The truth about ATPL subjects: easiest to hardest!

ATPL subjects are tough, and I remember the loneliness of not being about to go out and socialise for months because I had to study. The brutal 4:30 am alarms to get up and study before work etc.

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Is there such a thing as easy ATPL Subjects?

I remember sitting my mass and balance exam getting myself into a total muddle with a question asking me to figure out how far forward a passenger would have to move to bring the centre of gravity back within limits on an aircraft.

I could not for the life of me figure it out and was starting to panic as time was running out, and I still had a good five or so questions to go.

I learnt my lesson that day – there is no such thing as an easy ATPL subject! In this post, I share my ranking of the ATPL subjects: most comfortable to the hardest ATPL subjects, and how to tackle each of the EASA ATPL subjects.

One of the gaps I found during my ATPL exams was that nobody actually teaches you HOW to study – and I struggled initially as I had been out of education for a while. Check out my How To Study Effectively class on Skillshare – Skillshare is running an offer at the moment for 2 weeks FREE.

In the class, I share my study techniques of how I completed my ATPL exams in just 8 months whilst juggling a full-time engineering job (and hour building at the weekends)!

How to study effectively
How to study effectively

See the class here

Is ATPL theory hard?

ATPL exams are not hard in terms of technical complexity. What makes ATPL theory hard is the sheer amount of information that you need to commit to memory. There is also a certain amount of knowing how the CAA want you to answer their questions.

With hard work and being consistent with your study (don’t give up!!), ATPL theory is definitely achievable with first time passes and an 80-90% average.

How long is ATPL theory?

  • ATPL theory consists of 650 hours of theoretical knowledge training
  • If undergoing distance learning, at least 10% (65hours) must be instructor-led (brush up classes)
  • ATPL Theory covers 14 ATPL exams + Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (new requirement)
  • My ATPL theory distance learning course took 8 months (around my full-time job)
  • Integrated ATPL theory programs typically take around 6 months

What are the 14 ATPL exams?

  1. Air Law
  2. Operation Procedures
  3. Human Performance and Limitations
  4. Meteorology
  5. VFR Communications
  6. IFR Communications
  7. Principles of Flight
  8. General Navigation
  9. Mass and Balance
  10. Performance
  11. Flight Planning and Monitoring
  12. Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics
  13. Radio Navigation
  14. Aircraft General Knowledge – Instrumentation

How did I tackle my 14 ATPL subjects?

I did my ATPL exams via distance learning in 8 months whilst juggling a full-time job in engineering for those interested. For a break, I would try and hour build at the weekends. I did my ATPL exams with CATS, and for the ATPL ground school question banks, I used both the CATS question bank and the Bristol Ground School question bank.

In which order did I complete my 14 ATPL subjects?

I followed the standard CATS module layout. Sticking to their course/ module layout in terms of exam order worked well for me as it aligned to studying the material and the brush-up classes. Some people mix and match, but I could not get my head around that! The order of my exams and results are below:

ATPL Theory Module 1 (Aug – Oct)

  • Air Law (88)
  • Operation Procedures (77)
  • Human Performance and Limitations (79)
  • Meteorology (87)
  • VFR Communications (95)
  • IFR Communications (100)

ATPL Theory Module 2 (Nov – Feb)

  • Principles of Flight (90)
  • General Navigation (87)
  • Mass and Balance (75)
  • Performance (80)
  • Flight Planning and Monitoring (93)

ATPL Theory Module 3 (Mar – Apr)

  • Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics (91)
  • Radio Navigation (95)
  • Aircraft General Knowledge – Instrumentation (86)

From the snapshot of my ATPL theory subject results, you can see there were a few smash and grabs! Mass and Balance (75%), Operational Procedures (77%), etc.

The big takeaway for me was work as hard as you possibly can as just doing that bit extra could make the difference between a pass or fail and avoiding the subsequent agro of a resit!

Hardest ATPL theory subjects: easiest to hardest!

Below are the hardest ATPL subjects arranged in order from easiest to the hardest.

VFR & IFR Coms

Duration: 30 mins each

Number of Questions: 24 questions (each)

Difficulty: Easy

People have failed VFR and IFR communications -treat them with respect! The key is to read the questions, and avoid the temptation to smash through and set the world record for the shortest time to complete each exam!

Aside from the course material and question banks, to improve my RT practically, I listened to liveatc.net (geek!) whenever I could and read CAP 413 a few times over the years from PPL onwards.

