Private Pilot Checkrides: The Good Old Days

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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