EASA ATPL Theory Preparation: Look Back

As you probably know, in 2019 I passed all my EASA ATPL theory exams for getting my commercial license, and I decided to share my experience. Hopefully it will help someone.

Mentally it was a nightmare. I remember my exams time back to the university, but usually it was lasting for a couple of weeks, and my ATPL studies took about 6 months of constant reading, writing, reviewing, repeating and verifying. I was totally lost for my friends and family during that time. It helps a little to read the pilot forums and question banks comments: you know that someone else is doing the same, and someone else even completed it (are they humans or not?)

How to take exams

Each country has some failure limits for a subject, so don’t try to take the exam if you are not sure. It is possible to barely make it without really solid knowledge and a bit of luck, but it does not worth it.

When you sit the first exam, the timer starts, and you have a year to pass all others, so it’s better to start taking exams when you know at least a half of subjects. I would say that it’s better to start when you know almost everything and can reach 90% in practice exams. Better to have 90% at least in 3 attempts in a row.

Some countries also limit total attempts – it means that, for example, you have no more than six sessions, and whatever the number of passes and failures, you have to pass all 14 subjects in six sittings. In that case it’s better to plan 3 or 4 sessions, so in case of failing some subject(s) there would have been left some room for retaking them. Czech Republic does not limit the number of total sittings, but there is a limit for failing a single subject.

If you feel confident enough, it Czech Republic it makes sense to take as much subjects as possible in a single session: remember, there is no limit for total attempts (but you should pass everything in a year anyway).

The reality is that you cannot book everything in a single session: some subjects can be available only in 3 months on even later.

I believe that you need at least 6 months to get ready, and there will be very tough months. Most likely it will take about a year to get it done.

I recommend to spread the most difficult subjects between sessions. For example, if you take General Navigation, Air Law, Meteorology and Operational Procedures in a single day (or even a single weekend), you will be totally exhausted and probably fail one of them. It is possible, but one-two really hard subject with 3-4 relatively easy subjects could work much better.

My schedule

I had a full-time job, so it was even worse. Every working day after about 7 pm I had been sitting and studying till about 11, and had been taking the school assessments till about 1 am. During the commuting I had been studying and reviewing the material. I was sleeping and eating with my smartphone and books.

The only day in a week I did not have any assessments was Monday, so on Monday I had been studying till about 1 am.

On weekends I allowed myself to sleep a little longer, but from about noon I was studying again, sometimes with a 2-hour break for a walk in the park.

This schedule seems kind of insane, and it really is. Occasionally I just needed some lazy evenings, and I was picking some Monday evening for doing exactly nothing. Without that I could lose my mind.

How to study

You may need a question bank, but you absolutely must not try to remember the questions and their working. You have to understand and use your knowledge. The exam questions will have different wording, different values and different answers. Question banks are great, but it is merely a direction which topics to pay attention on. For some subjects like General Navigation the questions will also give you an opportunity to practise in solving particular math and physics problems. But the books are jsut must have anyway. I recommend the Bristol or Oxford ATPL books.

I also strongly recommend to make notes. It is not practical at all to search a book every time you need to refresh your memory with some numbers. Good notes can help on the exam day as well: you can quickly read them while waiting for your turn before entering the exam room. The most important stuff can take a few A4 sheets for each subject.

The Subjects

Some subjects were easier, some were insanely hard for me.

For me the most complicated subjects were Air Law and Operational Procedures. There is a lot of information to remember. Operational Procedures for me seems like a compilation of all other subjects though, so if there was a choice I would take it closer to the last session.

Meteorology is one of the most complicated subjects too. You have to understand almost all weather phenomena, read the forecasts and chars, know the climate processes all over the world. Better to dedicate a decent amount of time, but try to pass it before other subjects: there is not so many common areas between meteorology and others. But it’s one of the most interesting subjects as well.

General Navigation does not require to remember a lot of information, but you need to know how to solve all types of practical tasks, and better to get used to it. On the exam there is not so much time, and it does not make sense to waste it by figuring out how to solve some particular problem – you should just recognize the problem type and solve it almost automatically. The time flies, and it is essential to track it during the exam. If something does not pop out right away, it could be probably better to skip the question, move on and return to it only if some time is left.

Principles of Flight was pretty easy. It requires knowing some equations and some facts, but a lot of questions use the same formulae and knowledge. But you should really nail the computation questions, and get used to solve them.

Performance, M&B and Flight Planning and Monitoring were rather easy for me too. But you really must do each kind of task at least five times – remembering the formulae in a time-critical environment is not enough. And it is really important to track time during the exam. For example, if you used up 30% time and solved only 15% of questions, you’re in trouble and better to speed up. And avoid ‘lockouts’ on some computational-heavy questions. Sometimes it can be even beneficial to skip them and do 3 or 4 next questions in the same amount of time.

Aicraft General Knowledge was not so hard too, but required more time to study. Some knowledge is related to Principles of Flight, but you need to remember a lot of stuff about generators, alternators, gearboxes, landing gears, engines etc.

Instrumentation is a little easier than Aircraft General Knowledge, and has something common with it. It is much easier if you already know how to fly by instruments, especially if you’ve really seen TCAS and flew in a glass cockpit.

IFR and VFR Communications are easy, it is mainly usual communications.

Radio Navigation requires some time to study and learn the principles and numbers. There were some questions about GPS/GNSS, SBAS, FMC, FMS and even Galileo (is it really working now?)

Human Performance and Limitations is cool! Not so hard and really interesting.

After passing Meteorology, Air Law, General Navigation, Operational Procedures and Aircraft General Knowledge it is basically done. The rest is a piece of cake.

And what about question banks?

It is really important to buy a subscription. It should not be the main source of information, but it definitely gives and idea what to expect and highlights weak areas. From my opinion, the 3 popular QBs (Bristol, AviationExam and ATPLQuestions) are pretty much the same or very similar. From my personal opinion AviationExam is the best because of its interface – it is convenient to use from all my devices: laptop, tablet and phone.

I actively used flags for questions, and frequently looked in a user comments section. From my opinion there should be some tagging system as well to group the questions. For example, I’ve found pretty much the same question in 3 or even 5 rephrases, and it would be useful to tag them somehow. Or I’d like to group really complicated questions about generators/alternators to revisit them more frequently.

As a conclusion, good luck to you on this route! It is really hard, but it could be very rewarding.






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