Air Law

Duration: 1hr

Number of Questions: 44 

Difficulty: Easy – Medium

Air law was a bastard, and to be honest, relied on how banky the exam was. It is a 100% memory test with little “thinking.” I would say 70% of the questions were aligned to the question bank, but you certainly had to have covered the course material.

The last 200 saved me on air law as you either know the answer or you do not. There was no way to fudge it!

Radio Navigation

Duration: 1hr 30mins

Number of Questions: 66 

Difficulty: Easy – Medium

So far as ATPL subject difficulty goes, I thought this was one of the fairest exams. The learning objectives were closely aligned with the ATPL exam questions.

It was a ‘maths’ heavy exam which I much preferred. i.e. you learn the formulas apply them and you get a good result. The factual information to memorize was relatively straight forward too.

General Navigation

Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 60

Difficulty: Medium

I remember sitting in the brush-up class, thinking it was impossible to reach the standard needed to pass my Gen Nav this exam. There seemed to be just more and more references appearing of stuff I had not seen before – the various charts etc.

Even worse, my first ATPL ground school question bank mock exam attempt timed out after I had only solved 10 questions over the allocated 2 hour period (and I got most of them wrong!).

It is painful at first, but with practice, the speed comes, and I remember the milestone of actually finishing a Gen Nav exam within the allotted time. OK, I had only scored 50% on the question bank, but I was progressing.

I could get to the end! With more practice, the speed and accuracy improved, and finally, on my actual exam day, I finished with 30mins to spare. Keep going, and don’t give up.

Flight Planning

Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 43 Questions

Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Flight planning, I would say, was similar in approach to general nav. I thought the exam was fair. It is essential for both flight planning and general navigation ATPL exams to be as organized as possible during the exam.

Whatever your technique, i.e., you do all the questions needing maps/ charts first, then tackle the rest: be organized, and don’t be afraid to spread yourself out on the desk if needs be!

Similar to general nav, when I first started the question banks after covering the material, I thought it impossible to finish the exam in the allotted time. With practice came speed and accuracy.

I preferred flight planning and general navigation ATPL subjects as they were more ‘method’ based rather than learning random ‘sh*t for for the sake of it.

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Instrumentation

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Duration: 1 hour 30mins

Number of Questions: 60

Difficulty: Medium – Hard

I found instrumentation to be one of the more straight forward ATPL subjects. No tricks, just a case of getting through the material, memorizing and learning what is needed (PUDSOD!), and then practising the question bank. If only all the ATPL exams were like this!

Human Performance and Limitations

Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 48

Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Ordinarily, this exam should be one of the most straight forward (and it used to be!). EASA ATPL questions are not that simple though! I felt there was an element of trying to ‘catch you out’.

Human Performance is one of those factual recall ones – do your best, hit the question banks, and hopefully you should be OK.

Performance

Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 35

Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Most of the performance ATPL module was excellent. That module is probably one of the most important and the most applicable when it comes to real-life airline operations.

I use the lessons from performance most days at work flying the B737. Granted, at work, most of it is in electronic form, but it all applies. TOP TIP: Make sure you have a VERY sharp pencil for when you come to attacking the graph questions.

Mass and Balance

Duration: 1 hour

Number of Questions: 25

Difficulty: Medium (but the time constraint makes it hard)

Don’t be fooled by how ‘skinny’ the course material looks. There was a time when you could learn Mass and Balance in an afternoon but gone are those days. You must understand the theory such that you can work through the exam with speed.

The 1 hour time is *just* enough, but if you have to pause and think, then there is a good chance you will run out of time (as I nearly did). The practice is the key to get the fluency needed, and you have to know your material in and out.

Mass and Balance is application-based so that they can ask questions in many different ways. The only way to survive is to know your stuff!

Aircraft General knowledge – Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics

Duration: 2 hours

Number of questions: 80

Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Digest and learn the course material, and if you don’t understand some of it, don’t worry (too much). The question bank will sort you out. I still don’t know what a commutator shaft is and probably never will.

I fear for the day when AGK questions diverge from the question bank, which is the only way I got through. Because it was banky, that helped a lot. Here is to hoping things stay that way!! I say that because the AGK material is so wide and covers so many topics, it would be impossible without the question bank.

Meteorology

Duration: 2 hours

Number of Questions: 84

Difficulty: Medium – Hard

Met was a pain to get through. I found some of the material useful for my hour building – frontal systems, TAFs etc, but I thought the global weather stuff was rubbish, and a lot of it coming from the book of “CAA weather”.

