ATPL Theory

Taking your airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) theory

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What is the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL)?

This is an informational page and is, as far as possible, unbiased. To find out about our course, or to book your place, please go to the Book a Course page.

Before we start, it is worth explaining what the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) is and the steps to holding the licence.

It is the licence most airline pilots hold, but it is not the licence they start out with.

To hold a UK CAA or EASA ATPL you must be at least 21 years old, hold a Class 1 medical and have completed a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time in aeroplanes, including at least:

  1. 500 hours in multi-pilot operations on aeroplanes.
  2. 500 hours as Pilot in command under supervision (PICUS) OR
    • 250 hours as Pilot in Command (PIC) OR
    • 250 hours to include a minimum of 70 hours as PIC and the remainder as PICUS.
  3. 200 hours of cross-country flight time, of which at least 100 hours should be as PIC or as PIC under supervision.
  4. 75 hours of instrument time, of which not more than 30 hours can be instrument ground time.
  5. 100 hours of night flight as PIC or co-pilot.
  6. Of the 1,500 hours of total flight time required, up to 100 hours can be completed in a suitable simulator (FFS or FNPT – but only a maximum of 25 hours may be completed in an FNPT).

As you can see you will not have the above experience when you first apply to or join an airline or equivalent.

At this stage you will more likely hold a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL), have completed your ATPL Theory course and passed the 13 exams.

You will also hold the following ratings: Instrument Rating (IR), Multi Engine Rating (ME) and Night Rating.

This is sometimes known as a ‘frozen’ ATPL – there is officially no such licence but it has become a term widely used amongst trainee pilots and is sometimes used in the wider aviation industry.

You will also need to have built up the flying hours for CPL and IR issue. Please see our detailed pages on these licences, ratings and the hours building required.

How do I complete my ATPL theory and exams?

As with most things in aviation there is more than one way to complete your ATPL Theory course and the 13 exams.

Here at BSA we provide two routes. Both of these routes are modular training – please see our page about how to become a pilot for the differences in modular and integrated training.

>> How to become a pilot

We’ll describe both routes here, along with other information you need to know before purchasing a course from your chosen provider.

What do I need before I can start my ATPL theory course and sit the exams?

To start the ATPL theory course you must hold an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) equivalent Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) – if you hold an EASA or UK CAA PPL you meet these criteria. If not then please check with us or the UK CAA.

You should have a reasonable knowledge of Mathematics and Physics; we will put you through some relevant Mathematics and Physics revision before you start, but you will find that if you haven’t used these subjects for a while a quick refresh will help throughout your training. 

It is worth mentioning that having good mental maths is a great help during your training and throughout your career – it is never too late to become good at this and there are a number of apps and books on this subject that can quickly help you improve.

What qualifications do I need to start my ATPL theory, and do I need a degree?

As stated above you need to hold an ICAO or equivalent PPL and have a reasonable knowledge of Mathematics and Physics, so having at least GCSE (or equivalent) levels in these subjects will help with the study. Of course A-levels (or equivalent) in those subjects would help even more but are not essential.

It is recommended that you have a basic knowledge of Human Physiology, Psychology, and Geography (Geographical locations and Meteorology).

Whilst you are not required to have a degree, it is of course a good idea to have a backup should you later lose your job or medical. It may also be helpful in securing your first airline job (as would A-levels or equivalent) and prove necessary later in your career should you choose to go into management or training within your airline.

What’s involved in the ATPL theory course?

You are required to study 14 subjects and take 13 UK CAA (or EASA) exams as well as being assessed on a non-examined, but competency-based element of training called KSA100 (knowledge skills and attitude, with 100 being the subject code).

What are the different ways to study an ATPL theory course?

There are 2 ways of studying the course.

The first is called an in-house ATPL theory course. With this course you are required to attend the course every day and receive the information directly through lectures delivered by an instructor. This instructor is a subject matter expert in one or more subjects. The reason you must attend each and every day is to make sure you meet the mandatory 650 hours of study prior to sitting the exams.

The second way is called distance learning. You are still required to study the mandatory 650 hours, but typically study is 90% at home, working through the materials and progress tests, before attending what is known as a brush-up course where your instructor(s) will help you work through the tougher parts of each subject whilst also preparing you for the UK-CAA/ EASA exams that normally follow on from each brush-up course.

How long does it take to study for the ATPL theory?

The ATPL theory for a modular student is mandated at 650 hours.

An in-house course normally takes between 5-7 months depending on the school.

A distance learning course varies much more and depends on the time the student can give to studying and whether they can study full or part time. It normally takes anywhere between 7- 15 months.

How are ATPL theory courses set up?

Both of the courses mentioned above are normally broken into stages, with each stage containing a number of subjects.

Once the study and mandatory progress tests have been completed, a student would (if part of an in-house course), sit the UK-CAA/ EASA exams that have been studied for, before then moving on to the next stage and repeating the process until all of the exams have been passed. 

A student on a distance learning course would study a stage at home, complete the progress tests for each subject, before joining the brush-up course for that particular stage and then go on to sit the relevant exams.

Here is an example of the course structure we use at BSA:

Stage Subjects
Stage 1 Meteorology, Human Performance, Air Law, Operational Procedures, Communications
Stage 2 Performance, Mass and Balance, Principles of Flight, Flight Planning
Stage 3 Instrumentation, General Navigation, Radio Navigation, Aircraft General Knowledge

What are progress tests?

Progress tests are the tests that are mandated by the UK CAA & EASA to make sure that a student is understanding and retaining the information they are learning.

There must be a progress test every 15 hours studied that should be submitted to the school for assessment, with additional self-assessed progress tests every 5 -10 study hours.

