At first blush, the airman certification standards (ACS) may be among the dullest, least interesting books a casual reader might pick up. They have no plot. There are no action sequences. There is no character development. The story arc is missing entirely. And yet, anyone who hopes to earn a pilot certificate or advanced ratings will find the ACS to be among the most valuable resources they could ever include in their library or flight bag.
Each volume is, for lack of a more eloquent term, a full-spectrum listing of what will be asked of an applicant during the practical test that stands between them and the pilot certificate or rating they wish to earn. In a very real sense, it is the practical test, written down, item by item, including appropriate reference material lists.
Where it is appropriate, the skills listing includes critical tolerances for airspeed, heading, and altitude for that task. The goal is for the applicant to complete the task by showing an understanding of the topic, being aware of risk factors inherent to that task, and demonstrating the ability to perform that task without exceeding the established tolerances.
Best of all, the ACS includes an explanation of what constitutes “satisfactory performance” and “unsatisfactory performance”—a gift to any nervous applicant to better understand what is expected of them on the day of their checkride. For example, included in the unsatisfactory performance list is the line, “Consistently exceeding tolerances stated in the skills element of the Task.” This at least implies that exceeding an altitude, heading, or airspeed tolerance is not by itself grounds for a busted checkride. What a relief.
Available in book form or as a free PDF download from the FAA, every pilot applicant should have a copy of the appropriate ACS and review it regularly with their CFI during training. Arm yourself with a copy, study it, and practice the tasks with your CFI. You’ll be well prepared and glad you did on the day of the practical test.