — the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for the Private Pilot-Airplane certificate and the Instrument Rating for airplane — will have replaced the corresponding Practical Test Standards (PTS) documents. Much material on the ACS has been published by the FAA and our industry partners over the past few months. But for those just starting down the path to pilothood, here’s a quick ACS primer taken from the FAA’s Frequently Asked Questions on the ACS available here:

What is the ACS?

The Airman Certification Standards (ACS) is fundamentally an enhanced version of the Practical Test Standards (PTS). It adds task-specific knowledge and risk management elements to each PTS Area of Operation and Task. The result is a comprehensive document that integrates the standards for what an applicant needs to know, consider, and do in order to pass both the knowledge test and the practical test for a certificate or rating, and to operate safely in the NAS.

Where did the ACS knowledge elements come from?

The ACS knowledge task elements reflect the subjects previously defined by the FAA Test Guides (FAA-G-8082 documents) and covered in the Knowledge Test.

Where did the risk management elements come from?

The ACS risk management task elements come from the Risk Management, Aeronautical Decision-Making, and Special Emphasis items in the PTS Introduction. Incorporating them into a task allows evaluators to see an applicant’s judgment and decision making in the context of actual flight operations.

Where did the skill elements come from?

The ACS skill task elements come from the Practical Test Standards. Aside from some editorial clean-up and consolidation of redundant tasks (such as combining Runway Incursion Avoidance with Taxiing), the skill demonstration and acceptable tolerances in the ACS are the same as they’ve always been.

certification test

Why is the FAA making this change?

The ACS started as an effort to fix the airman knowledge tests, which included too many questions that were outdated or irrelevant to operation in today’s NAS. The industry/FAA team concluded that we could not effectively fix the knowledge test without taking a systematic approach to the airman certification system. The ACS is the result. The FAA is adopting this approach because it:

  • Offers a comprehensive presentation of the standards for what an applicant needs to know, consider, and do to pass both the knowledge and practical tests for a certificate or rating, and to operate safely in the NAS.
  • Connects specific, appropriate knowledge and risk management elements to specific skills.
  • Uses the risk management section in each ACS Area of Operation to translate special emphasis items and abstract terms like “aeronautical decision-making” into specific behaviors relevant to each task.
  • Eliminates “bloat” by consolidating duplicative or overlapping tasks in the existing Practical Test Standards (PTS).
  • Enables the FAA to create and maintain a clear link between the regulations, knowledge/risk management/skill performance standards, guidance, and test materials.

Isn’t the real problem related to deficient stick-and-rudder skills?

Most accidents have multiple causes. According to the AOPA Air Safety Institute, the three leading general aviation (GA) fatal accident factors are maneuvering flight, continued VFR into IMC, and loss of control on takeoff. These factors all imply some degree of deficiency in the pilot’s knowledge, risk management, and skill abilities. Even the world’s best stick-and-rudder pilot is at risk for loss of control if he or she has an inadvertent flight into IMC because of deficiencies in weather knowledge or risk management ability. Safety is not served by emphasizing just one of these three abilities. Each supports the others.

What are the letters and numbers beside each ACS task element?

The ACS assigns a unique code to each knowledge, risk management, and skill task element. These codes provide the means to correlate the tasks in the ACS with guidance and testing, and to keep them aligned going forward. As soon as the technical capability comes online, the ACS codes will be printed on the Airman Knowledge Test Report in lieu of “PLT” Learning Statement Codes (LSC).

How does the ACS improve the knowledge test?

The FAA has used the ACS to review/revise existing Private Pilot Airplane and Instrument Rating Airplane knowledge test questions and ensure they are aligned with the standard the ACS defines for knowledge, skill, and risk management elements. Questions that do not match an ACS-defined task element have been eliminated from all active form tests and from the corresponding knowledge test question banks. The FAA will use the ACS to make similar improvements to other knowledge tests and for developing new knowledge test questions.

How does the ACS change the practical test?

