While it’s true that the Air Force, Guard, and Reserve use the “whole person concept” in selecting pilot applicants, there’s no denying that objective indicators of aptitude are also greatly important. Your undergraduate GPA and your Air Force Officer Qualifying Test (AFOQT) scores (BogiDope AFOQT article) are two of the main aptitude-related pieces of the selection criteria, but there’s also another aptitude score that matters for rated applicants – the Pilot Candidate Selection Method (PCSM) score.
What is a PCSM Score?
The PCSM scoring system was developed by the Air Force in 1993 as a composite method of gauging the aviation aptitude of applicants. Possible scores range from 1 to 99, with each point representing a percentile ranking compared against a reference group. A PCSM score is calculated by utilizing an applicant’s AFOQT Pilot subscore, amount of logged flight time (including dual instruction), and grading data from the Test of Basic Aviation Skills (TBAS). The calculations used to produce the score are proprietary information and are kept confidential. PCSM scores are not required for non-rated applicants and they do not have to take the TBAS.
Air Education and Training Command (AETC) conducted analyses in 1997 and 1998 and concluded that there is a strong correlation between higher PCSM scores and increased completion rates among pilot trainees for Phase II of Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) in the T-37 Tweet (now replaced by the T-6 Texan II). Each analysis produced extremely similar success rates. The approximate figures are shown below.
PCSM Score Range UPT Phase II Completion Rate
1 – 25 58%
26 – 50 70%
51 – 75 82%
76 – 99 92%
Although the PCSM score is an important factor in getting selected for a pilot slot, the Air Force does not currently have a minimum PCSM score requirement for applicants. However, some Guard and Reserve units maintain minimum requirements as a way of pre-screening for competitive applicants.
What is the TBAS?
The Test of Basic Aviation Skills (TBAS) is a performance-based test that is administered via computer with the use of a joystick, a set of rudder pedals, and headphones. It is a vital component of the PCSM algorithm. It replaced the Basic Attributes Test (BAT) in 2006 – a similar test which ran on comparatively antiquated software and also included a section with questions designed to judge personality attributes.
The TBAS is designed to assess the applicant’s spatial perception ability, short-term memory, hand/eye coordination, fine motor skills, and multitasking ability. This specific grading data is not provided to the applicant nor any selection boards – it is simply utilized as a part of the PCSM score algorithm.
The TBAS is comprised of a Directional Orientation Test, a Horizontal Tracking Test, an Airplane Tracking Test, a combined Airplane and Horizontal Tracking Test, and a Multi-Tasking Test. Descriptions of each test are below.
Directional Orientation Test
This section assesses your spatial perception ability. It is somewhat similar in concept to the Instrument Comprehension subtest on the AFOQT.
The idea behind this section is that you are controlling a UAV and are being instructed to identify a single parking lot out of a group of four, which are arranged in a diamond shape. The software presents a simple image of a map with a compass rose, which always shows North pointing towards the top of the map. The map image contains a yellow triangle-shaped arrow and an adjacent red dot. The smaller, pointed end of the arrow indicates the direction your UAV is facing. The red dot is also located just beyond the pointed end of the arrow and serves as another indicator of your UAV’s focal point. On another part of the screen, you will simultaneously be presented with an image intended to represent the first-person view from the UAV. This image contains gray squares which represent the parking lots. Through the headphones, a voice recording will be played which instructs you to select a parking lot which is located in a particular geographic location (for example: “Image the West parking lot”). Your job is to look at the map view and determine which direction your UAV is facing, then quickly look at the first-person view and determine which parking lot is located the furthest in the direction that the voice instructs, and then click on it. As soon as the voice stops speaking, a timer will begin and your reaction time will be recorded.
After clicking on a parking lot, you will immediately be notified whether or not your answer was correct. It is critical to not allow yourself to get flustered by incorrect answers. It is also important to avoid focusing too much on the timer or you may begin rushing and answering incorrectly. It is better to take an extra few seconds to answer correctly rather than getting too anxious and answering incorrectly but quickly.
