How do you pass your ATPL exams?
In this post, I’ll share the best advice to help you get through your ATPL exams sharing what I learnt completing my ATPL exams in 8 months whilst juggling a full-time engineering job.
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What are the ATPL subjects?
- Air Law
- Radio Navigation
- General Navigation
- Flight Planning
- Mass and Balance
- Human Performance and Limitations
- Aircraft General knowledge – Airframes/ Systems/ Power Plant/ Electrics
- Operational Procedures
- Principles of Flight
- KSA 100
Spaced repetition & Practice
After covering all the course material, I remember completing my first practice exam on general nav. In the allotted 2 hours and 15 minutes, I had only completed 20% of the questions (and got most of them wrong).
I just felt like there was no way in the world I would be able to pass the exams. It is not like I hadn’t been through the material and taken notes: I had, but clearly, I had forgotten a lot of what I had been through, and I would need to go back over the notes to address the weak areas.
A fact of human life is that when we learn a new topic or subject, we will only retain around 50% of what we learned by the end of the first week.
By the second week, only about 25% of the information has been retained, and by the 4th week, probably only 10% of the information has been retained.
To bore you with some history, Hermann Ebbinghaus ran a study on himself and found that information is lost over time if there is no attempt to retain it.
The million-dollar question: how do you slow down the process of forgetting?
This is where spaced repetition comes in.
- Make a schedule to review important information
- Writing the information down and using flashcards can be an excellent way to remenber infomration
- First review can be the following day, then in a week, then in a month etc and the idea is that as time progresses, just a periodic review should have you happy with the concept.
With spaced repetition – which is revisiting the information – you can retain the information for much longer, and you have a process to review and learn as time progresses.
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 4 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)!
It may be worth looking at apps to help take notes and spaced repetition.
I’m hoping to be working on my command upgrade course in the next 12 or so months, so I’m currently using remnote to take notes and practice the topics I need to commit to memory for my command upgrade process. I’ll report back on how that works out!
ATPL exams are brutal, and when I first started my ATPL exams, I remember the course instructor from CATS aviation saying that ATPL exams are used as a filter to weed out who wants to fly professionally and who does not.
I don’t think I am exaggerating by suggesting that ATPL exams will probably be the most challenging and intense study you will most likely have undertaken in your life.
I don’t want to create the idea that ATPL exams are impossible to pass – they are not – you have to work hard and work consistently over 6-12 months depending on your course type, and you will get through.
You will hit a ‘wall’ at some stage (as everyone does) where you just can’t be bothered. You need to find a reason to push through and grind to get the result that you want and need.
For me, my motivation was straightforward. I had just been through a redundancy process at work > I wanted to fly > and I just wanted to make sure that I’d never be in the position again where I’d be reliant on total strangers to decide on my future.
ATPL exams and becoming a pilot were paths to pursue a different career that meant I could step away from my career as an engineer and do what I love.
Motivation is an internal thing, and you need to find your reason to get up early or study later or forgo the nights out, etc. As corny as it sounds, I listened to Eric Thomas when I wanted to give up, which helped push me along.
Find a reason why you want to fly professionally and keep that reason close by so when you start flagging and want to give up; you can remind yourself why you are studying.
Instagram can be a good thing. I would look at profiles of other pilots who had gone through the process and had landed jobs, and the wishing to be in the flight deck as their pictures showed was a big inspiration and pushed me along.
Certain subjects overlap in certain areas – for example, general navigation and flight planning are pretty close in terms of content.
For this reason, you want to group your subjects in as sensible an order as possible to minimise the amount of work and get the shortcuts where subjects overlap. I did my exams with CATS aviation, and the subject split was as follows:
- Human Performance & Limitations
- Air Law & ATC Procedures
- Operational Procedures
- Principles of Flight
- Flight Planning
- General Navigation
- Mass & Balance
- Aircraft General Knowledge
- Radio Navigation
Module 2 was probably the ‘heaviest’, but overall, I thought the subject grouping made a lot of sense. Speak to your ATPL theory provider and see what works best.