This makes it hard to grasp as the learning objectives don’t always follow what would seem an obvious natural, realistic learning path!

Met is one of those subjects where you just have to accept that it is the EASA train set, and they do what they want with it. If you’re going to become a pilot, take the medicine and grind through. I also found Met challenging as it was my first module.

I was figuring out how to learn (having been out of education for a while), which is also part of the challenge.

If interested, check out my how to study effectively class on Skillshare.

HOW to PASS ATPL EXAMS PILOT TRAINING THEORY in 8months with a FULL TIME JOB, and WEEKEND FLYING?!?

HOW to PASS ATPL EXAMS PILOT TRAINING THEORY in 8months with a FULL TIME JOB, and WEEKEND FLYING?!?
Operational Procedures

Duration: 1hour 45 mins

Number of Questions: 45

Difficulty: Hard

I specifically remember one question asking what the maximum flight duty period could be, including commanders’ discretion with certain other conditions attached to the number of crew to augment.

How far into EU ops are we going to find ATPL questions to stitch up the students with?

In the real world, you would check your Operations manual and consult with your operations department as a commander if there was a risk of going out of hours.

You would never have to decide the time available from “memory” because all the implications of getting it wrong are grave.

Some ATPL subjects are unfortunately in that zone where you can do all the work to learn the material, practice questions, but a random question that you (and most qualified pilots) would have no chance of answering without referring to an ops manual or EASA standards – could pop up.

Do your best, do not let it get you down, and you will get through.

Principles of Flight

Duration: 1hour

Number of Questions: 44

Difficulty: Hard

I studied Aerospace Engineering at Masters level and found certain aspects of the CAA version of aerodynamics to be ‘different’.

I can be slow to understand concepts, but some of the ‘basic aerodynamics’ taught during ATPL exams were definitely at odds with my degree!

You can’t fight the system though, so this is a case of doing what you can with the ATPL learning objectives and then hammer the banks to figure out how they would like the questions answered.

Annoying as it is, for some ATPL subjects, it is no longer about knowing the material but more about understanding how the CAA would like the problems solved.

ATPL Subjects

Latest ATPL Exam Feedback (May 2021)

Thank you Nikita Tarasov for kindly sharing the below feedback

Here is my feedback for my last session in Lithuanian CAA:

1. POF: 70% of questions were straight from the bank. I used avex for basic preparation and atplq for final stage (it has more up-to-date questions for Lithuania). Try to learn basics of mechanization, structure of the wing, also remember the principles of aircraft behavior close to Mcrit, M drag-diverg etc.

2. Gen nav: a lot of calculations but if you know the basics you’ll be good. No grid questions at all) Also i had 4 questions where it was needed to just add vectors.

3. Agk: that one was tough for me. But if you know the structure of fuel system, turbine engines, oxygen system and pneumatics it won’t be too hard.

4. Ops- quite easy, no questions about oxygen requirements, more concerning navigation requirements ant terms of personal records, mass and balance and responsibilities for dangerous goods.

Several questions about extinguishers and separation. 1 grid navigation question. So, that’s it. Remember that hard times come to pass, and after that you’ll be much stronger! Thank you all for your help, advice and tips!

Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (Area 100 – KSA)

KSA 100 is a new subject in ATPL theory exams. The subject will be assessed by the ATO and is not part of the CAA theoretical knowledge exams.

KSA is aimed at assessing the student’s knowledge, skills and attitudes through their ATPL theoretical knowledge course. The goal: improving students core competencies:

  • Communication;
  • Leadership and teamwork;
  • Problem-solving and decision-making;
  • Situation awareness;
  • Workload management;
  • Application of procedures, and to;
  • Develop their knowledge and understanding of all subject matters prior to commencing advanced training.

What else do KSA 100 subjects cover?

  • Threat and Error Management (TEM)
  • Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT)
  • Mental Maths

Is ATPL difficult?

ATPL exams are one of the hardest things that I have ever done. ATPL exams are not tricky in the sense of being technically demanding. What makes ATPL exams and ATPL subjects difficult is the volume of material that you need to memorise. Part of the challenge is to figure out how the CAA wants the ATPL exam questions answered, which takes practice through the various ATPL question banks.

Once your ATPL exams are complete, and you get your Commercial Pilot Licence and Multi Engine instrument rating, the next hurdle becomes finding your first pilot job. Assuming you find a job, the next step in building your experience to apply for an ATPL once you have the required experience (~1,500hrs) is extremely enjoyable and much less painful than ATPL exams!

