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:
General Navigation Meteorology Instrumentation Human Performance and Limitations
Radio Navigation Aircraft General Knowledge Flight Planning Air Law
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