The other item to mention is that if you fail an exam for whatever reason, it may make sense to leave that retake until the end before re-sitting.
The reason is that during your ATPL theory course, specific topics come up in more than one area, e.g. altimetry appears in Met, Instrumentation, Flight planning and general nav.
It would help if you paced yourself during ATPL exams. As a minimum, you are looking at six months of work if you are on a full-time course.
If distance learning, the minimum period is usually around eight months, with most taking 12-18months to complete ATPL exams. For this reason, you must take good short term and long term breaks.
I arranged my study into 35-40min bursts followed by a 10min break. I would try to do two or three of these sessions in the morning before work and then have a study session in the evening.
ATPL exams are all about time management and getting as good a quality of study as possible for the time you put in.
For ATPL exams, try and study smartly rather than spending hours ‘studying’ but not learning because you are on your phone or doing the washing or whatever.
For this reason, it is essential to get rid of any distractions, so you have solid study time. Find a workplace away from distractions and try your best to do a focused burst of valuable study time.
You want to minimise the ATPL study pain, and effective study techniques are one of the best ways to achieve this.
The location of where you study is vital. It would be best if you got a framework together that will allow you to maximise the quality and time of your study. While I enjoyed some ATPL studying, I can’t say I wanted to do it indefinitely.
ATPL study is a means to an end. i.e. we study because we want to become professional pilots, and it is just something that needs to get done along the way.
You want to find a place where you have good quality study, so you are not wasting any more time than is necessary on ATPL exams because – let’s face it – life is too short!
Aside from just the study optimisation location – you also want to think strategically about where best to undertake your ATPL exams. Getting through ATPL exams is all about time management, and for that, you need a good setup in terms of location.
Let me go a bit further. I looked at Easyjet MPL with CAE, and to save money, I thought I could live at home with my parents in London and commute to Oxford.
One of the best things that happened to me was getting rejected onto the MPL program because (they said that I lacked captaincy during the assessment group exercise at the assessment)!
I now had to attack ATPL exams via distance learning to hang onto my full-time engineering job.
Commuting from my parents’ house in London to Oxford each day would have been a disaster as it would have been a 1hr – 1.5hr journey each day driving and I would have to make this journey in the morning and the evening.
In hindsight, the idea of taking a 1-1.5hr commute each way for ATPL exams would have been a disaster as I would have been exhausted permanently and not been particularly effective with my time.
Instead, distance learning from home worked much better for me as I could get up at 4.30 am, study for 2-3 hours > make the 10mins or so journey to my office for work and have a normal day. At lunchtime, I would study again.
Arranging my location in terms of school choice made a huge difference to my success:
- Distance learning cost less
- I was able to say in the comfort of my own home and study around my existing job
- I was able to extract the maximum amount of study time out of each day, without wasting time driving etc
Key takeaways: there is no right or wrong type of ATPL study – distance learning or part-time. Figure out what works best for you and your specific situation and go with what would give you the most amount of study time.
I’m not going to detail which subjects to study on which day and for how long. We all work differently and have different weaknesses or areas we struggle with.
The key is to make sure you rotate the subject you study during your exam revision. This may be 45mins per subject for some. For others, it will be one subject on a given day. Find out what works best for you and go for it!
Focus on weak areas
Keep asking yourself: if the exam were tomorrow, where would you have the most trouble – and focus on those areas.
I broke it down, focussed on the weak areas and started practising those questions. The question banks like atplGS or BGS etc, were excellent in tracking questions and flagging the ones that I was getting wrong.
Like in my case, with time, you will find that you need to revisit the course material less and less each time when attempting questions.
Eventually, you get to the stage where just reading the first part of the question, you know what is being asked with reasonable confidence, and your speed improves.
