12 May 2017

So I passed the first four of the theoretical exams for the Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL)….

But let’s start with a metaphor. For me being a pilot is like riding a bike, once you start rolling you have to keep on going forward if you don’t want to fall. That was one of the main elements that attracted me to flying in the first place; a constant challenge and the need for improvement. There’s always something more you can learn and discover.

That’s also why I have never been content with stopping my flying education with the Private Pilot’s License which I obtained back in 2010. I’ve always wanted to learn more, be a better and safer pilot. That’s why for the last 7 years the ATPL has always been on the back of my mind. For various reasons though I had not been ready to take up the challenge until last year when I finally decided that the dream of being a professional pilot had been nagging me for too long to be ignored.

The first step in the process of obtaining the ATPL is passing through a theoretical course in fourteen aeronautical subjects. These subjects are as follows: air law, aircraft general knoweldge, flight planning and monitoring, human performance and limitations, meteorology, operational procedures, principles of flight, air communications (VFR & IFR), aircraft performance, general navigation, radio navigation, instrumentation, and mass and balance.

Yeah, that’s a lot, and the level of detail of some these subjects is really high making you sometimes wonder whether you’re studying to be a pilot or an engineer… It’s enough to say that the knowledge covered by these subjects is gathered in thirteen books totalling over 1300 pages.

There are two possible ways of completing the training: either through a stationary course that takes up 6 months of full time teaching (classes taking place Monday-Friday, 9-to-5) or a distance learning course that is based on home study at one’s own pace and can be spread over roughly 12-18 months.

In my case obviously, with a full time day job and a family the second choice was the only option. After having made some on-line research of the best flight schools I decided to choose the Bristol Ground School from the UK, which had a very good reputation among students as well as affordable fees. With BGS the material of the 14 subjects is divided into three modules studied in sequence. Each module finishes with a revision week at BGS premises in the UK and exams with the UK Civil Aviation Authority. The subjects selected for each module are smartly combined to spread the most difficult subjects in a more or less even way over the entire course.

The study material consists of the books as well as software solutions for PC/Mac and a tablet that mirror the books in content while offering some additional interactive features. There is continuous online and telephone support available with a dedicated on-line forum for students and instructors to discuss the study material. Since my study has been mostly on the go I have myself worked almost exclusively with the iPad courseware.

As for the exams, they are in the form of multiple choice questions, each exam containing between 60 and 90 questions depending on the subject.

Even if formally every student has to go through the course syllabus, an important part of preparing for the exam is working with the so called ‘question banks’. There is a number of question banks available commercially (including the BGS question bank) which contain questions that might appear at your exams. I have worked with the Aviation Exam which has a very useful iPhone application and contains more than 13000 questions in the ATPL database.

That’s a lot of questions to learn….

Nevertheless given that the official exam questions are not made available publicly I think that the designers of the question banks do a great job. What happens in practice is that they are able to source the content of the official questions mostly from students who come out from the exams and are able to recollect them from memory. Given the feedback from thousands of students that results is pretty accurate rendering of the questions that appear at the official exams.

Working with the question bank will help you better understand the type of questions you might be asked at the exam as well as grasp the various tricks that the questions try to play on you to trick you into a wrong answer (yes I know that it sounds like war, but to some degree it is one!).

So I’ve made it! I’ve won the first battle, I am a step closer to success. I have passed the first four of the fourteen exams: meteorology, general navitaion, instrumentation and human performance and limitations. The first two of these are considered as the most difficult amongst all.

If you want to find out about my experiece in trying to prepare to these exams and how I managed to cover these subjects combining the study with my day-to-day job and family life then stay tuned, the second part of this blog entry is coming soon.

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