FLYING Magazine

One quick way to improve the quality of your flight training is to acquire a copy of the airman certification standards (ACS) for the certificate you seek and measure yourself against the metrics provided. When you are beginning your aviation journey, you don’t know what you don’t know—the ACS is a means of determining what you need to know, and the level of proficiency you need to achieve to acquire the certificate you seek.

Types of Airman Certification Standards 

Right now, pilots and instructors can access the private pilot ACS, the ACS for the instrument rating, the commercial pilot ACS, and the portion of the commercial pilot ACS for military pilots seeking civilian certification and the ACS for airline transport pilots, and ACS for remote pilots. At this point in time, there is no ACS for remote pilots (drones) and the standards for instructor pilots are still using the practical test standards while the ACS is being crafted.

What Are the Airman Certification Standards?

The airman certification standards, formerly known as practical test standards, are the minimum knowledge and skill level the FAA has determined are appropriate for the pilots who seek a particular certificate or rating. The more advanced the certificate, the tighter the performance tolerances. For example, for a commercial pilot certificate, the applicant must hold altitude within 100 feet of what is assigned as opposed to 200 feet for a private pilot candidate.

Who Should Know the ACS?

The flight instructor administering the training for a pilot certificate should have an updated copy of the ACS and should integrate those metrics into the training from day one. The ACS provides guidance on the minimum standards for certification. No one expects the applicant to meet those standards at first, so the ACS gives the applicant something to shoot for, and the applicant knows what is expected of him or her. Additionally, the ACS provides a framework to administer training and is a means to make sure that the appropriate skills and knowledge required for the acquisition of the certificate are administered—both in the aircraft and on the ground.

Why Are Airman Certification Standards Important?

The ACSs contain the metrics the applicant needs to achieve in order to acquire the certificate or rating. The ACSs also make sure the instructor has covered all the bases, so to speak. For each task, the specific ACS lists the objective, knowledge, risk management, and skills required for certification.

Additionally, the task codes listed in the ACSs now correspond with the subject codes on the FAA knowledge exam (formerly known as the written exam or written test). This allows the pilot applicant and the instructor to identify the soft spots in the applicant’s knowledge based on incorrect answers on the knowledge exam and to focus on these areas to foster improvement.

6 Types of Airman Certification Standards

As you move through your training, the ACS will be your guide. For each certificate or rating sought, the ACS provides a list of tasks to be done and skills to be mastered. The ACS, combined with a syllabus, is used to make sure the pilot has the necessary skills and knowledge to be a safe and efficient pilot. 

Private Pilot ACS

The private pilot certificate is sometimes referred to as “the license to learn” because it is the step in what is often a long ladder of pilot certification. Steep turns are done at 45 degrees of bank in an airplane, and the applicant must maintain heading within 10 degrees, the bank angle within 5 degrees, and altitude be held within +/- 100 feet, and airspeed +/- 10 knots. At first, this can be a challenge, and most instructors encourage their clients to fly better than the minimum indicated in the ACS for the private pilot. You will probably be flying with people you care about in the long run, and being “just good enough to pass” may not give you the confidence you need.

Instrument Rating ACS

The ACS for the instrument rating stipulates that the candidate fly to at least the level of their certificate. For example, if the applicant holds a private pilot certificate, he or she should fly to those standards on top of those specified for the instrument rating, and if he or she holds a commercial certificate, the pilot should meet those standards in addition to the specific standards set forth in the ACS for the instrument. The airman certification standards for instrument emphasize flight by reference to instruments only as well as systems knowledge, risk management, critical weather assessment, and knowledge of air traffic control procedures in the IFR environment.

Commercial Pilot ACS

The commercial pilot airman certification standards tasks are very similar to those for the private pilot but with tighter tolerances and higher expectations. For example, a steep turn for the commercial pilot is a bank angle of 50 degrees (for the airplane rating). If the applicant already holds an instrument rating, he or she will be required to fly an instrument approach during the check ride.

There is an increased emphasis on aviation physiology and risk management in the commercial ACS as the certificate enables the pilot to fly for compensation or hire. 

To qualify for the commercial certificate, the pilot candidate must either have 10 hours of experience in a complex airplane—that is defined as an airplane with a controllable-pitch propeller, flaps, and retractable landing gear—or 10 hours in a technologically advanced aircraft, which is defined as an aircraft that has an electronic primary flight display with all six of the primary instruments, an electronic multifunction display with a GPS-based moving map that depicts the aircraft on the screen, and a two-axis autopilot with heading and navigation modes.

As with other ACSs, the commercial ACS stipulates that the pilot must know the systems of the aircraft they are being tested in. 

Commercial Pilot (Military) ACS

With so many military pilots choosing to transition to the civilian world, the FAA provides guidance that allows military pilots to apply their military experience toward a civilian commercial certificate. Pilots who seek to make this transition and their instructors should go through their logbooks carefully using the commercial pilot (military) ACS as their guide. These pilots should pay special attention to the cross-country and night experience requirements required for civilian certification. 

Airline Transport Pilot ACS

By the time a pilot has enough experience to acquire the airline transport pilot certificate, he or she should be well-versed in the airman certification standards. The tolerances for error on each maneuver are at their tightest. Applicants need to pay special attention to aircraft systems and there will be an emphasis on high altitude operations and air carrier operations.

Remote Pilot ACS

The remote pilot certificate—which enables the pilot to fly a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) commonly known as a drone, for commercial purposes—is the new kid on the block as far as airman certification goes. Drones were introduced in 2015, and since then, they have rapidly advanced from recreational and hobby aircraft to tools for commercial operations. The remote pilot ACS contains the rules and regulations for remote pilots with an emphasis on understanding the coordination necessary when operating in airspace also occupied by manned aircraft, and with consideration to persons on the ground. It should be noted that as of September 16, 2023, the FAA will require all drone pilots to register their drones and they must operate their aircraft in accordance with the remote ID rule for pilots.

Drones, because they fly much lower than crewed aircraft, have more of a chance of encountering persons or property, or wildlife. The ACS addresses this in the form of an emphasis on risk management in all tasks. 

Which Type of Airman Certification Standard Should You Follow?

The certificate or rating you pursue will dictate which airman certification standards you will be expected to meet. A smart instructor introduces the ACS early in the training so that the learner (a fancy word for pilot doing the training) has a metric to determine their performance. Insist that your instructor introduce you to the ACS early so you know what to strive for.

The ACS Is the Minimum Standard

The airmen certification standards are the minimum standards as set forth by the FAA. If you meet these minimums, you can earn your certificate or rating—but as most pilots are very type A and strive to improve their skills, know the ACS for the certificate or rating you seek and challenge yourself to perform better. For example, if you are pursuing a private pilot certificate and the tolerance for holding altitude is +/- 100 feet, aim to hold altitude within 20 feet.

The ACS gives you a metric for assessing your skills and helps you identify the soft spots that need to be improved.


What Is ACS in Aviation?

The airman certification standards are metrics published by the FAA that need to be met for pilot certification or a rating.

What Are Pilot Testing Standards?

Pilot testing standards are the metrics the pilot must meet in order to achieve a particular rating or certification. The airman certification standards literally spell them out. Pilot testing standards should not be confused with the practical test standards, which was the name for the practical test guidance that preceded the ACS, before the FAA overhauled them in order to reflect the increased use of technology in the cockpit, and give an emphasis on decision making and risk management.

Where Can I Find the Aircraft Certification Standards?

The ACS can be obtained from the FAA website.

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