One of the many clichés batted about in the flying world is that a new aviation certificate or rating is a “license to learn.” It is true that the achievement is a starting point, and it is also true that we should always be learning. Still, I was shocked by how many times my private pilot ground school instructor emphasized some point, but immediately assured us that we didn’t need to recall it for long. Rather, we could just memorize whatever it was and, “because you don’t really need that,” we could forget it as soon as we had successfully passed “the written” (aka the knowledge test) and/or the oral portion of the practical test. Huh?!
Two subsequent events reinforced both my instructor’s well-meaning assurance and my budding outrage about devoting time and effort to irrelevant material. The first was my experience in taking the knowledge test. Even as I dutifully churned through the multi-step process required to answer a particular question, I thought it was ridiculous. The overly complex question required me first to pore over several badly rendered weather charts and use that information to perform multiple interpolations across several performance charts. The result of these careful calculations was a two — yes, two (!!) — knot wind difference. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the calculations were for an altitude I could not possibly reach in a GA airplane.
The second reinforcing event came when I was introduced to the automatic direction finder (ADF), an airborne navigation instrument now vanishing as quickly as the ground-based non-directional beacons (NDB) that supported it. Ground school drills, practice exams, and the actual “written” test were chock full of questions requiring use of the MB = MH + RB formula for the fixed-card ADF. I didn’t quite believe the ground school instructor’s “you won’t really need this” assurance until I saw for myself that (a) fixed card ADF instruments were already mostly extinct, and (b) determining the bearing to or from an NDB didn’t require mental math.
So, you could say I had lots of objections to the “the written” as it was constructed.
A Decade of Progress
It seems I had plenty of company. When the opportunity arose in 2011 for the FAA to team up with experts in the aviation community to address 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, part 61, 121, 141, and 142 training providers, and some very knowledgeable individuals, along with FAA employees from a variety of specialties and policy divisions.
The first results of this ongoing effort — the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for the Private Pilot-Airplane certificate and the Instrument Rating for airplane — replaced the corresponding Practical Test Standards (PTS) documents in June 2016. Several additional PTS-to-ACS transitions have been published since then, and still more are in queue for release. For those new to aviation, the ACS is fundamentally an enhanced version of the 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 National Airspace System (NAS).
The lion’s share of the work on the ACS project is accomplished by the aviation community participants who volunteer for the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) working group. Our aviation community partners in the ACS project have helped not only with the massive task of creating the ACS, but also with recommending how FAA handbooks should be revised to align with the ACS and stay fully up to date. In addition, their work has provided both the framework (i.e., the ACS) and the flexibility (i.e., freed-up resources) for the FAA to develop meaningful knowledge test questions.
Given the success of the collaborative effort to develop the ACS, there was no shortage of volunteers for a more recent effort: the Designated Pilot Examiner Reforms (DPER) Working Group. This activity arose from a 2018 congressional mandate for the FAA to ask the ARAC to review regulations and policies related to designated pilot examiners.
In accordance with this mandate, the FAA formally asked the ARAC in June 2019 to provide advice and recommendations on reforms needed to ensure the FAA’s ability to deploy a sufficient number of DPEs. As in the case of the ARAC ACS Working Group, numerous individuals and organizations requested participation. The FAA selected a diverse group of technical experts who could collectively represent all major sectors. The DPER Working Group began its work in October 2019 and submitted its final report to ARAC in June 2021.
The DPER Working Group’s recommendations focus around three areas: selection, training and mentorship, and deployment and oversight. It provided extensive details on these three themes. In addition, the final report takes note of benefits from use of an industry-developed code of conduct for designees. At the time of this writing, the FAA is reviewing the DPER Working Group’s final report and recommendations to plan next steps.
Also new in the realm of testing is a requirement for all recreational drone flyers to pass an aeronautical knowledge and safety test. Introduced earlier this year, The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) is a free online exam divided into two sections. The first section provides the information needed to pass the test. The second is a series of multiple-choice questions. The questions are designed such that if you answer one incorrectly, you get information on why the answer you chose was incorrect and will be prompted to try again.
The FAA developed TRUST in three stages. First, the agency developed the test content with input from drone stakeholders. The next step was a Request for Information seeking to work with drone stakeholders on test administration. On June 22, the FAA announced FAA-approved TRUST Test Administrators. As with other elements of aviation training and testing, the FAA will continue working with expert stakeholders to keep TRUST up to date and relevant to real world activity.
Leveraging industry expertise to accomplish the kind of work described here is essential. As much as we like to fly and teach, there is no way that FAA employees can hope to stay as current as those who work in the aviation training world every day. While the agency cannot accommodate every recommendation it receives from aviation community stakeholders, the kind of open communication and collaboration established over the past decade is critical to keeping FAA training and testing materials relevant — and real — to everyone who operates in the NAS.
Susan K. Parson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.