Private Pilot Checkrides: The Good Old Days

My friend, DPE and highly experienced pilot, Mr. Frank Phillips was kind enough to provide me with much of the following documentation in this blog piece. I am grateful that he loves flight training--including its history and development--as much as he does. That's why I have access to this historical material. Thank you, Frank!

I'm smart enough to know that the good old days were not always so good. Polio? No thank you. Duck and cover nuclear drills in grade school? Not for me. Automobiles without airbags? I'll pass. Then again, it's important to remember that nostalgia for the good old days is not just whimsy for those whose candle-lit birthday cakes require fire permits and a Nomex suit. The truth is that the good old days—especially the good old days of aviation—had a lot of good in them. In particular, the good old days of flight training had something known as the FAA's Flight Test Guides (FTG) which made flight training far less complicated than it is now.

Flight Test Guides were used by flight instructors to prepare their students for pilot certification. They appeared sometime in the early 1950s and reigned until the mid-1980s when they were replaced by the PTS (Practical Test Standards). And, just in case you were recently released from a cryogenic tube, the PTS was replaced by the ACS (Airman Certification Standards) in June of 2016. 

Take a look at this excerpt of Appendix A of the 1954 CAA manual referencing pilot flight test procedures. It's the reference upon which the Flight Test Guides were based. 

Look carefully at how the FAA evaluated pilot judgment in 1954. Since it might not be clear enough to read, here is what it says: 

 “JUDGMENT. Exercise of reasonable judgment will be demonstrated when the conduct of the flight maneuver results in (1) compliance with CAR 60, (2) flight within each operating limitation of the aircraft used, (3) avoidance of critical situations which require corrective action by the agent or examiner to maintain continued safe operation, and (4) the observance of accepted good operating practices for flight conditions encountered.”

Pretty straight forward, right? Between 1973 and 1985 I used the Flight Test Guides to train students for their pilot certificatesBack then it was quite clear to me how the FAA evaluated judgment on a checkride. The applicant flew the airplane as requested and the examiner evaluated the pilot's cognitive, motor and perceptual skills. By no means was a practical checkride lasting less than two hours meant to be a comprehensive assessment of an applicant's judgment. Such a thing would be impossible to do during such a short period of time. The checkride was an opportunity for a designated examiner to obtain an impression of an applicant's airmanship and decision-making abilities. That's all. An impression! Nothing more, nothing less. The essence of an applicant's training and skill in judgment and decision making rested mainly on the instructor's shoulders, not the examiner's. That's the way it should be, of course. The examiner, however, was expected to observe the student during this small period of time and evaluate (test) his or her suitability for pilot certification based on that observation. Nothing more, nothing less.

In June of 2016, the FAA (with the support of many industry "stakeholders") introduced the ACS to the general aviation community. As a result, the simple, practical, reasonable assessment of judgment as defined above was replaced with 363 risk management elements as part of the ACS concept. By doing this, the FAA/ACS committee made the grand metaphysical error of mistaking the menu for the meal. Let me explain this last point.

To the ACS committee, what is now shown on paper (i.e., 363 "highly subjective" risk management elements in the ACS—the "menu") will supposedly ensure an increase in an applicant's decision-making ability. In this sense, the ACS is no longer a "testing" standard as existed with the Flight TEST Guide and Practical TEST Standard. It's now a "certification" standard. That's simply another term used to describe a syllabus. Yes, the ACS is, essentially, a TRAINING syllabus, not a TESTING standard. If you're sitting there, shocked, looking like a just-gelded bull, then snap out of it. There's just no other way to describe the ACS.

So where does this leave the examiner? It seems to me that the examiners job is now to ascertain that the applicant has received the proper "training" by checking off the appropriate box in the knowledge and and risk management areas if and when student responds appropriately to questions on those subjects. Doesn't this make a "checkride" more of a "checklist" ride? It sure seems that way.

It's clear to me that the ACS moves us further away from relying primarily on the examiner's ability to make an evaluation of a pilot's judgment and decision-making abilities. In the minds of the progressive and well-meaning individuals who helped develop and promote the ACS, a paper product, top heavy with bullet points and bloated with text, is somehow supposed to compel pilot applicants to act in safer, less risky ways. It's as if words printed on paper, are expected to create the reality they supposedly represent. In this sense, the menu has just become the meal.

Take a look at any of the Flight Test Guides shown here (click to peek inside) to better understand how the complexity of general aviation flight training (especially at the private pilot level) has increased over the years.

You might argue that increasing complexity and regulation is a good thing for aviation safety. I would argue that "minimal" rule making might have a positive influence on aviation, but only if it is done responsibly and sustains the flying "liberty" pilots have come to enjoy in these United States. I would also argue that the main component of increased aviation safety in general aviation has very little to do with "rule making," but has nearly everything to do with pilot education. (Clearly, the rule for a 30 minute VFR fuel reserve has not stopped pilots from running their tanks empty in flight.)