Speed comes from practising questions – specifically active recall – the posh name for taking stuff out of your brain. Practice a given task or skill regularly until you can recall the facts or methods without great difficulty.
Don’t struggle alone – ask for help
If you are struggling with a topic (grid nav!), don’t fight it and struggle by yourself. Ask for help. Your provider for APTL theory will typically have people you can ask questions to via e-mail or in person.
I prefered to note all my questions or grey areas and bring them up in the brush-up classes. Word of warning – if studying via distance learning, don’t expect to go to the brush-up classes and be ‘taught’.
There is not enough time to ‘learn’ during the brush-up classes. Instead, use the brush-up classes as an avenue to take all the problems you have been struggling with and get help.
My target during APTL study was only to attend the brush-up classes after covering all the course material.
ATPL exams are stressful because of the time pressure, sittings and wanting to have as clean a record as possible to maximise your chances of getting that first job.
You need to find a way to manage your stress, though, as unfortunately, if you don’t handle the pressure, you will quickly become overwhelmed, burn out and lose focus.
Here is what I did to help manage the stress –
- I took regular breaks (short term) and longer term between modules to reset and re-energise.
- If I was not ready for an exam, I simply delayed it. Dont put unessary pressure on yourself with crazy targets
- I asked for help if there was a subject or concept i was struggling with
- I tired my best not to have unrealistic goals/ expectations on myself. Instead i just focussed on being consistent and doing my 2.5 – 3 hours of study each day during the week and see where that took me
- Many other worries can creep to add to the stress e.g. money. This is where is it is key to pick a training route that is not too expensive or puts too much at stake. For example – its not worth enrolling a course that relise on you earning £85k on day one as a first officer in order to afford the flight training loan replayments with your parents house at risk if you dont pay. That is just too stressy!
English is the common language in aviation, so if English is not your first language, you can help yourself considerably by making sure that your English is up to scratch to pass ATPL exams.
Most airline jobs require an English proficiency of 5 and above. Ideally, you want to get English proficiency six on your licence as soon as possible to take away the headache of repeat assessments.
Maths and physics
You don’t need degree level mathematics and physics to pass ATPL exams. As long as you can complete GCSE maths and physics, you will be fine.
If you are not from a technical background or have been out of education for a while, brush up on your maths and physics before starting your ATPL exams.
Many students struggle because their maths is not up to where it needs to be, so they end up battling basic mathematics whilst also trying to get on top of ATPL concepts which is hard work!
Class 1 medical
It is not necessary to have a Class 1 medical to sit your ATPL exams- all that is required is ICAO private pilot licence. That said, if you are not already the holder of a Class 1 medical, you want to start the process sooner rather than later.
I had a scare when I went for my class 1 medical, thinking it would be a slam dunk and I would get my class 1 on the day of my appointment.
Unfortunately, the aeromedical examiner needed some confirmation from my doctor, and I also had to get further testing relating to my blood pressure before my Class 1 medical could be issued.
Thankfully, I eventually got my class 1 medical, but the whole process took around four months to resolve the various issues. You want your class 1 medical in hand before you start spending serious money on flight training.
Which syllabus/ database shall I sit for ATPL exams?
There is an arms race between ATPL question bank providers and the various civil aviation authorities regarding APTL exams. There is typically a lag between new questions coming out before they find their way into the different question banks.
Ideally, you want to sit the oldest ATPL syllabus/ database that you can. The reason for doing so is that the ATPL theory schools will know more about the various learning objectives.
The question banks will be reasonably mature in replicating questions similar to what you will be asked in the actual ATPL exam the older the database/ syllabus is.
If you can avoid it, you ideally want to avoid being one of the first to sit a new syllabus/ database of ATPL questions.
At the moment, there are two syllabi that are in play:
- EASA 2016 (ECQB 7.0)
- EASA 2020 database
Don’t do ATPL exams too slowly
Following on from which ATPL syllabus/ database to sit, the longer it takes you to complete your ATPL exams, the greater the risk that a new question/ database will come out that can derail the average pass marks for a given subject.
