Unlocking the PTS

flight school1When most students hear the term “PTS” they might think of a training acronym, an obscure part of their aircraft, or a list to buy at the grocery store.  Rarely is the correct term, Practical Test Standards, their first thought.  The PTS is unfortunately a rarely used, little understood document by the student.

Most students’ knowledge of the PTS comes directly from their instructor and is mostly limited to things like “+/- 100 Ft and 10 kts”.  This unfamiliarity is a disadvantage to the student.  Now I’m not suggesting that the PTS is the greatest book to curl up and read on a Tuesday night, but the information contained in the PTS was not just written for your instructor or examiner – it was written for you too!

When conducting stage checks (similar to a check ride) for our flight school, I am often surprised by students who seem shocked when I ask a question along a topic line or their performance procedure on a specific maneuver.  When they ask me “Should I have known that?” my answer always comes back in reference to the PTS.  And as a near certainty, they claim familiarity with the document, but “I’ve never read it.”

The PTS is the ultimate cheat sheet, the key to the test, the inside guide on what to do, and the behind the scenes guide to your check ride.  Do yourself a favor and pick it up for more than a passing glance.  To help you in that endeavor, I want to discuss the parts of the PTS and how best to use it for your training preparation.

PTSIntroduction Section – The front of every FAA PTS contains several sections prior to the standards for that particular examination.  This is not something to pass over.  Inside the introduction are discussions about how the check ride is to be conducted, procedures to be used during the oral and flight portion, all the references used for the entire test, and the general standards for passing or failing the test. Things learned from the introduction section might be…

  • Did you know that the examiner is supposed to try a realistic distraction at key times to determine if your focus remains on the task at hand?  Sounds a little like a dirty trick, but if you know that it is coming, it takes the surprise out of things.
  • There is a list of many items that are being tested and evaluated, but are NOT listed in the areas of operations section.  These items include aeronautical decision making, checklist usage, and collision avoidance, just to name a few.
  • All tolerances listed in the PTS are performance standards on “good flying conditions”.  I have seen many students get upset and ultimately distracted by minor variations from published tolerances as a result of turbulence, or other outside forces, and this distraction caused them to ultimately fail, yet they were inside passing standards due to the conditions of the day.

Areas of Operations – This is the section that most students are more familiar with and include all the required tolerances for performance for all maneuvers, knowledge areas, and procedures to be tested during the test.  In addition to the numerical standards, this section also covers all the key elements that are to be demonstrated and tested.  This would include steps to be performed during the maneuver, knowledge elements for flight maneuvers and ground items, and decision making criteria.

Take the time to review each element of all required maneuvers.  Many times students will learn a maneuver and through the process of repetition, they change or exclude certain elements.  The PTS will help keep required items correct.

  • Learning the tolerances for each maneuver is a great practice, but remember that the numerical tolerances are not the only item that is being evaluated.
  • Be familiar with all tasks, but note which can be combined or selected from the list.
  • Always strive to perform your best, not just inside the specified tolerance for the maneuver.
  • As you and your instructor prepare for your checkride, review all elements of the Areas of Operations both on the ground and while flying reviewing for your checkride.

Picture1Given that the PTS can be a dry and somewhat lengthy document, consider using additional resources to help you review and gain proficiency from the PTS.  There are many choices but here are a few: The Sporty’s Complete Learn to Fly Course has an interactive PTS study guide that incorporates video training segments that cover the required PTS items; Individual maneuver manuals sold by Sporty’s, Jeppesen, or ASA cover many aspects of the PTS; Dedicated PTS study guides sold for that purpose.

Hopefully, you and your instructor will incorporate the PTS into your entire training and not just on the last two days before your check ride.  There are many examiners out there that like to test or emphasize their particular interest from their flying experience, but their evaluation of your performance is limited to the items listed in the PTS, so don’t worry too much about who your exact examiner is.  Lastly, even though the PTS spells out all items in specific detail, remember that your goal is to become a safe, competent pilot, which is not just the sum of slow flight and steep turns.

Safe flying,

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David Zitt is gold seal flight flight instructor and Airline Transport Pilot. Formerly a chief flight instructor of a Part 141 flight training academy, David is a pilot and director of safety at a Cincinnati-based corporate flight department. David is type rated in the C500 and C525 series aircraft. David owns a 1943 L-4 Cub (the military version of the popular J-3 Cub).