In the above example, the UAV is facing Southwest. You have been instructed to identify the East parking lot. From this perspective, East is located to your rear left. To correctly answer, you would click on the rear left parking lot (choice C).
You can prepare for this section by using these TBAS flashcards. The presentation on the TBAS is most similar to the flashcards which show a map overlay, but the plain flashcards are still useful for practicing the mental technique.
Horizontal Tracking Test
This section analyzes your basic fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination.
The software displays a narrow horizontal section of space at the bottom of the screen. A red aircraft icon will move left and right along this space in a random fashion, quickly changing direction with no warning. A yellow box will also be visible in this section of horizontal space. Pressing on the rudder pedals will control the location of this yellow box. Your job is to constantly “track” the aircraft icon by keeping it inside the yellow box. While you’re successfully tracking the aircraft, the box will turn green. As the test continues, the speed of the aircraft icon’s movement increases.
An official screenshot of the Horizontal Tracking Test.
Airplane Tracking Test
This section is similar in concept to the Horizontal Tracking Test. It measures more advanced fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination.
The software looks almost identical to Horizontal Tracking Test, but you will be looking at most of the screen instead of a narrow horizontal section. This time, the red aircraft icon will move all around the screen rather than just left and right. You’ll use a joystick to move a yellow targeting reticle icon around the screen. The objective is to react quickly to changes in the red aircraft icon’s movement and to keep the targeting reticle over it as much as possible. The targeting reticle will turn green while you are successfully tracking the red aircraft icon. The speed of the aircraft icon’s movement increases at various points throughout the test. Another challenging aspect is that the joystick’s Y-axis is inverted, meaning that you will need to push the joystick forward to move the targeting reticle down the screen and vice versa.
An official screenshot of the Airplane Tracking Test.
Airplane and Horizontal Tracking Test
This section is simply the previous two sections combined. It measures advanced fine motor skills, hand/eye coordination, and multitasking ability.
An official screenshot of the combined Airplane and Horizontal Tracking Test
It is difficult to truly prepare for any of the tracking tests, but flight simulator experience may help. If you’ve never used a joystick or rudder pedals before, it would be a good idea to purchase a set and start developing a feel for making those kinds of control inputs. The Red Bull Stunt Course mission in the Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Acceleration Pack is a good way to get used to performing fast, drastic control inputs somewhat like the ones you’ll need to make during the TBAS tracking tests.
As the name implies, this section measures your multitasking ability. You’ll be performing 4 simultaneous tasks which seem easy individually but are very challenging to manage all at once.
The software divides the screen into 4 sections. Each section has an individual module score visible at all times. If you concentrate primarily on one section, its module score will increase, but you will lose points on the other sections. Module scores can move in either direction – if you perform well on one module and then begin neglecting it, you will start to lose the points you had gained. Because of this, trying to excel at one or two particular modules while mostly neglecting the other ones is not a good tactic. You need to keep your attention as divided as possible.
You will have an opportunity to practice each module individually before the Multi-Tasking Test begins. During the test, you’ll perform the multitasking operations continuously for a few minutes at a time. You will then have an opportunity to take a short mental break before another session begins. The module scores reset with each session.
An official screenshot of the Multi-Tasking Test.
The first module will display a group of letters for approximately 10 seconds. After this, one individual letter will be displayed at a time and you’ll be required to click on a large checkmark if that particular letter was included in the previously displayed group of letters, or click on an “X” mark if it wasn’t. A correct answer will increase your module score and an incorrect answer will decrease it. If you do not answer within a certain amount of time, your module score will also decrease. After answering a few of these questions, a new group of letters will be presented and the process will start over.
