The Story Behind the Development of Airman Certification Standards
Article appeared in Flying Magazine December 2020 by John King
It was a wonderful era in our lives. We were following our dream of flying ourselves to meet with pilots to provide weekend ground schools. When Martha and I first were married we pledged to be equal partners in everything we would do. This committed us to be in some kind of small business. Our failed first attempt was a fleet service business that we didn’t enjoy. This time we had picked something we knew would be fun.
In this business we rented meeting rooms in hotels and taught complete ground schools in one weekend. Until then, most ground schools had taken two or three nights a week for six or seven weeks. In our weekend ground schools I would teach private, commercial and flight instructor students in one room and Martha would teach instrument and instrument flight instructor students in another room
What made it such a wonderful era was that we flew our own airplane to a circuit of cities around the Midwest and West to teach the courses. We returned to most cities every other month, where we would have the pleasure of meeting up again with dozens of pilots and spending an aviation weekend with them. Our arrangement was that once someone took one of our classes they could come back for free as many times as they wanted. It was good for business because they frequently brought friends with them. Our classes grew rapidly—and so did the parties in the evenings. We had wonderful times and developed great friendships.
You can imagine our deep sense of grief when occasionally we’d return to a city and someone would say, “Did you hear about Bill?” “No,” we’d say, “what happened to Bill?” They would then explain the aircraft crash that had killed him. It happened all too often. We began to realize the things that were killing these learning pilots were not the things the FAA was asking on the knowledge tests.
The problem was the FAA wanted a bell-shaped distribution of test scores on the test results. It was difficult for them to get a bell-shaped curve because our highly motivated students would come back to our classes (and the parties) and discuss with us what they had been asked on their knowledge tests. We would immediately change our courses to do a better job of covering anything they had missed. Consequently, our next students would not miss many questions—frustrating the test-givers. To get applicants to miss questions, the FAA had to make the questions trickier and more difficult—and less and less relevant to the risk management issues that pilots face in real life.
For instance, performance questions required double interpolations when better risk management would suggest just choosing more conservative numbers.
ADF questions would test for deeper understanding by asking reverse questions—even on the private test. Questions would provide magnetic bearing to the station and relative bearing and ask for the magnetic heading—an exercise that is never needed while flying. A pilot in flight finds the magnetic heading by looking at the heading indicator.
Martha and I began to realize that we were spending our weekends covering tricky questions and trivia that was irrelevant to actual flight, while the things actually causing fatalities were not being asked and therefore not being taught.
In their efforts to ensure that an adequate number of test questions would be missed, the FAA testing folks moved to make the test questions secret from the aviation training community—the people who were actually teaching pilots. They saw us as adversaries. I brought this adversarial relationship up with Nick Sabatini, the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, at a “Meet the FAA” session at AirVenture. Nick was concerned, and mandated that the airman testing folks meet with the aviation community annually. The result was an adversarial meeting once a year.
After several years of this, the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) held a national meeting in Atlanta. During the meeting, multiple speakers publicly lamented the poor quality of the FAA test questions and the adversarial relationship with airman testing. This greatly impressed the FAA managers who were there. Consequently, in 2011 an Aviation Rule-Making Committee (ARC) on the subject was formed. An ARC consists of both FAA and aviation community members and meets periodically to provide advice and information to the FAA.
There were about 25 or so members from the aviation community and 15 or so from the FAA. The atmosphere between the two groups was hostile. But the purpose of the meetings was for us to talk. And talk we did. The ARC lasted two years and made recommendations to the FAA about how to reform testing. Then it evolved into a working group which has lasted another seven years. The result has been nothing short of a miracle. Most significantly, the hostility slowly went away. As we communicated, we began to develop mutual respect and understanding. The FAA began to refer to members of the “aviation community” rather than to “industry.” Members of the community began to appreciate the competence and goodwill of the FAA.
We gradually made significant progress on fixing important problems. We became aware that while there were existing standards for the skills that could be required of an applicant, at the time there were no standards for the knowledge that could be asked of an applicant—on either the knowledge test or the practical test. The knowledge tests could and did ask an applicant anything no matter how trivial. As the discussions continued, we agreed it was a good idea to have standards for the knowledge so applicants would know to be studying meaningful and relevant concepts.