The ACS does not change the length or the overall conduct of the practical test. It does give evaluators a better tool for use in developing a plan of action for both the oral and the flight portions of the test. When it becomes possible to print ACS codes on the Airman Knowledge Test Report, the ACS will make it much easier for DPEs to retest missed knowledge test subjects. The long-term expectation is that ACS-enabled improvements to the knowledge test will increase the DPE’s confidence in both the meaning of the applicant’s knowledge test score and the quality of the instructor’s preparation. These improvements promise to make the practical test more efficient than it is today.

How do you know the ACS will work?

Development of the ACS benefits from extensive industry involvement, including several rounds of public comment (via the Federal Register) to refine the early drafts and nearly 18 months of prototype activity in high-volume training areas like Orlando and, for the Instrument Rating, the nation’s “IFR capital” in Seattle. Prototype participants included all types of students and several flight training environments. The goal was to determine that the ACS could be successfully used for teaching, training, and testing in environments ranging from academic light schools, fixed-base operator flight training, stand-alone flight schools, and independent flight instructors in rental or customer aircraft. None of the participants or representatives reported the need to modify their curricula to use the ACS. There were no reports of increased training time, unsatisfactory lessons, or overall training cost. DPE surveys indicated that the ACS did enable a more efficient practical test.

How do I use the ACS?

The ACS is the single source document listing the standards for both the knowledge test and the practical test. It provides a clear, easy-to-use “flight plan” for the material the FAA expects an applicant to know (knowledge), consider (risk management), and do (skill) to qualify for an airman certificate or rating. Applicants will also use the ACS to develop an understanding of how knowledge, risk management, and skill elements work together for safe performance of each Task. Applicants, instructors, and evaluators should be sure to carefully read the ACS introduction and appendices to understand how it all works together.

Will the ACS make my training harder?

Not at all. In fact, applicants who have been training properly all along are likely to find the FAA knowledge test easier. Instead of having to “learn” or memorize information that isn’t relevant to knowledge and skills actually needed for operation in today’s National Airspace System (e.g., the now-deleted questions on ADF/NDB) the test consists of questions coded via the appropriate ACS to specific Areas of Operation/Tasks. You will not see any exact match for sample questions you may have studied, but if you have used the ACS to prepare, you should be able to respond correctly to the knowledge test questions.

How will I use the ACS to prepare for the practical test?

You will use the skill standards in the ACS just as you use the performance values and metrics in the PTS today. Because the ACS also includes the material the FAA expects you to know (knowledge) and consider (risk management) in the context of each task, it will help you better prepare for the ground portion of the practical test.

What happened to the special emphasis items?

The ACS incorporates Special Emphasis items in the risk management section of the appropriate Area of Operation/Task. It also provides specific risk management and ADM procedures and behaviors associated with the Task. It thus allows the teaching, training, and testing of an applicant’s judgment and decision making in the context of actual flight operations.

When are you going to expand the ACS to other certificates and ratings?

The ACS for the Private Pilot-Airplane certificate and Instrument-Airplane rating replaced the corresponding PTS in June 2016. We hope to release the ACS for Commercial Pilot, Instructor, and Airline Transport Pilot certificates in the next twelve to eighteen months. In December 2015, the FAA added the Aircraft Mechanic Certificate with Airframe and/or Powerplant ratings to the ACS Working Group’s charter, with work to be completed by December 2017. After that, we will consult with our industry partners to establish priorities and plans for the next stages of ACS development and implementation.

new certification

Learn More

The FAA website’s Airman Testing page ( is the “go-to” place for ACS information. In addition to the ACS FAQs, it includes:

  • ACS for the Private Pilot Airplane certificate and the Instrument Airplane rating
  • ACS informational brochure
  • PowerPoint presentation on the ACS
  • Sample knowledge tests with ACS codes
  • What’s New in Airman Testing (info on knowledge test changes)

An “Understanding the ACS” course (ALC-449) that offers WINGS credit is now available in the course catalog on

The April 20 AirplaneGeeks podcast includes an interview on the ACS with one of the FAA’s ACS team leaders:

ACS Focus Team E-mail:

Susan Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

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