You also don’t want to run out of time regarding exam sittings.
Which CAA shall I sit?
Choosing which CAA exams sit is a difficult one at the moment, mainly because of Brexit, where at the end of 2022, the UK CAA will no longer accept EASA ATPL exams if you want a UK CAA licence.
To fly for most UK airlines with G reg aircraft, you need to have a UK licence. Several people I have spoken to are completing both ATPL exams – UK CAA & EASSA ATPL exams.
These exams are pretty much the same thing, so it is frustrating that common ground could not be reached to allow equivalence and continued acceptance of ATPL exams between the UK and EASA.
There is no right or wrong answer regarding what is the correct thing to do and which CAA you should sit your exams with. The decision will be a personal decision and will come down to figuring out where realistically, you will most likely get a job.
Critical to deciding which CAA’s exams you should sit: UK CAA or EASA is where you have the right to live and work.
If you do not have the right to live and work in the UK, the chances of getting a job flying may not be that high, particularly if there are candidates who have the right to live and work in the UK.
The same applies to Europe- if you do not have the right to live and work in Europe, then having a licence from a European state may not help secure a job.
What adds to the complexity of the decision is that it is not entirely set in stone regarding immigration requirements.
Pilots are considered key workers (in the UK), so there is an argument that if there were to be a significant pilot shortage in the UK, companies looking for pilots might facilitate visas under the UK’s skilled worker visa scheme.
I don’t think anyone can say definitively say what immigration requirements will be in future when seeking employment and whether or not European operators will sponsor visas for UK pilots and vice versa.
If you have the time and want to keep both options open, then consider doing both sets of ATPL exams.
If you can rule out that you don’t want to work in Europe or the UK for personal or immigration reasons, that will narrow your decision options of which CAA exams to sit.
Do what you think works best for your situation – at worst, you may have to re-sit your ATPL exams if you wish to convert your licence in future.
Which study material is best? The truth is you will probably have to augment your ATPL study material from your primary provider with information from other sources.
I used the manuals from CATS and the question bank from BGS. YouTube was also helpful when I struggled with particular concepts, and I asked for help from my coursemates and instructors.
I would say on the study material topic that if you are using study material not from your primary provider, be careful not to overload and overwhelm yourself.
I have seen students decide to ditch the course material from their given provider, buy books from another provider and end up in an even bigger muddle because they became overloaded and confused with too much information.
Schools have to cover each subject’s ATPL syllabus, but how individual schools cover the material in terms of sequence varies greatly.
If you are struggling with your course material, approach your school with the gaps as buying a load of books from another provider may not be that much help and could put you in a worse situation.
ATPL exam questions where to get them?
Check out my post on ATPL questions and where to find the latest ATPL exam questions. To find out which question bank is most closely aligned with your subject, syllabus and CAA centre – join the ATPL Theory Students group on Facebook.
Students regularly provide exam feedback there. The student ATPL exam community is very helpful, and most likely, someone else would have recently had the same question/issue you have and will be more than willing to share their solutions.
How to save money during ATPL exams
Aside from the tips about selecting your school to minimise cost by living at home, etc., one of the mistakes I made was buying all my ATPL equipment brand new.
eBay is a great place to find second-hand equipment such as Jepp manuals (make sure they are the correct versions), flight calculators etc.
The ATPL theory students Facebook group also has a section where people post adverts with items that they are selling.
I am wishing you all the best of luck with your ATPL exams.
If you have any questions about passing your ATPL exams, please leave a comment in the section below.
Kudzi Chikohora is a B737 captain with over 3,000 hours of flying in Europe. He holds a Master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering, is a chartered engineer, and is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Kudzi completed his pilot training via the self-funded modular pilot training route and created kcthepilot.com to share pilot training and aviation content.