But then we started discussing the idea that although applicants would have to demonstrate skills and knowledge, applicants were not required to demonstrate the ability to identify and mitigate risks. Yet it was not lack of skills that was the biggest cause of fatalities. It was poor risk management. Remembering my friends who had come to grief, I became a champion for the idea that pilots should be required to demonstrate the ability to identify and mitigate risks. And standards for risk management became part of pilot check rides.
The biggest regret I have is that the FAA never did accept the recommendation of the ARC that the test questions be returned to the public domain—depriving the test writers of valuable input from the aviation community, and robbing applicants, their instructors and examiners of the specific details on any knowledge test questions they miss, plus creating a business for companies who are covertly purchasing the questions and selling them to willing buyers.
But all in all, I have to say that these nine years have been the most inspiring example of developing respect and collaboration I have ever seen. And the result is, rather than merely having practical test standards we now have complete standards for the certification of pilots. And pilots are learning the practice of identifying the risks in a flight and developing the habit of mitigating them. I am hopeful that this will save thousands of lives.
Amazing history. Keep fighting the FAA and the NTSB. SAFETY is the point, not test scores. Why the government worries about test scores and not DEAD Pilots is beyond reason. Thank you for fighting for our lives. If we can help, Please let us know how. Dan G and others are head to head with the NTSB and FAA for lack of GA priority and safety. Pilots are still dying for the same foolish reasons and we must fix that!!
How many times have I found myself in a situation only to recall one of your many (and justifiably infamous), corny jokes that served to instantly focus me on what to do to avoid an unplanned return to earth. During my training for the private certificate I had a loss of power just before rotating. Your training saved my backside and that 172. Thank you and may you always keep the blue side up.
As a retired military aviator, turned school teacher, I agree with you, to a point, about public domain of questions. You should never know the questions ahead of time, but just having a Raw Score is useless to the test taker. I ALWAYS make an effort to review the test afterward and discuss with the students, not only WHICH questions they got wrong and what the correct answer is, but also discuss WHY they may have missed the question. It takes more time, but this way helps them create a deeper understanding of the concepts (which the WHOLE POINT of any lesson) but also hones their critical thinking skills.
Thank you John and Martha for all that you have done for me personally and the aviation community in general. I used your videos (VHS) for my private, instrument, commercial and multi-engine ratings. I have enjoyed flying all over the United States over the last 20+ years and have noticed a significant improvement in the interaction between the FAA and pilots over that time period. A big improvement in mutual respect and hence safety. I have quoted both of you many times when discussing aviation topics with friends. I’m sure that I am like many of thousands of pilots who feel like they know you even though we have never met. You have had a huge impact on my life. Thank you!
John and Martha are like old friends, and I’ve met them and crew when military travel sent me to San Diego. I enjoyed a tour of their offices and production areas. I’ve used King for Private, Instrument, and Commercial ratings back in the VHS days and now use the iPad app for those and other lessons as refresher and to keep current as a CAP pilot with goal of becoming a CFI in the next year.
I finally got to meet John and Martha at HAI’s Expo in Atlanta. It was like meeting long time friends. I got all their VHS courses when they first came out over 30 years ago. I bought all the courses again and they still haven’t changed to me. I like going through the courses again as a refresher every year or so.
I do remember when the questions were all published. I used them to study and learn from too. I must admit, I studied so much that I had almost all 3000 or so questions memorized. Yes, I knew them all like flash cards. I took my instrument test in under 15 min back then. To show you the difference, 30 years later I took the fixed wing instrument written test again. I got the exact same score, but it took almost 2 hrs. I didn’t know the questions and had to figure them out.
I must admit, I did have trouble visualizing the NDB approach figures the first time, so I did memorize all the answers to those questions. Cheating? Yea, I felt I cheated myself.
Oddly, I went to work for the FAA flying in an area with only NDBs for navigation (I maintained them)
When I finally met John and Martha I thanked them and still do. Without their courses I never would have got my job with the FAA.
John and Martha: thank you for all that you do and have done for aviation safety. I am approaching sixty years of flying and being a CFI (as are both of you). I have seen your names, and articles, and free courses, frequently over those decades, and admire your creativity, and tenacity in fighting the bureaucracy for improvements. Since I flew mostly the Boeing 747, 777, and 787 for 30 years, I didn’t get to one of your paid courses until I bought my first airplane a few years ago, which had the Garmin G1000. Your G1000 course is excellent. I loved your course: thank you! The airlines have evolved over the years to teaching many of the risk management ideas you advocate. Thanks again for all that you do.
