Many critical pilot deficiencies uncovered during an FAA “oral evaluations” are also weak areas of knowledge for ALL pilots. Every pilot should thoroughly understand these problem areas for greater safety. Here is a radical idea; the FAA ACS can be a wonderful tool for improvement even for certificated pilots. Maybe you “passed” years ago (and missed some sections- or used the older PTS)? Here is a crib sheet for pilot improvement and for CFIs conducting flight reviews or preparing candidates!
The items below are from DPE evaluations of VFR candidates, and lack of knowledge here would be “pink slip items” – critical knowledge! Dig into these areas and check your understanding for future flight safety. Also, please comment below and add your own personal “aviation pain points.”
Risk management is a central structural component of the ACS and still weak in most pilots. Evaluating pilot judgment was the major change transitioning from the PTS to ACS. FAA minimums in every area are *not* “flight recommendations” but regulatory boundaries. The classic bare-bones “one statute mile visibility and clear of clouds” in Class G airspace is a perfect example. This minimum condition might be utilized safely in rare cases by a very experienced pilot but it is certainly inappropriate for a newly certificated pilot. And risk management requires “personal minimum” at a much higher (safer) level – “margin of safety!” Proper risk management is also systematic (see 10 below) and clearly separates what is merely “legal” from a “safe or smart” operation! This same logic carries all through the FAA regulations: e.g. night flight requires only control guidance from a compass, airspeed and altimeter (no AI required). As another example, a pilot can *legally* go fly solo day/night for 23 months and 29 days after a flight test or flight review with no subsequent training or experience (just don’t take innocent passengers – get three TO/L first). This might be “legal” but we can all agree this is unwise and unsafe!
Airspace limitations – required equipment and pilot actions: Most pilots are weak on airspace – and this is even proficient IFR fliers- airspace disappears! The confusion is especially obvious decoding Class E and G airspace limitations. Just yesterday, I had a PPL applicant claim a magenta airport with a dotted magenta dashed line around it was a “Class Delta (towered?)” airport – nope! The magenta dashed line is where controlled (Echo) airspace extends down to the surface, and the higher viz of 3 sm is required with additional separation from clouds. Most pilots do not understand this provides a safety margin for IFR inbound traffic. A surface Echo is often an indication that the non-towered field has lots of IFR flights or an ILS approach. (Interestingly, the FAA has not kept up with LPV approaches to the surface by protecting the airspace in a similar fashion). If a Delta airport goes IFR, can we fly VFR in the surrounding Class E surface area (much larger than the Delta)? It is not uncommon for pilot applicants with over 100 hours at their home field to not even know what airspace they are flying in during all their flight training.
System knowledge and required instruments: What instruments are required to be installed and work for VFR flight? Many applicants happily quote the “A TOMATO FLAMES” acronym but then cannot remember or apply this rote formula to apply in real conditions! When asked what the three required flight instruments for VFR flight are (91.205) very few applicants can come up with the answer. Many will insist an attitude indicator is required for day (or night) VFR or a leaking and inoperative compass is not a problem for their flight. My advice to my students is to “visualize the most simple plane like a J-3 or Champ” and think of what is in this plane; those are the “sacred seven” and all more complex machines are just adding complexity incrementally.
Inoperative equipment: Something is broken in the plane, can we fly (91.213)? What actions are necessary? The FAA legal overview is that any plane has to meet the requirements of the original type certificate – as new. If *anything* is inoperative, the plane is immediately unairworthy until a pilot analysis is made to determine if the inop. equip. is legally necessary and/or essential for safety. Can a pilot “properly alter” the plane so it is legal for flight (91.213)? Is a mechanic required? Is a maintenance sign-off necessary? e.g. every pilot (and most CFIs) will tell you if your ELT is inoperative (scenario: the ELT antenna has snapped off) the plane has to be grounded (check 91.207 carefully…)
Failure to calculate the required data: Despite pre-test discussion and recommendations, few pilots effectively analyze the weather or calculate their performance (W&B, take-off landing distances). It is not uncommon for a pilot to not have a taxi diagram or even know the length of their home field runway. 91.103 – “all available information” is often made fun of but specifically requires calculated data on the five primary causal factors of fatal accidents: “the killers.” How long is the runway and what is the aircraft performance today? Do I have enough fuel and is the weather checked and satisfactory (see personal minimums above)? Have I investigated and planned alternates and looked at delays (NOTAMS)?
Human Factors: I am feeling headachy and nauseous in flight, what is the probable cause and pilot action? WIll O2 provide immediate improvement? When does a pilot need o2? Does everyone get hypoxic at 12,500 after 30 minutes? A growing number of pilots involved in fatal accidents have illegal drugs in their bloodstream (28%) My passenger is suddenly looking excessively nervous – pasty white and incoherent. What might they be suffering from?
Preventative Maintenance: There is a common joke that one of the most dangerous hazards in aviation is an airplane owner with a toolbox. What can a pilot legally accomplish as “preventative maintenance” and how do we do this? Can a pilot replace a wing nav bulb? Are logbook entries required? Is a maintenance manual (or previous training) required?
Privileges and limitations: Can a newly certificated pilot who has only flown a Cessna 150 legally rent and fly a Grumman Tiger? Again the FAA is pretty permissive, but personal cautions should be in place to keep a pilot safe. In all aviation operations, what is legal and what is safe or smart are often quite different and distinct standards. What logbook inspections would a pilot need to see to verify any plane is “airworthy?”
Risk mitigation plan: While planning a cross-country flight, what are the major risk factor areas the FAA recommends a pilot investigate and mitigate (P-A V-E) The ACS requires a risk management plan that specifically addresses these items. “Being cautions” is always good but having an actual defined plan with objective standards is essential. All the other scenario questions from maintenance to equipment and airspace hinge on risk management.
Systems knowledge is a weak area for most pilots at all levels. Almost any question about “pieces and parts” or technical information is deadly on check rides. Scenario: “I am flying along on that assigned cross-country and the red ‘low voltage’ light comes on (or other ‘non-charge’ indication). What are the pilot’s immediate actions? How long do I have and what will fail? How will a pilot bring this flight to a safe conclusion?” Answers to questions like these often reveal limited knowledge and a lack of both command authority and the use of resources.
Preparation for safe piloting requires a lot of imaginative “what if” thinking (and then research of questions surfaced). Applying knowledge and creating a plan is essential for safe execution. The ACS-focused knowledge areas where pilots often struggle during flight tests are great review topics for every pilot. Be creative in your imaginative “problem creation” because mother nature sure can be. Fly safe out there (and often)!
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