Passing the Airline Transport Pilot Licence exams is a marathon not a sprint. It’s tough, but it’s doable. Keep focused on the prize at the end – a career doing something awesome and totally worthwhile.
I am by no means claiming to be an expert, but I hope these thoughts and tips help you whether you’re thinking of starting your ATPLs or are already staring the exams in the face.
I enrolled on an integrated CPL helicopter course in October 2019 at Helicentre Aviation in Leicester. Initially we were taught face to face in a classroom at the airfield, which was excellent. However, when Covid-19 struck we were forced to move online, interacting with the theoretical knowledge instructors via Zoom. While there are some advantages of being at home, I did miss the classroom.
Having experienced both learning environments and managing to pass all 14 ATPL (H) IR Exams first time – with an average score of 91% – I am proof that both training methods work.
Where to begin?
If you’re on a course like I was the decision as to what order to take the exams will be made for you. If you have to decide this yourself, I suggest you get some of the big ones out of the way first. I did GNav and Met in module one along with Instruments and HPL. This will not only give you confidence but it will significantly chip away at the mountain while you’re fresh and eager.
Keep up with the class! If you’re being taught the material, it’s well worth keeping up each day with the lessons and tests on the CBT (computer based training app) so you don’t fall behind. Don’t be afraid to read ahead either. Seeing / reading / ingesting the information several times in close succession via the lesson, the CBT and then the question bank will help fix it in your mind.
Make good notes. Writing things down can help cement it in your mind. Good notes are a lot easier to refer to later than trying to find the relevant page in the CBT. Everyone is different but I found sketches, tables and use of different colours helped to make things stick in my mind.
Be organised. Get a diary to keep track of what lessons you have on each day and any homework you’ve been set. I also noted my results in the diary whenever I did mock exams or tests in the question bank. It helped me track my progress and how many questions I was working through each day.
Use the question banks. My class were using the Bristol Ground School notes, so we also used the BGS question bank, which has a lot of good stuff in it. We also found Aviation Exam to be very good. Some of us also used ATPL GS as they have a good ‘last 200’ section. Being fixed wing based, its downfall for helicopter pilots is that there are a lot of irrelevant questions, especially in subjects like POF and AGK. However, for subjects like MET, HPL, Instruments etc which are more general, I would recommend it.
Don’t just rely on the banks. It’s no use simply learning all the answers to the question banks because only a proportion of each exam is likely to be made up of questions you’ve seen before. The percentages vary from subject to subject and are not the same for every individual either. My mass and balance exam had a lot from the banks but principles of flight had a lot of new ones I hadn’t seen before. Keep looking at your notes and make sure your core understanding is good.
Make sure you see every question in whichever banks you choose to use. You’re giving yourself the best possible chance if you do. Some subjects (I’m looking at you Met) have a shed load of questions. It seems very daunting when you start so make a plan to work through them. I decided I wanted to have seen every question at least once before the exam and have time to go over the problem ones again. I set a deadline of a few weeks before the exam and divided the number of questions by the days I had to do them. It’s a lot more manageable if you know you’ll get through it by doing a set minimum number every day. You can do double on one day and go easy the next if you need a break. The diary and a spreadsheet helped me stick to this.
Use the banks to highlight knowledge gaps. Each time you do a set of questions, look for subject areas that cause repeated mistakes. Go over them, make new notes and work out a way to remember the material so you don’t keep getting them wrong. For example, it took me ages to learn the wake turbulence separation minima times and distances until I came up with a system. I would easily lose a couple of marks almost very test until I fixed this. By the time I sat the exam I was willing questions to come up about this because my system meant it would have been an easy mark.
Don’t lose sight of the end game. I was lucky that apart from a two month Covid-19 hiatus, we kept flying alongside the ground school throughout our integrated course. Flying a couple of times a week kept me motivated. I also enjoyed watching aircraft visit the base for fuel and sometimes I’d watch an episode of Helicopter ER to remind me why I was doing this. If you’re thinking of locking yourself away for months to ‘focus on the exams’ that can actually be counterproductive. Maintaining the motivation to work hard and preserving your mental health is critical to your success.
Ask for help. You are not alone! Thousands of people have been through this and have had the same worries and issues you are having. Your tutors like being asked questions and are there as a resource for you to tap into. Talk to other students in person or reach out on the various Facebook pages. If you’re studying as part of a class (in person or virtually), don’t be afraid to ask questions. You might feel a bit silly but the chances are someone else isn’t sure either. By asking a question you are helping them, too. I was always happy to try and help someone else understand something that I had managed to grasp because by explaining it, that helps better your own understanding. That way a question to a fellow trainee becomes a win-win for everyone.
Are you ready for the Exams?
You’ve completed every lesson in the CBT, done all the question banks, consolidated your notes and you’re consistently passing mock exams with a minimum score of 85% in considerably less time than the exam allows. Well done. This is where you need to be before you think about sitting the real thing.
Some exams went better than others for me, but in the worst cases my final score was between 12% and 15% lower than I had been getting in the practice exams. It follows logic that you really need to be consistently nailing over 90% in practise exams to be in with the best chance of a comfortable pass in the real exam.
During the final two or three weeks leading up to the exams I had completed the banks as per my schedule and would then go back and work though all the questions I had got wrong the first time round. If you have been effective in your extra study, you’ll find a lot of them are no longer an issue. This is because your revision is working! Keep at this because everything you do now is adding to your margin.
