Monday, May 28, 2012

New Private & Commercial Practical Test Standards

New FAA practical test standards (PTS) for commercial and private pilots will take effect on June 1, 2012 and an instructor candidate asked how the FAA notifies the pilot/instructor community when changes are made to the PTS. I received emails from the National Associated of Flight Instructors (a great organization for flight instructors) and from FAASafety, though I'm honestly not sure which FAASafety notification preference resulted in that email. These new standards are a mix of good news and bad news, so I'll start with some gripes and constructive criticisms and then provide a summary of the more important changes. If you'd just like to access a PDF comparison document for each PTS, click here for the Private and here for the Commercial.

Formatting Issues

Perhaps this is a case of "you can take the pilot out of technical writing, but you can't take the technical writer out of the pilot," but ... Wouldn't it be nice if the FAA consistently used change bars to indicate new material? In some places they used change bars, in others they didn't. And the summary of changes at the beginning of each PTS is classic FAA:
Added criterion number 9 to Section 1, Area of Operation IV, Task A Objective. Reason: Inadvertently omitted during last revision.

You'll have to flip a bunch of pages to discover that area of operation IV is "Takeoffs and Landings," task A is "Normal and Crosswind Takeoff and Climb," and the criterion number 9 that was added is "Rotates and lifts off at the recommended speed and accelerates to Vy." This sort of indirection is especially maddening if you are using an electronic device like an iPad to read the PTS, where flipping pages is tedious.

Interestingly, the FAA preserved a few blank pages to indicate material that was removed. Some of the pagination choices are poorly chosen, not ensuring the title of a section is kept with the bulk of the material that follows. Did I already mention this is annoying when viewing the document on a computer or iPad? I think I did ...

Introductory Material

The introduction to all of the PTS really need to be rethought (or at least edited) because they are a mishmash of mostly boring, repetitive boilerplate, occasionally peppered with useful and relevant information. For example, mentioning the importance of scanning for traffic and collision avoidance in a multitude of places is not an effective way to emphasize the importance of not running into other aircraft and may very well have the opposite effect.

The requirement that the oral portion of the test be competed before the flight portion, that the examiner develop a written plan of action, that a scenario will be used as part of the examination, that either the examiner or the candidate can terminate the test at any time, and that the test can only continue if the candidate agrees could all be stated much more clearly and with fewer words. Heck, it might even make candidates more likely to actually read the darn thing.

The judgement assessment matrix has been removed from both the private and commercial PTS. Next, the FAA is continuing an unfortunate choice they started with the Instrument Rating PTS: Including conceptual items on things like Risk Management, Aeronautical Decision-Making, and CFIT as part of the introductory narrative instead of listing them as Tasks within Areas of Operation. The intent seems to be that these items will be evaluated throughout the flight test as part of a scenario or "mission" created by the examiner, but why bury it in the introduction?

Significant Private PTS Changes

Private pilots candidates will now need to demonstrate an emergency descent, which could be interesting since some manufacturers of trainer aircraft do not provide specific guidance on how to accomplish this task.

The PTS now specifically says that an approved manufacturer's checklist or equivalent must be used. I have a big problem with this because many of the manufacturer's checklists are ... well ... crap. Ever look at the Cessna 172 AFTER LANDING checklist? It consists of one item - "Flaps UP."

Private pilot candidates will now need to be able to demonstrate specific knowledge of risk management, task management, and automation management. This should be a wake-up call for instructors who refuse to teach their students how to use the GPS or the autopilot installed in the plane because it is "cheating."

I expose my student pilots to a rejected takeoff early in their training so that they are spring-loaded to abort a takeoff rather than to takeoff regardless of what may be happening. This task is still missing from the private single-engine PTS, which I think is an unfortunate oversight.

Here are some other changes:
  • Some new items added to the bibliography of references
  • A list of abbreviations has been added
  • The examiner must develop a scenario incorporating as many tasks as possible
  • Some new special emphasis areas, including wire strike avoidance
  • For multi-engine airplane, engine failure will not be simulated below 500' AGL
  • For multi-engine airplane, the feathering of one propeller must be demonstrated unless the manufacturer prohibits it
  • Specific details on issuing a Letter of Discontinuance
  • Change Crew Resource Management (CRM) to Single-pilot Resource Management (SRM)
  • Added requirements for Aeronautical Decision Making, Risk Management, Task Management, Situational Awareness, CFIT, and Automation Management
  • Requirement to use approved manufacturer's checklist or equivalent
  • Requirement that stall demonstrations recoveries be accomplished at or above 1500' AGL for single-engine or 3000' AGL for multi-engine unless the manufacturer recommends a higher altitude
  •  Inclusion of runway incursion avoidance criterion in several tasks
  • Added "If a crosswind condition does not exist, the applicant’s knowledge of crosswind elements shall be evaluated."
  • Addition of Emergency Descent task
  • Addition of a new Runway Incursion Avoidance task in the Preflight Procedures area of operation

Significant Commercial PTS Changes

Stalls for commercial applicants have an important change:
In accordance with FAA policy, all stalls for the Commercial Certificate/Rating will be taken to the “onset”(buffeting) stall condition.
One assumes that some recent transport and commuter category aircraft accidents were the genesis for this change.