Please note: you are not permitted to sit exams until you have completed all the progress tests and the school you attend determines that you are likely to pass the exams you sit.

Why can’t I just study one subject at a time?

It would of course seem sensible to study just one subject at a time, sitting (and hopefully passing) the exam, then moving on to the next subject.

As pilots we are required to learn quickly and efficiently whilst retaining all of the information needed to carry out our duties safely. It was therefore decided that to make the exams a better representation of the industry requirements, exams would need to be taken using a series of sittings.

The UK-CAA and EASA both allow you 6 sittings in which you can take as many or few exams as you wish, but you must complete the 13 exams within the 6 sittings.

You are allowed 4 attempts at each exam and must complete all 13 exams within 18 months from the time you take your first exam.

What are the ATPL theory subjects?

Subject Number Subject Name
022 Instrumentation
010 Air Law
050 Meteorology
040 Human Factors
062 Radio Navigation
021 Aircraft General Knowledge, Airframes and Systems, Electrics, Powerplants and Emergency Equipment
061 General Navigation
033 Flight Planning & Monitoring
090 Communications
070 Operational Procedures
081 Principles of Flight
032 Performance
031 Mass and Balance
100 Knowledge Skills and Attitude (no exam)

What is in each of the ATPL subjects?

Whilst there is no syllabus for the ATPL Theory laid down by either the UK CAA or EASA, schools are expected to work to the Learning Objectives (LO’s) provided as part of the Acceptable Means of Compliance (AMC) to Part FCL (Part Flight Crew Licensing), which is the legal framework by which pilot training is governed. You will learn all about this during your Air Law studies.

Below we have provided a link to the LO’s so you can take a look if you’re interested.

>> ATPL Learning Objectives

How much does an ATPL theory course cost?

The cost depends on whether the course is a distance learning course or classroom based.

For a distance learning course you should expect to pay between £2000 – £3000, and for an in-house course you should expect to pay £6000 – £8000.

How much do the ATPL theory exams cost?

The ATPL exam fees are paid directly to the CAA when you book your exams on their on-line portal called Tasman.

The exams are currently £74 each so you need to allow at least £962 plus any re-sits. 

What equipment is needed to study for the ATPL theory?

Below is a list of equipment needed:

  • Jeppesen Student Pilot route manual.
  • CRP5 Navigation computer.
  • Navigation protractor.
  • Precision drawing set.
  • An exam approved calculator.
  • A complete set of CAPS (booklets containing data for study and practice exams).

What to look for when choosing a school?

Choosing a school needs careful consideration, it will come down to a number of factors and you will probably have to compromise on a couple of them.

Cost is often the first consideration, but this is probably not the best place to start. Different schools use different pricing models depending on whether they only offer theory courses or perhaps hope to get more of your training fees through other courses, so it is not necessarily a way to assess quality.

Experienced instructors and the best training materials are a much better indicator. Try and speak with the instructors to make sure you feel that you would be able to learn from them and feel able to approach them if you are having problems.

It is also worth checking the pass rate for the exams taken by students at the school. We would advise that you also try and speak with students at the school directly to check how the course was delivered and find out if they felt they built up a solid knowledge of the subjects examined or if they were encouraged to use question feedback as the primary way to pass the exams. Although this is a method that is helpful alongside proper teaching, too heavy a reliance on this method leaves large gaps in a student’s knowledge and can make future aspects of training much harder.

You should also check that the school has the correct approvals for the course they are offering you, ie., they have an approval for full time in-house theory training and are not offering you a distance learning course where you can come to the school to work on your own except for the brush-up courses.

All schools should be happy to show you their approval certificates – we publish ours on our website.

After you have done your due diligence on the actual course it is worth considering the location and if there is suitable accommodation available where you can relax and study if you need to.

If you are part of an in-house course you will spend a lot of time at the school, so making sure the school’s learning environment is conducive to good study is crucial.

Tips for passing your exams first time with the minimum of stress!

  • Make sure you are mentally prepared to start the course, forearmed is forewarned as they say! By visiting the school and meeting the instructors (even on-line) you will know what to expect and this will help to reduce your stress level in the early part of the course. Even just knowing the route from your accommodation to the school and your way around the school all helps to lower stress.
  • Prepare yourself. Take the time to go through the basic Mathematics and Physics principles, this will make you feel much more confident when we run through these with you at the start of the course.
  • Listen to the instructors, they have helped many students through this part of the training and have come across most problems before. They are there to help you, but you must be open in your communication and let them know when you are having problems. They will of course have a good idea of who is finding things difficult, but it is much better to catch problems when they are small rather than falling behind and then trying to catch up.
  • Work as a team. Teamwork is crucial in aviation and the bonds you form in ground school may well last you throughout your career. By working together as a team with the other students and the instructors you will enjoy the course more as well as learn some valuable knowledge about yourself and others.
  • Have a plan and don’t try to wing it. Of course your plan might have to change, but when you study it is always good to have a plan – it might be to read for one hour each evening the materials you will be being taught the next day. It might be to create a revision timetable – your instructor should always be willing to help you come up with suitable plans.
  • Stay positive, and enjoy the course. Remember all those pilots you see flying around doing the job you hope to be doing very soon have been in your shoes! The ground school may seem at times to teach you things that seem irrelevant to modern aircraft, but as the saying goes you can never have too much knowledge and building up the skills to accurately take in and process information quickly and efficiently is a crucial part of being a pilot.

At BSA we pride ourselves on being Aviators first and are always happy to spend time explaining any aspects of aviation training or the broader industry that might help you make good decisions about your training.

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