The pre exam fear
In the days leading up to the exam it’s hard not to get stressed. I know I did – every time! Take confidence from the fact that you’ve worked as hard as you can. At this stage I’d be tempted to reset the question bank and do practice exams as well as reading over your notes again. You should be getting close to 100% now as you’ve seen all the questions before. These great scores will help boost your confidence but don’t get complacent. Keep working hard. There is always something else to read. The Learning Objectives document is a big beast but it’s well worth having a look through.
I didn’t sleep well the night before exams but do your best to get a good rest if you can. It’s better to be fresh and up for it on exam day than to try and cram too much in the night before. My attitude was ‘If I don’t know it by now, staying up all night is not going to change that…”
In the exam room, take a deep breath before you start and remember you will almost certainly see questions you have seen before. It’s always nice when the first question that pops up on screen is an ‘easy’ one but that’s not always the case. If you don’t know, move on and come back to it later. This is especially important in the time critical exams like GNav and Flight Planning. You could waste precious time on a question you don’t really know how to complete and then run out of time working out a comparatively easy one at the end of your time. I also found that some questions seem impossible when you first look at them, but by the time you come back to it your brain, or sometimes something that they have told you as part of another question can help to work out the answer.
If you’re not sure of an answer but have made an attempt, mark it. That way you know those marked ones are the first to re-check at the end. Having said that I would definitely recommend double checking every answer if you have time. I clocked a really stupid error in my first exam (GNav), which gained me 2 marks in the last two minutes of the time. I had rushed at the beginning and made a simple error that I easily spotted at the end when I was a lot calmer and more settled.
Watch out for common traps.
Does vs does not; converting different units; correct vs incorrect; clockwise rotor vs anticlockwise are all easy things to get wrong if you’re in a hurry so be extra careful. Remember a question you’ve seen in the bank may look exactly the same as the one in the exam but they could have changed one word and therefore lured you into picking something opposite to the correct answer.
Don’t be peer pressured into leaving early just because others are. It’s your time and its there to be used. It’s not a race to the exit and accuracy beats speed in the exam.
Having said that, don’t linger so long you start to lose faith in your selections. It’s more often than not the case that your first hunch/gut feeling about a question you’re not sure of is the right one. I lost several points to last minute doubts making me change answers only to discover afterwards that I’d swapped a correct guess for a wrong answer. Your main goal is to spot obvious errors, not start second-guessing yourself.
Before I submitted my exam I would always add up the questions I wasn’t certain about and try to work out what my worst case score might be. Hopefully you’ll see you should pass even if all your ‘not sure’ answers are wrong. Remember that if you’ve managed to rule out a couple of definite dud answers you’ve probably got a good chance of around half of them actually being correct so don’t worry too much. (There’s always the chance of a ‘dead cert’ actually being wrong through, so this is not an exact science!)
Once it’s all over and you’re out of the exam I couldn’t help but discuss questions with the other students on my course. Sometimes between those discussions and looking at your notes you’ll realise you got one or two wrong but other times you’ll have plumped for the right answer. Don’t beat yourself up, especially if you have more exams to sit that day. Move on and get your head in the game for the next battle.
It’s a waiting game now
I always struggled to remember many of the questions after an exam sitting but some people have great memories. If you do, make some notes on what you had, especially new questions you found tricky. The banks are largely made up from questions people like you remembered from their exam and as you will know by now that is hugely helpful to the next crop of pilots, so submit your questions if you can. If for any reason you have to re-sit an exam these on-the-fly notes may well be valuable to you, too.
On results day you’ll get emails from the CAA – one for each exam – in the order in which you sat them. I found they came through either just after 9am or in the case of module two, just after 10am. The results appear on your CAA portal at the same time the email comes through so you really just have to wait for the emails.
I’m very lucky that I passed every exam on my first attempt but I know people who have not been so lucky. Resits are a pain in the proverbial, especially if you only missed a pass by a mark or two but it’s far from a disaster. Your first port of call might be an appeal. I know people who has failed an exam by a couple of percent, successfully appealed a sketchy question and had their mark upgraded to a pass. There is a charge for appeals and it’s not always successful but it may still be worth considering. Aside from that it’s time to reflect on what you’ve learned, where you think your knowledge or technique was weakest and what you can do to ensure a better outcome next time. You have a much clearer idea of what to expect now so just keep working at it.
Whatever stage you’re at with the ATPL exams, I wish you all the very best of luck. There is no getting around the fact that you’re in for a lot of hard work but I really think it’s worth it in the end. Do your absolute best and then whatever the outcome you will know you did all you could.
If you’re looking for a bit more inspiration, check out my flight over London and Heathrow which I did in October 2020 as part on the integrated CPL (H) course I’ve been on at Helicentre Aviation.
PS. About a month after sitting the exam I got an email from the CAA saying my Principles of Flight exam had been re-marked and as a result I had gone from 84% to 86%. That small increase bumped my average score by just enough to push it to 91% overall… an unexpected early Christmas gift from the authority!
January 2021 update: I’ve done it! I passed the skills test and I am now officially a commercial helicopter pilot. The video below looks back over my course highlights and includes me breaking the news to my very excited parents.