The Mod­u­lar Ap­proach: ATPL Ground­school at a Dis­tance

A per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of the dis­tance learn­ing op­tion pre­ferred by mod­u­lar stu­dents for the the­o­ret­i­cal part of the ATPL


None of the sub­jects is easy, ex­cept per­haps VFR and IFR comms

Iused to think there was no way I could af­ford to be­come a com­mer­cial pi­lot and in­stead threw my­self into an ap­pren­tice­ship and then ca­reer in en­gi­neer­ing, self-fund­ing my PPL. At the end of 2016 I found my­self at a bit of a cross­roads. I was about to turn thirty, had just com­pleted an en­gi­neer­ing project with­out an­other im­me­di­ately on the hori­zon and was in a won­der­ful and se­cure re­la­tion­ship with my part­ner (and now hus­band), who be­ing a mil­i­tary pi­lot him­self was un­der­stand­ably sup­port­ive of me re­vis­it­ing my child­hood dream of be­com­ing an air­line pi­lot. Thus it was the de­ci­sion was made−it was fi­nally time to get my com­mer­cial li­cence.

As I couldn’t af­ford the cost or time to do a full-time ATPL course, I found my­self talk­ing to the Wings Al­liance about the mod­u­lar route to an Atpl−do­ing the nec­es­sary train­ing in seg­ments via suit­able train­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions, of which dis­tance learn­ing provider, Bris­tol Ground­school (BGS), is one.

Step one: the ATPL the­ory ex­ams. A pack­age ar­rived on our doorstep from BGS−A big one. The box con­tained a USB stick and a ter­ri­fy­ing stack of fold­ers of learn­ing ma­te­ri­als on more sub­jects− four­teen in to­tal− than I’d ever thought could re­late to com­mer­cial fly­ing. The PPL course this was not!

BGS do ac­tu­ally of­fer the op­tion of only tak­ing the USB stick and fore­go­ing the pa­per vol­umes, with an as­so­ci­ated re­duc­tion in course cost. How­ever the sheer im­pact of the size and weight of that box, and the sight of such a hor­ri­fy­ing mass of study ma­te­ri­als feels to me like an el­e­ment of the process that would be a shame to miss out on. As it hap­pened I found it pretty use­ful be­ing able to flick through and re­fer to the pa­per notes along­side the com­put­er­based train­ing ma­te­ri­als, and can well imag­ine turn­ing to th­ese in the fu­ture−but if you’re on a su­per tight bud­get go­ing with­out them prob­a­bly won’t prove a huge hin­drance in the grand scheme of things.

BGS’S soft­ware and study notes are de­signed to lead you through the vast num­ber of top­ics to learn in as sen­si­ble an or­der as pos­si­ble. You can choose to pick your own path through the maze of sub­jects if you wish. I opted to fol­low their lead and take my ex­ams in the three mod­u­lar seg­ments they craft their course to fol­low, namely:

Mod­ule 1

Gen­eral Nav­i­ga­tion Me­te­o­rol­ogy In­stru­men­ta­tion Hu­man Per­for­mance and Lim­i­ta­tions

Mod­ule 2

Ra­dio Nav­i­ga­tion Air­craft Gen­eral Knowl­edge Flight Plan­ning Air Law

Mod­ule 3

Op­er­a­tional Pro­ce­dures Mass and Bal­ance Prin­ci­ples of Flight Air­craft Per­for­mance VFR Com­mu­ni­ca­tions IFR Com­mu­ni­ca­tions They claim Mod­ule 1 is the tough­est and for me the two tough­est of the four­teen sub­jects were in­deed tack­led in the first mod­ule−gen­eral Nav­i­ga­tion and Me­te­o­rol­ogy. That said, none of the sub­jects is easy, ex­cept per­haps VFR and IFR com­mu­ni­ca­tions which are re­ally just an elab­o­ra­tion on ba­sic R/T com­pe­tency.

Af­ter a few months of self-study, use of the exam fo­rums, prodi­gious use of the BGS on­line ques­tion bank (which, of the re­sources I used, is by far and away the best study tool avail­able) I em­barked on the bizarrely com­plex process of book­ing my first set of ex­ams with the CAA and then signed my­self up for the first of my three (one per mod­ule) week-long class­room based re­vi­sion cour­ses. Mer­ci­fully,

book­ing sub­se­quent ex­ams was much sim­pler−the ini­tial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and ver­i­fi­ca­tion process re­quires a deal of hoop jump­ing.

For those of us who have not come out of the mil­i­tary avi­a­tion sys­tem it is re­quired that a cer­tain per­cent­age of the course is ac­tu­ally taught face to face. BGS cover this as­pect by pro­vid­ing three manda­tory weeks of class­room­based in­struc­tion, one as part of each study mod­ule. (Mil­i­tary pi­lots can choose to forego the class­room based train­ing if they wish. Most, how­ever, choose to make use of the in­struc­tors’ ex­per­tise be­fore sit­ting their ex­ams.)

BGS also sup­ply ad­di­tional train­ing in the form of ‘ac­cel­er­a­tor week­ends’ pro­vided as part of the course pack­age, with one al­lo­cated for each mod­ule (it’s also pos­si­ble to pay a bit ex­tra to at­tend more should you want to).