Of course, some might say that the increasing complexity of general aviation (i.e., increased regulation along with the implementation of the ACS by fiat without public debate) has resulted in a stunningly low fatal accident rate of 1.05 per 100,000 flight hours—the lowest ever recorded. So complexity must be responsible for this and that has to be a good thing, right? Well, consider the questions that no one bothers to ask regarding this statistic.

Over the past 10 years the number of hours flown by general aviation fixed-wing, piston-powered, aircraft has decreased by 20%. Is it possible that those general aviation pilots who've stopped flying or stopped flying as much (for whatever reason) are the least proficient of our clan? You certainly wouldn't argue that flying fewer hours actually increases a pilot's proficiency and reduces fatal accidents, right? Of course not. Therefore, it seems reasonable to posit that, while professional GA pilots remain highly proficient, those that fly fewer hours, don't. And fewer flight hours means less exposure to the risks of flying. Might this explain our current low fatal accident rate? This is a much more reasonable explanation for our reduced accident rate rather than invoking the implementation of the ACS or increased regulation as its cause.

So, do I miss the good old days of flight training? Well, I do miss the trust and reliance we once placed in examiners and I do miss the relative objectivity of the PTS. I also miss the simplicity of flight training that once existed. Of course, I don't miss the higher accident rate we had back then. However, back then we didn't have the same potential to educate pilots about flight safety that we now have. With internet training, videos, eLearning courses, Apps (for nearly every aspect of aviation training), it's hard for pilots to sustain their aviation ignorance, even if they wanted to. 

In my daydreaming reveries, I often imagine receiving a call from the President of the United States asking me for a recommendation on how I might reduce some of the aviation regulations and cumbersome programs that burden our business. I think you now how I'll handle that call. Then again, it's more likely I'll receive a Tweet instead of a call.

Check out my new Six-Hour Interactive eLearning course on Handling In-Flight Emergencies.

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  • Ken Andrews - August 01, 2017

    I am a gold seal CFII with over 10,000 hours of instruction given. For the past 2 years my private pilot checkrides start at 9;00 am and if they are lucky they start the flight portion of the check ride finishing by 4:30 to 5:00 pm and some cases longer. I feel this is way to long to evaluate a private pilots skills. I have had no failures but many exhausted private pilots. Am I just getting burned our and over reacting maybe time for me to retire early. Any inputs appreciated.

  • Yan Xiao - July 20, 2017

    For the physician with 86 hours and has not taken the checkride, don’t give up! I started at 54 years old and took the checkride with 84 hours last week with a great DPE. I was clearly not a fast learner or with aviation talent! The DPE did say that he followed ACS but he did not use ACS as a checklist – he integrated the elements together and looked overall airmanship (stick & rudder and decision making). The flight portion took a little more than an hour. For example, for S-turn I did about half the turn; for turn to direction under the hood, I did about 40 degrees; he just stopped since he had seen enough. I can see the risk (or bias) of pushing DPEs into a checklist mentality, but a good DPE should be able to examine holistically (impression?). Maybe I lucked out with this DPE. I don’t think I was aiming for a performance number (e.g., holding altitude +/- 100), but correcting altitude before a DPE might feel I should – I don’t think he was looking for specific numbers, either! Of course if he was to find a way to fail me, surely he would be looking the ACS as a checklist and use the numbers as “evidence” to justify.

    Another suggestion for the physician student pilot is to try out some older instructors (my first was 74 years old) – I did interview one instructor who was like 20 year old and I didn’t find connection there. Tell your instructor what you want to learn/experience, as by now you’d be a good tester for CFIs!

    About fear, I had the fear till about 50 hrs of flight when wind was not right along the runway, and was high consistently in approach (I cannot help but watching the traffic before the fence. Then my instructor encouraged me to fly frequently, like 2 or 3 times a week, at all kinds of wind, day & night.

    Thanks Rod for your contribution to GA – I really really like the “next two things” animation. It helped me greatly. It should be taught together with “Pitch for speed, power for altitude”.