Thank you John and Martha for your continuing efforts to educate new,old and rusty pilots.
Wow! What a great story and a fabulous photo! Thanks so much for sharing. We love you guys!
John and Martha King, I have thanked God for you many times. I was about to be one of those sad statics when my Cessna 206 just would not fly after take off. I did what you taught and I heard in my head John’s voice say “Fly the plane!” I went straight ahead and bounced watched my plane break apart around me but all four of us walked away.
In May I am going to walk my daughter down the isle as she gets married. Thank you! I did what you and Martha taught me in your videos and walked away from the airplane crash. I wish you could meet my Ugandan friend Derrick and his two beautiful daughters who have been born since our airplane crash. If I had not listened to you they may have never been born. You have already made a huge difference in risk management. I am standing on your shoulders and sharing with others in East Africa what I have learned from you two. I humbly say thank you! And God bless you and King Schools.
Wow! We are SO glad you were able to walk away from your accident. Sounds like you are being humble, and also had great instincts in that critical moment.
Thanks for your great contribution to the field of aviation I have been privileged to be a part of since 1966. I was surprised by being awarded the Wright Brothers Master Award last year. I have recommended your training materials to many students over the years. The FAA inspector who processed the recommendation told the former students who recommended me for the award it was highly unusual because pilots usually recommended themselves and provided the requisite three letters of recommendation from others. I wasn’t aware of the existence of such anaward so I was taken totally by surprise when I got the letter from theTampa Florida FSDO. A letter from the FAA always carries with it a certain apprehension. I couldn’t imagine why they were writing me.
Wow congrats! Glad to hear your letter from the FAA was a positive surprise 🙂
Having been intimately involved with civilian, military, public service and commercial aviation for almost 6 decades I have seen many changes. The natural human tendency is to be bigger, better, badder, smarter, more “something to set you apart”. The need to be in charge or control or whatever you may call it is strong in people. That is what drives us to move forward as a species.
That said, when the agency responsible, (made up of these people), fails to account for the human factor it will either fail completely, or at best, not support the desired outcome.
When you start with a good idea such as testing to verify competence and knowledge and you let it morph into an adversarial contest or otherwise inappropriately use those tools, you fail. The FAA has been in an opposition to individuals, companies and entire industries. Being not only the agency responsible for much of what is done administratively within the aerospace industry but also the enforcer is not a good configuration for an organization.
For example, if you discipline a child, there are several possible outcomes. These include compliance, understanding and support, defiance and down right opposition. When the FAA removes access to the question bank from the public, including the trainers, they eliminate the best available information to ensure the best in training. This path is tantamount to corporal punishment. It tends to push people down the wrong path which is very difficult to recover. No wonder there is an adversarial relationship.
The FAA could take a page from FCC amateur radio licensing. Amateur radio licensees have similar testing requirements to FAA pilot testing. Volunteers administer the tests, the questions and answers are known and the question bank is extensive. The questions are comprehensive and complete. As far as I know, (it’s been a while), there is no desired bell curve on test results. The FCC via the American Radio Relay League, (ARRL), similar to AOPA, ALPA. etc, solicits questions from the community. These inputs, technical changes in the environment, (equipment, changes in law, international rules, etc.), generate sufficient need to constantly change the question bank. Volunteers provide their services to proctor the tests and are usually instructors as well. The results are varied, no need to force feed a bell curve, write convoluted questions, require inappropriate methods or procedures to generate a useless answer never used in the real world.
When the FAA says they need a bell curve in test results, they are saying a bell curve is desirable. A bell curve is the wrong tool and from what I am reading, will not provide an optimum solution. As you stated in the article, the need is to reduce risk, make pilots more capable and ensuring that continues to improve over time.
A bell curve serves no purpose other than to fit a round peg in a square hole. The FAA fails to understand, maybe because it’s easy (?), that the aerospace environment is built around continuously changing technology. Rather than trying to write trick questions, should instead write for knowledge in all aspects of operating within the environment. That would include not only compliance with ATC rules and regulations, administrative requirements under law and routine performance in aircraft, but also risk management, asset management, maintenance compliance, how to develop and apply individual technique and when to use fixed procedures. If you fix what’s broken and allow instructors information access, I’ll guarantee you’ll see an immediate and positive change.