For my in­structed study I ended up choos­ing to fol­low the rec­om­mended for­mat of do­ing the mod­ule’s re­vi­sion course one week and then sit­ting the ex­ams the week af­ter. There are sev­eral ap­proved exam cen­tres across the coun­try, in­clud­ing at the CAA’S main build­ing at Gatwick. You can choose to use any of them for any of your in­di­vid­ual ex­ams, even us­ing dif­fer­ent venues dur­ing the same sit­ting, if that works for you. I opted to sit all of mine at BGS, which yielded the ad­di­tional ben­e­fits of be­ing able to talk with fa­mil­iar faces dur­ing the sit­ting week and read­ing through feed­back notes left by peo­ple who had sat the same ex­ams re­cently.

The re­vi­sion weeks felt like be­ing back at school in a way, only noone was go­ing to be naughty and told to stay be­hind for de­ten­tion. Any lack of ef­fort would be pun­ished by poor exam re­sults and lord knows none of us wanted that.

The ex­ams them­selves turned out to be a rel­a­tively straight­for­ward un­der­tak­ing. Our CAA in­vig­i­la­tor was help­ful, friendly and pro­fes­sional, mak­ing the exam sit­tings as pleas­ant as they real­is­ti­cally could be. I un­for­tu­nately timed things badly, hit­ting sev­eral of my ex­ams dur­ing the tran­si­tion to a new soft­ware sys­tem that the CAA calls ‘Quad­rant’. Quad­rant came with new ques­tions on specifics not pre­vi­ously cov­ered along with var­i­ous frus­trat­ing teething is­sues, rang­ing from ty­pos on the lo­gin page, to miss­ing ques­tion an­nexes and un­read­able graphs. Lots of exam re­sults ended up be­ing sub­se­quently up­graded af­ter ap­peals were sub­mit­ted, the CAA sub­se­quently mod­i­fy­ing the for­mats and the ques­tions to avoid th­ese is­sues with fu­ture can­di­dates. In­deed, new ques­tions are be­ing added all the time, mak­ing it im­por­tant to leave feed­back to your in­struc­tors af­ter an exam sit­ting, so they can tar­get their teach­ing on the ar­eas most pop­u­larly ques­tioned.

I some­how man­aged to pass all of my ex­ams on the first go, but should you not pass one you are al­lowed a max­i­mum of four at­tempts at any in­di­vid­ual sub­ject. All of the ex­ams have to be taken within a max­i­mum of six ‘sit­tings’ (a sit­ting be­ing a given pe­riod of time the CAA al­lo­cates for any set of ex­ams, in my case each sit­ting was over ei­ther three or four days, dur­ing which it was pos­si­ble to book var­i­ous slots). You have a max­i­mum of eigh­teen months from the first exam you sit, to pass the last−i man­aged mine in eight but spent a lit­tle over a year in to­tal, from be­gin­ning my stud­ies to pass­ing the last exam.

Ad­vice for those dark mo­ments

Now that it is all over it’s quite in­ter­est­ing look­ing back over the process. The first few weeks hurt. Frus­tra­tion, fear and a not­in­con­sid­er­able de­sire to pack it all in and just go back to fly­ing for fun were all feel­ings that I had to learn to live with as I found my own rou­tine for study­ing−this was by far the hard­est part of the whole en­deavor, if I’m hon­est!

If you are about to em­bark on the ATPL ground­school jour­ney your­self, I’ll let you in on a cou­ple of things that I hope will as­sist in some of those dark mo­ments where you might find your­self won­der­ing why on earth you need to learn how to do some­thing that was last done in anger in the last cen­tury or even the one be­fore that.

First, EASA and CAA ques­tion writ­ers ap­pear to find a twisted amuse­ment in tor­tur­ing the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of wannabe air­line pi­lots. They seem to care not about test­ing any form of use­ful knowl­edge, but about trip­ping up po­ten­tial pi­lot can­di­dates at ev­ery pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity with bizarre and of­ten ir­rel­e­vant minu­tiae. The exam ques­tions rarely make real sense or ask you about any­thing that will be of gen­uine use in a cock­pit en­vi­ron­ment−so don’t worry, you’re not miss­ing the point! Just pray you never come up against th­ese peo­ple in a pub quiz.

Sec­ond, the main ob­jec­tive of the exam process seems to be to weed out those who aren’t com­mit­ted enough to knuckle down hard and get through them all, rather than to pro­vide very much in terms of gen­uinely use­ful the­o­ret­i­cal ground­ing for the next gen­er­a­tion of trainee pi­lots.

It’s painful, per­plex­ing and at times ut­terly pre­pos­ter­ous, but I can con­firm that it does all come to an end and it feels hugely re­ward­ing when it does.

ABOVE: the ‘ter­ri­fy­ing stack’ of study fold­ers de­liv­ered from BGS BE­LOW: Lau­ren found the pa­per notes use­ful, along­side the screen

ABOVE:providers like BGS of­fer fa­cil­i­ties both for study and tak­ing ex­ams

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