  • Robert Shubinski - July 11, 2017

    I am a 59 yr old student pilot with 86 hours logged dual plus solo. I have not finished my training because I got discouraged with the process after having had three different instructors the last of whom left me stranded within a few hours of readiness for the written exam and checkride. Fears related to the risks of flying are another part of it, having lost a good colleague in the Reno area to a terrible GA accident. So I have not flown in several years but recently started studying ground school materials and read the chapter in the pilot handbook about aviation decision making (ADM) and came across the video of the debate about the ACS which I watched. I am a practicing physician and feel the medical profession has much to learn from aviators, especially when it comes to decision-making skills and risk assessment. Medical errors are common and harm more people than aviation related accidents or mishaps. Teamwork amongst doctors is still not all it should be in contrast to what has happened in the aviation industry.
    So I do understand why some people thought it would be helpful to incorporate concepts of risk mangement into the training of private pilots. As pointed out here however, the ACS moves aways from skills into subjective assessment territory.
    I heard a story about 4 green frogs and one orange frog sitting on a branch looking over a stream. After a while, one of the green frogs decided to jump into the stream. So the question is, describe the frogs that are sitting on the branch? The correct answer is 4 green frogs and one orange frog. The one green frog decided to jump but it hadn’t actually jumped yet. Nowhere was it mentioned that the frog did actually jump.
    ACS focuses on decisions, but private pilots should be evaluated on what they are doing.
    The frog story is an AA story designed to help alcoholics who may have decided to quit, having ascertained the hazards of drinking and having performed a personal risk management assessment that they ought to quit drinking. The alcoholic must learn at this stage that it takes teamwork to quit drinking and work with one’s higher power, sponsor, AA members, personal support network, accountability partner etc. Every drinker and every smoker are aware of the risks yet many are powerless to overcome the addiction. AA works for many alcoholics for many reasons but in particular, because the person is in the midst of others are walking the walk and helping each other out to do the right thing.
    How many studies are there related to effective means of helping alcoholics recover? I am not sure of the answer exactly but know that there are scores of studies available. I think it is quite unwise to assume that the ACS will actually change anything.
    Personally, I think the best way to shape a private pilot in training would be to train the flight instructors in the risk management system and then role model it during training. When doctors in training see their mentors looking stuff up or asking for help from a colleague those role modeled behaviors become imprinted and more likely to become permanent habits over the career of the trainee. I could be wrong about that of course. It just seems plausible that a goal of reducing GA accident rates should involve some thought into how instruction happens and what could be done differently to learn and perform the skills needed to handle the most common of situations that could lead to an accident. And the types of instructor behavior that might have a negative influence should be considered. One of my instructors once took the controls and demonstrated a cross wind landing in a Cessna 172 with an 18 kt crosswind. There was another runway available that would have given us an 18 kt headwind. It was scary and I guess he wanted to show his skills with a wing low landing but it role modeled to me, the student, that exceeding recommended limits could be ok.

  • Marty Winger - June 10, 2017

    I started in LNN (Lost Nation). As l recall it was around 1967 and the gentleman that was my CFI was named (first name as l don’t remember his last name) was Merlin. A great person for a a first instructor.

    I did finish at VNY.

  • Gennaro Avolio - June 09, 2017

    I have been listening to complaints about the ACS from many instructors but this is the first cogent and logical discussion of the issues involved. This could possibly result in some corrective action. Keep up the good work Rod.

  • Phil DeRosier - May 16, 2017

    I started flight training in the midwest just as those grizzled WW2 vets and their references to “Link trainers” started fading away.

    Yes, by golly, they were “colorful.” But today’s Instructors are by and large, just as capable — if not more so.

    The times … they have indeed changed, and our aviation system — with its NextGen and digital flight environments — add to the demands and requirements of modern aviators.

    I am of the alternative viewpoint that yesterday’s aviators weren’t “better” … just different.

    …. with a common love and desire to “break the surly bonds of Earth.”

  • Ken U - May 15, 2017

    I have only ever been tested on the PTS – and with Frank quite recently for my initial CFI in fact. I am a by the numbers type person and rather liked how the PTS gave me some standard to work towards. I suppose my instructor could have done the same under the FTG. I also appreciated the fact that the PTS gave our evaluators (remember not examiners anymore…) leeway to make reasonable adjustments based on prevailing conditions.

    My instrument ride is a great example of this. Imagine being a low time pilot who got through a 141 instrument course in minimum time and taking your check ride on a day with moderate turbulence, snow showers, and being told to do a maximum speed approach to a runway half covered in ice. Oh and it was a full stop. I am not sure it would have turned out the same under the ACS…

    On complexity I’d like to see the numbers of accidents that occur because pilots are unfamiliar with systems (especially not knowing its limitations). I have a feeling we will see more of those types of accidents in the future for technically complex aircraft.

    As far as regulations I dont think they alone have made GA safer. More expensive sure…

  • Steve Ells - May 14, 2017

    I interviewed a pilot who told me that a CAA examiner came to his airport to issue pilot certificates. According to this gentleman, the test consisted of climbing to 2,000 feet over the airport, shutting off the engine and dead sticking down so that the main wheels touched very close to a line across the runway. He did it on the first try and was issued his license.

  • Charles McDougal - May 13, 2017

    Rod – I like that; “Mistaking the menu for the meal.” But you know, it’s kind of a metaphor for the entire SMSization of GA. Does anybody else besides me have misgivings about reducing our highest cognitive functions to a numerical value via a RAT (risk assessment tool) ?

  • Patrick M. Quigley - May 13, 2017

    I learned to fly in the 60s @ Lost Nation Airport, Willoughby, Ohio. I was 15 and my instructors were all WW2 Navy pilots. Quite a crowd, Bill McNealy, Howard Tuttle, Cook Cleland, Dick Becker, et-al. Their methods were FAR different than today! Make the smallest error & Bill McNealy would pound his fist and scream “G-d dammit, boy!!! Would you rather have me yell at you or go kill yourself!!!” That was 50 years ago. I still treat every flight like the aircraft is out to kill me, personally. I leave nothing to chance, it’s either 100% ready or it’s a no-go. The WW2 vets were tough, unforgiving and very colorful. I thank them after every uneventful landing. It was quite an honor to learn from them.

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