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Demystifying The ACS In 4 Steps

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1) Background

In 2016, the FAA replaced the PTS with the ACS for private and instrument applicants. This move came after years of deliberation within the FAA as well as industry executives.

Their reason? To quote the FAA, "many viewed the knowledge test as deeply flawed because it included too many questions that were considered to be overly broad, overly complex, trivial, outdated, and sometimes irrelevant." The FAA has developed these standards to make your exam more relevant and worthwhile to you.

The ACS will eventually replace the PTS for all certificates and ratings, but until then, here is a list of the exams currently offered under the ACS:

  • Private
  • Instrument
  • Commercial*
  • ATP
  • Remote Pilot

*Civilian and Military Competency Equivalent

2) How It's Organized

The ACS is broken down into sections called "Areas of Operations", starting with Preflight Preparation and ending with Postflight Procedures.

Within these broad categories, there are tasks that your examiner will assess you on. Each task is one page in the ACS, and can range from subjects like the national airspace system to a maneuvers such as steep turns.

Looking within a task, you'll notice that there are 3 main sections: Knowledge, Risk Management, and Skills. Think of these 3 items as the "Know, Consider, and Do."

The FAA wants you to demonstrate an understanding of knowledge topics. In the decision-making category, you should be able to identify, assess, and mitigate hazards. Finally, for the skill category, your examiner wants to see you fly maneuvers within the standards listed.

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The references section lists FAA material that discusses the subject matter of the related task, and this is a great place to look if you are unsure about the content on the page.

3) Understanding The ACS Codes

Now that you know how to interpret the ACS, let's run through an example of an ACS code you might see on your knowledge test results.

PA.V.B.K3

While this might seem confusing, think of it as a glorified page number that belongs to a piece of information held within the ACS.

  • PA = Private Pilot ACS
  • V = Area of Operation V (#5)
  • B = Task B, "Ground Reference Maneuvers"
  • K3 = Knowledge item #3, "Effects of bank angle and ground speed on rate and radius of turn."

4) What To Expect During Your Test

There are Knowledge, Risk Management, and Skill categories you're going to be tested on, but do you really have to know everything listed?

The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that you won't be tested on everything during your exam.

The FAA's instructions to examiners are, "for each Task, the ACS requires you to test at least one Knowledge element, at least one Risk Management element, and all Skill elements... [unlike] the PTS, however, the ACS gives you the discretion to test additional Task elements as necessary."

So while you should be comfortable with all the categories in the ACS, you won't necessarily be tested on every one of them.


Want help getting ready for the knowledge and skills categories for your checkride? Sign up for our online courses here.

Nicolas Shelton

Nicolas is a private pilot from Southern California. He is currently studying at Purdue University, where he is working on advanced pilot ratings. You can reach him at nicolas@boldmethod.com.

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