Practical Test Standards – OK or Too Weak?

July 1, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg

Some people complain that the FAA Practical Test Standards (PTS) are not sufficient for today’s flying complexities. I’m not so sure about that and here’s why. The basics of not crashing airplanes haven’t changed in decades but the legalities have. In our frequently over-thought, bureaucratic and legalized interpretation of just about everything, common sense often gets bounced because someone was clever enough to create a loophole and someone else wasn’t smart enough to call them on it. Thus things get rewritten and “strengthened.”

The current PTS on every certificate largely dwells upon physical flying skills: Takeoffs, landings, ability to hold headings, altitudes, adhere to clearances, flying by reference to instruments, etc. The guidance is pretty clear. Let’s take a few examples from the Private PTS:

Takeoffs: Follow proper procedure for the takeoff roll, liftoff at the recommended airspeed and maintain Vy +10/-5 knots. etc.

Landings: Establish proper configuration, maintain a stabilized approach +10/-5 knots, touch down at or within 400 feet of a specified point with no drift etc.

If everyone adhered to these basics we’d have almost no takeoff and landing accidents, which account for about 50% annually.

How about the “incredible” complexities of assessing today’s navigation? The PTS handles this elegantly – Demonstrate the ability to use an electronic navigation system, locate the aircraft position, intercept and track, recognize station or waypoint passage, recognize signal loss, etc.

What more could you want? It’s fairly simple for an examiner to determine if the pilot knows the box even if the examiner isn’t quite certain of the nuances of a particular system. Most know where the stations and fixes are located in their area and they know when the applicant is floundering. If in doubt, perhaps the examiner’s own hand-held unit could be used to keep at least one front seat occupant oriented. I’m sure there will be some different views on that and would welcome them.

Here’s what’s tough on tests. To the extent that it’s possible, a superficial assessment is made of judgment or decision making. In the artificial world of checkrides, everyone is going to play it conservative and we don’t really get to see how someone will react until they think no one is watching. Bad judgment is where serious accidents happen – usually an entanglement with weather or stupidity involving low level maneuvering. We might consider offering continuing guidance by CFIs to help their newly certificated private or instrument pilots make the right call in the real world. Call it “service after the sale.”

If anyone knows of a pilot applicant who passed a checkride after a crash, where there wasn’t a mechanical problem, and the applicant was manipulating the controls, a prize is in the offing. Suitable proof and not just hearsay must be presented (That was a loophole slamming shut and there’s probably one I’ve missed)

If everyone adhered to the basic skill level in the various PTS, we’d have many fewer accidents. Do we need stiffer requirements? I don’t think so. In almost every case the accident pilots weren’t flying to the standards we already have. Are you up to the standard? Could you pass a checkride on your next flight? Might be fun to try.

What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz  |  Support the AOPA Foundation

  • Ralph Butcher


    I agree. The problem occurs with the lack of “pilot thinking” training. I’m certain that we both learned a great deal listening to “hangar talk” when we were young. That doesn’t happen any more, and very few experienced pilots come back to general aviation training due to the liability exposure. It’s a sad situation.

    Thanks for all the great work on flight safety. The ASF safety videos are excellent and are mandatory for all of our students.


    Ralph Butcher, Chief Flight Instructor,
    Orange County Flight Center

  • Ralph Butcher


  • Bill Murrell

    I have a friend that had a mid-air just a couple of days before a checkride that he passed. That is a crash, just not with the ground (loophole you missed?). He has photos of the airplane, was sued and won, so there is plenty of evidence. I sent him an email with the link to this article.

    What is the prize? I’m hoping he follows through and sends you the evidence.

  • Bruce


    Thanks very much for your kind thoughts.

    As you may know, we’ll being doing a free webinar for SoCal pilots on mid-air collisions next Thursday at 1900 PDT. emails were sent to all pilots for which we had emails. Critical in the basin.


  • Bruce


    I love it when someone challenges the system and please do send us the pix at [email protected]. However, the crash had to occur DURING the ride to count. I should have clarified that – my point is that you can’t have a crash on the ride and pass.

    Typically, in midairs NTSB blames both pilots unless it’s a clear case of overtaking. However, you did score some points and I’ll come up with an alternate award. Decison of the judge is dubious. Thanks much for joining in.


  • Don

    Somewhere I read that a study was done that found after one year, less than 50% of all pilots could pass the PTS for the certificate held. Maybe we should change the bi-annual flight review to annual and require all pilots to pass the PTS for certificate held. Then it is all about the money is not it? How many could afford or would be willing to do such a thing. When I was in the military, we had to take a check ride every year and every time we had a change of duty station. Setting morality aside, a friend of mine who was in the Transportation Core said it was cheaper for a ship to run over a small boat of people and payoff the survivors than to run the ship aground. Maybe this is what drives some in the airline industry.