Back in 1999, the first question of my oral exam for CFI was to explain the relationship between the center of gravity and the center of pressure. Oh yeah, the answer the FAA examiner was looking for was this is why we have a horizontal stabilizer. This had absolutely nothing to do with risk management or even safety guidelines. I’m proud to say I was issued a pink slip on that day; but I did go back and to ultimately pass and to say that in retirement I’m still a passionate CFI.
Back in 1971 I thought I had failed my CFI check ride when the FAA inspector (no DPEs for CFI back then) asked me if there was a down force or an up force on the horizontal in controlled flight. My brain let a fart. I some how had missed that critical bit of aerodynamic law in my training. I began visualizing the wing and it’s up force of lift and then it was obvious the answer was down force or the aircraft would not be controllable. The delay in my answer made me wonder if he might think I was guessing and fail me. I think I was saved when he made me do back to back 60 degree bank eights on pylons and I aced it and he said he had never passed a CFI applicant that couldn’t do that.. Pretty sporty doing 60 degree bank turns of that duration in a 100 hp C150 at pivotal altitude.
John and Martha,
Not only have you made the skies safer for everyone, but you’ve given thousands of women and men the education to call themselves pilots. I am one of those. Thanks to your DVDs, I got 29 correct answers out of 30 questions on both my private and instrument FAA tests. More to the point, I learned from your writing and subsequent training videos about what it truly means to be a pilot — the nuance, the exclusivity, and the responsibility. How enfranchising it has been.
Thank you Tony! You are so kind. We love hearing that we have been able to help you along your journey – it keeps us going!
Thank You John and Martha!
Long after I passed my Private, Instrument and Commercial written tests with high scores, I continued to “cycle through” your videos while exercising on my elliptical machine as a regular review.
Rather than just having computer-based training, I hope long-playing videos (35-60-minute segments) might be offered for CFI prep. I found it possible to learn a lot while not being in a position to interact with a computer. Audio courses for use while driving would also be great.
Stuart. Impressive use of your time! Thanks for you suggestions, we will jot them down. Also, keep in mind that our courses are compatible with mobile devices, since you aren’t able to use a computer on the elliptical.
Although I’m a professional pilot in general aviation I never used a King course. However after reading your articles I have been surprised and impressed at what an interesting and impactful life you two have made for yourselves. I appreciate your openness and humility in sharing stories from your flying careers in the name of education and saving lives. Well done John & Martha.
Thank you Duane! We appreciate it. Let us know next time you need a FIRC or RVSM course 😉
John and Martha, you are so cool! I started as a student in 1989 and have always used your courses to guide me through what seemed to me a muddle of FAA required knowledge. You’ve always put that necessary knowledge into scenario based perspective. Your influence as proponents for safety has shaped the knowledge base and training techniques. As a teacher and flight school owner, I applaud you for bringing us all so far to better safety practices through risk management training, as well making the required knowledge pertinent to learners through scenario based teaching. THANK YOU!
Kimberly, you are so kind! We are thrilled to be of help to you and your wonderful flight school.
Thank You both for your work to improve training and safety, and thanks for this great personal and professional history. Finally, I loved the photo, and have to ask for the year it was take .
Keep up the good work, I am using your Commercial Pilot Course right now, and I just turned 60!
Your kind words are appreciated. That photo was taken in front of Casa Machado restaurant at Montgomery Field in San Diego in 1977 it was shortly after we purchased our Cessna 340.
I agree with Jackie Spanitz
Thank you John and Martha for your constant effort it aviation safety. Your insight has saved many lives. Risk management has brought professionalism to aviation. Hopefully, some day, all pilots will choose to be professional.
Thanks James! We appreciate the comment.
A huge thank you to John and Martha for their never-ending pursuit of improving the airman certification process. Your perspective, personal and professional experience, and tireless contributions to the ARC and ARAC have resulted in a positive affect on the overall safety of the National Airspace System. You are both invaluable members of the aviation community – to that end, I’m glad the fleet company didn’t work out 🙂
Thank you Jackie for your kind words 🙂