What is ATPL course?

An ATPL course is a program that takes you from zero experience through to having a ‘frozen’ ATPL. Although the term ‘frozen’ ATPL does not technically exist, it refers to having a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) and Multi-Engine Instrument Rating (MEIR).

The stages in an ATPL course typically include:

  • Private Pilot Licence
  • Hour Building
  • ATPL Theory
  • Night Rating
  • Commercial Pilot Licence
  • Multi Engine Instrument Rating
  • Multi Crew Course

Whether you complete a modular or an integrated ATPL course, the stages and sequence may differ slightly.

How long do ATPL exams last?

  • Once you take your first ATPL exam, you have 18 months to complete all the remaining exams
  • You have 6 sittings to complete each exam in
  • When you have finished your ATPL exams, you have 36 months to get your Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) & or Instrument Rating (IR)
  •  If you already have an IR before completing your ATPL exams, your ATPL exams are valid for 7 years.

ATPLs are a slog but if you keep grinding, you will 100% get through. For those interested in learning more about the flight training journey beyond ATPL exams, checkout my Pilot Training Guide on Amazon.

Listen to the Pilot Training Guide FREE with Audible here

See it on Amazon

I would love to hear from you if there is anything I have missed or you have a question on ATPL subjects. Please leave a comment in the section below.

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2 Comments

  1. Hey KC, I’m in the second stage of my ATPL exams with CATS, I studied HPL ,airlaw, coms and OPS as much as i could. I was consistently getting 90 odd percent in the mocks and close to 100% in question banks. First mistake i left booking exams too late so with what fit around work ment i couldnt book OPS, but to be honest the grid nav was bugging me and i wasnt 100% sure of that. Met i didnt feel confident at all so i asked advise and i got a kind reply from helen telling me not to worry as a lot of students leave met until last, i also found this out on the study week. So the time came and i was at gatwick, the heart of the CAA, what its all about, went into the exams feeling confident, get my first paper and WHAAAAT??? It all looked alien to me, I understood one or two questions but a lot of them I was really struggling and guessing my way through. I’d not come across a lot of them, or at least not asked in this way. One in comms what happens if two signals are reaching the anntenna at the same time? It was a case of best guess. So I left feeling downhearted trying to work out how many I knew I’d got right and how much was a pass. So from wanting at least 90% to just a pass. Looking up questions I remembered In the text books in the carpark just to ease my mind. A week later I got my results. 3 passes and one fail. VFR comms. By 3 questions, I was kicking myself thinking I’d done them all with points to spare. IFR lots better in the 90s and airlaw and HPL at 77 and 79 % . I knew the stuff, I was getting it all right but somehow I failed in the exams because the questions was nothing like what ive learnt. So now into second stage of distance learning and again the text of M&B is easy ,Pof, perf and F.P . But question banks and mock exams and I’m failing miserably. So I’m no where near ready for the real exams and I have the revision week booked for end of October. I’m studying everyday for a good few hours reading over and over until I understand it but then fail in the questions. I’m looking forward to the AGK one as I’ve got a jet engine at home I built up from parts and cleaning and testing gave me a interest and some online exams with AGK I find easy. As with instruments, I got 100% with ease for my PPL and find the subjects interesting so easy to learn. As for here and now, I’m trying to find the best way to learn, maybe even team up with some from my flying School, if any are wanting to do their ATPLs, practice with me and we can learn together. It’s no fun on your own .
    I find your blog and youtube channel very interesting and helpful. Certainly some good pointers ,like the 3 hours a day with small breaks in between.
    Keep up the good work and thanks for the tips and advice, hopefully we’ll all get through to the otherside.
    Thanks
    Mark

  2. Hi @Mark Ashton, sorry for the delay in replying. Good work pushing through and keeping going. That is 90% of the battle!

    Amazing work so far. The arms race between more and more obscure questions in the exams by the CAA in retaliation to the question banks is making things become silly. You are doing great and as you say, like for AGK it is all about understanding your stuff.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving the comment. A lot of people helped me when I was going through the ATPLs and trying to stay motivated as it is a grind, so anything I can do to help makes perfect sense. Even if it is boring the world on youtube!

    Have you got many exams left? Wishing you the best of luck – you’ll be done before you know it and hopefully, the market picks up over the next 12-18 months.

    All the best, cheers

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