Several years ago, the FAA replaced the Emergency Descent in the commercial single-engine PTS with the Steep Spiral. Most examiners I've talked to think the Steep Spiral task is silly. Now the PTS has restored the Emergency Descent, which has real-world application. And the steep spiral? It's still in there and it's still silly.

Both single- and multi-engine commercial candidates must be prepared to demonstrate accelerated stalls, something that was previously a maneuver just for CFI candidates. Kudos to the FAA for a well-written description of how the accelerated stall is to be demonstrated.

For multi-engine applicants, the feathering of one propeller is now explicitly required:
The feathering of one propeller shall be demonstrated inflight, unless the manufacturer prohibits the intentional feathering of the propellers during flight. The maneuver shall be performed at altitudes above 3,000 feet AGL or the manufacturer’s recommended altitude, whichever is higher, and positions [sic] where safe landings on established airports can be readily accomplished.

Some new items added to the bibliography of references

  • Addition of new abbreviations
  • The examiner must develop a scenario incorporating as many tasks as possible
  • Some new special emphasis areas, including wire strike avoidance
  • For multi-engine airplane, engine failure will not be simulated below 500' AGL
  • Specific details on issuing a Letter of Discontinuance
  • Requirement to use approved manufacturer's checklist or equivalent
  • Addition of the Emergency Descent task
  • Addition of the Accelerated Stall task
Preparation is Key

This is just a basic summary of the changes. If you are a commercial or private pilot applicant, now is the time to get the new PTS, break out your highlighter, and make sure all you've covered all the bases.


Terence Wilson said...

Thanks for deciphering the changes John!

Terence Wilson said...

Regarding steep spirals. I wonder why examiners single out steep spirals as being silly? Silly because it's an easy maneuver or silly because its practical applications are limited? I ponder such questions!

John Ewing said...


I personally think the steep spiral is a silly maneuver for several reasons.

First, the PTS provide precious little guidance on how to accomplish the maneuver. It specifies maximum bank of 60 degrees, a starting altitude that will permit three complete turns, a constant radius around a ground reference point, and a "specified" airspeed plus or minus 10 knots.

Second, to get three turns in many aircraft you have to start around 6000' AGL. At that altitude, you'll be so tight on the point that the examiner won't be able to see how you're doing until you begin the third turn.

Third, the idea of a trying to fly constant radius turns around a point on the ground beginning at a fairly high altitude seems of limited value. If you had an engine failure you might want to spiral down over a point near an airport. Descending through a sucker hole in the clouds might be another application, but that choice seems dubious.

Lastly, the way I teach students to configure an Arrow to do this maneuver is with the gear down (to avoid hearing the gear horn), power to idle, and prop to full decrease. That's the only reasonable way to get three turns without climbing to 8,000' AGL and I can tell you the bank angles involved are seldom steep.

In comparison, the emergency descent is a maneuver that could quite useful.

If the FAA removed the steep spiral maneuver from the commercial PTS, I for one wouldn't be heartbroken.

capnaux said...

Wow, a lot of legwork in this post, John!

I think the "point" of Steep Spirals is to demonstrate that the student understands how the wind will affect the ground track and compensate accordingly...

John Ewing said...


Yes, I agree that may be the intent, but the maneuver is poorly conceived, for all the reasons previously mentioned. I've been teaching this maneuver since 2002 when it replaced the emergency descent. Now that the emergency descent is back, continuing to include the steep spiral in the PTS is pointless in my opinion.

The commercial PTS says the examiner will select task steep turns or steep spirals. In my experience, when examiners are given the choice, they'd rather see steep turns that steep spirals. If I were an examiner, I know which one I'd choose.

CG said...

Thanks for this post... I haven't had the opportunity to do any primary training lately - I really wonder when the cross-country stuff will get updated.

Granted, I think pilotage and dead reckoning are very instructive, but pretty far from actual flying practice these days.

frooglerudy said...

Any word on complex aircraft requirement? It's tough to find a retractable single to get my commercial and i fly an SR22 which should be sufficient IMHO.