  • Fred Simonds

    Adhering to the PTS sounds nice, but it has limitations. I can’t do a chandelle any more, and ATC hasn’t asked me for a lazy-eight instead of a hold lately.

    I can put an airplane anywhere I want it, tho, and have fun doing it.

    I really like Ralph Buther’s remark about “pilot thinking”. THe PTS is good at testing motor skills, and it can test for the most rudimentary “pilot thinking” skills. However, it’s not fair to ask a low-time pilot applicant to demonstrate highly-developed pilot-think. That takes experience – and hangar flying is a part – to build.

    There is still plenty of hangar flying, and I try to be a careful listener. A lot of it is junk, but the gems are worth it. Ralph – you’re not old enough to be so cynical!!


  • Don

    Pilot thinking is called “Critical Thinking” in the academic world. I do believe the problem is much more complex than can be fairly discussed in a short article or blog. There is a plethora of issues to address. Social, and economical to begin with.

  • Harlow Voorhees

    The PTS are an accepted basis for conducting pilot tests and are subject to ongoing review and revision by the FAA as technology and human factors evolve. If you read the preambles you will see discussion of CRM, aeronautical decision making, corelative skills, etc. and good examiners have ways of testing or evaluating these along with the more mechanical tasks. You also have to view tests as challenging events that nearly every pilot gets apprehensive about and usually happy when they are over. What we need to do is find ways for ga pilots to either get more recurrent training than the minimum 24 month flight review. I believe that DPEs should really stress that to new airmen and CFIs should continue to offer their services after the checkride as you suggest in your comments. Pilots should be encouraged to take a refresher flight with a good CFI at least once a year to identify bad habits and to try and maintain the profieciency they had when they passed their test.
    Harlow Voorhees
    Fresno, CA

  • Karen Anderson

    Don’t mess with the PTS! It covers the basics for safe handling of the airplane and for basic flight planning and navigation. It must be the flight instructor who teaches “pilot thinking” … and from the very beginning. By setting up many, many “what if” scenarios for the student to think through during his training, the flight instructor, the student’s role model, has the unique opportunity to instill good pilot thinking as the basis for future decision making.

  • Chris Burns


    There are a lot of nice replies to your piece on PTS standards. I like Don’s the best:

    “I do believe the problem is much more complex than can be fairly discussed in a short article or blog. There is a plethora of issues to address. Social, and economical to begin with.”

    Can “pilot think” be taught? The finance world is spending bundles to understand why rational market theory doesn’t work as expected. Why should we think that pilots are any more rational than investors? If I read the available science correctly, there are some who are gifted decision makers – “Cockpit Budha’s” per Rod Machado – but others to which this facility is unattainable by any amount of training.

    If you can’t train decision making, what then? Employ some research
    to look for systemic solutions that exert the sublte but persuasive force of culture.
    As Don says, it is a very tough problem.


  • phil

    Thats an excellent point Bruce, since I began my flight training I made a point to maintain my skill to flight test standard under every circumstance. Just as if the examiner was right there with me , in fact , I have become my own examiner.As a result I have developed a sense of discipline that demands my performance to these standards everytime I fly. The flight test standards was intended to be a datum piont on which to base our own standards even surpass them. not to allow degradation of those standards, we have to raise the bar.

  • Dr. Bernard N. Harris

    On July 29, 1972, I was on my last instrument cross country training flight in a rented C-172, SMO to SAN, and had taken off on our return trip to SMO. I was about to level off at my clearance limit of 3000′ when another C-172 that was overtaking us on our left for quite some time, according to three witnesses on the ground, turning into us, their right wing tip hitting our lower left engine cowling, spinning them around and our prop buzz sawed their wing off and wrapped it around our nose about 10 inches below the spinner. They went down and killed all three men in that aircraft. Our engine kept running and our prop held, as we made an emergency landing into Miramar Naval Air Station. Two days later, I went up with my flight instructor again for my final checkout with the school and the next day I went up with the FAA examiner and walked away from that with my Instrument Ticket in my pocket.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Dr. Harris….

    That is an amazing story and incident – thank you for sharing. We just completed a webinar on collision avoidance in the LA Basin to educate on just such accidents.

    Unfortunately, for the purpose of my challenge – it doesn’t qualify because this had nothing to do with your skills during a flight check. That said – if you have some picture of the aircraft and copies of the accident report we would be interested in that. Email to [email protected] or had copy to ASF, 421 Aviation Way frederick, MD 21701.

    Obviously, you’re still flying and engaged for which we are thankful !!!