If you’re creative and have a reasonably large vocabulary that you can recall quickly, it may be a good idea to try to create a mnemonic device in your head as you read each group of letters. For instance, for the group of letters “ISKELOPU”, the nonsensical phrase “I’m Skydiving, Keep Educating Little Orange Pandas Underwater” could be quickly created and placed into your short-term memory, making it easier to recall the group of letters. Another technique is to identify pronounceable syllables within the group of letters and memorize those sounds rather than their individual letters. With the previous example, you could remember the sounds “Is Kel Opu” and cut down your memorization workload by more than half (3 sounds instead of 8 letters). Of course, not every group of letters will be made up entirely of pronounceable syllables but it is likely that many groups will have at least one, which can save you from having to remember at least a few letters. This online game also provides good practice.
The second module requires you to perform 3-digit addition and subtraction within a fairly short time limit. Rather than typing in the answers, the numbers 0 through 9 are displayed on screen and you must click on the correct number for each digit and then click the Submit button. However, if the answer is greater than a certain amount, you can simply click on the button that says “Greater Than XXXX” (on the real test, XXXX will be an unchanging number). You will not receive a pencil or scratch paper, and even if you were able to solve these problems by writing them out, you’d be wasting a lot of time and your other module scores would suffer. If you’re not comfortable with performing this type of arithmetic mentally, the Mental Math Cards iOS App is a great way to prepare.
The third module is extremely simple. A generic gauge is displayed that is shaped like a semicircle. There is a moderately sized green-colored zone in the middle of the gauge, two small yellow-colored zones to the outsides of the green zone, and two large red-colored zones to the outsides of the yellow zones. Each Multi-Tasking Test session will begin with the gauge’s needle perfectly centered in the green zone. As seconds pass, the needle will begin falling to the left or right side of the gauge. As the needle falls towards the small yellow zones, you will score more points until it reaches a red zone, at which you will start to lose points. Clicking on the gauge will immediately reset it, and the needle will go back to its original centered position in the green zone.
Resetting the gauge only while the needle is in a yellow zone will net you the most points for this module, but since the yellow zones are very small, it only takes a short period of time until the needle has moved past a yellow zone and into a red zone. This introduces an element of risk vs. reward. If you reset the gauge constantly and do not allow the needle to fall very close to a red zone, the risk of losing points is low, but you will not gain a large amount of points. If you try to maximize your points by waiting until the gauge is in a yellow zone each time before resetting it, the risk of losing points is high because you may not be able to divide your attention well enough to reset the gauge during the short time window, but if you are successful, you can gain a large amount of points.
Module 4 adds auditory information into the mix. Before the Multi-Tasking Test begins, the instructions will state your assigned call sign. During each session, you will frequently hear simulated Air Traffic Control (ATC) radio chatter in your headphones. Occasionally, ATC will instruct you (by your call sign) to change to one of 4 radio channels. These channels are represented on screen by icons labeled 1 through 4. When you are instructed to change channels, simply click on the appropriate icon and you will gain points. However, if you ignore the instruction or click on the wrong channel button, you will lose points. Throughout the session, ATC will also be giving instructions to other call signs – some of which sound very similar to yours. If you respond to an instruction that was not intended for you, you will also lose points. When you hear an instruction for your call sign, it should take top priority. Stop what you’re doing and click on the appropriate channel button, then return your focus to the other modules.
Ok so now you understand the background and how important the PCSM score is to your chances of getting selected to UPT. These tests are not to be taken lightly. Educate yourself and study early and often. Don’t jeopardize a phenomenal career and retirement because of lack of information or lack of preparation. In the next PCSM article BogiDope will explain how to take the test, the scoring system and what (outside of studying) you can do to better your scores. Remember its our goal to make you informed. Now it’s your turn to start the process and go take some tests.
Note: this article was written using multiple different sources. These sources include, the Pilot Candidate Selection Method website, prep books for the AFOQT test, USAF AFPC Official AFOQT Form T Prep Course and multiple phone calls to understand the process.