ATPL Groundschool - is now the right time to start?

A career as an airline pilot starts with groundschool. And while times are challenging, given the combination of the value of knowledge with the relatively low cost of theoretical training, Ian Seager thinks it might be a good time to hit the books if you’re thinking about a future flying career…

We might not be able to fly, but whether refreshing your memory or embarking on a commercial career, there’s never been a better time to open the books and get groundschool underway.

Groundschool might not be every pilot’s favourite part of flight training, but done correctly, it helps build the foundations for a lifetime of aviation learning, and if there’s a (slight) silver lining to the human and business tragedy that is Covid-19, it’s that lockdown provides many with the opportunity to learn, revise or refresh, and for those embarking on a commercial career, it provides an ideal opportunity to get the ball rolling. 

To state the obvious, groundschool is the theoretical learning bit of training that precedes or accompanies flight training. It applies from microlights (where there’s five different subjects air law, navigation, meteorology, aircraft technical and human factors), through LAPL and PPL which add another four subjects to that: communications, operational procedures, flight performance and planning, and principles of flight. A lot of PPL level study has been a combination of home study via the usual staples of well-known books, supplemented with some traditional ‘chalk and talk’ from your instructor. However, things are changing with services like Nigel Willson’s Easy PPL which offers online groundschool in all subjects. 

“If you are heading for an eventual airline career you will need to sit 13 ATPL exams, which have the same 18-month calendar as PPL exams”

Nigel told FLYER that his aim in creating the material was not just to get students through the exams but to relate as far as possible the material and learning objectives to real-world flying. The PPL exams are now online, with students having 18 months to secure passes in all nine subjects. The countdown starts when you sit your first exam. Should you not pass, you’ll get another three attempts (four in all), and if you still fail you’ll have to re-take everything after a three-month break.

It’s exam time…

If you are heading for an eventual airline career you will need to sit 13 ATPL exams (there used to be 14, but a recent change to the syllabus combined VFR Communications and IFR Communications into one subject ). The ATPLs have the same 18-month calendar as the PPL exams, and the subjects have to be taken in a maximum of six sittings. Additionally you have to add the CPL and Instrument Rating to your licence within three years of passing your last theory exam. Fail to do that for whatever reason and you’ll need to hit the books again and resit all of the exams.

The ATPL subjects

♦  Aviation law
♦  Aircraft general knowledge
♦  Flight planning and monitoring
♦  Human performance and limitations
♦  Meteorology
♦  Operational procedures
♦  Principles of flight
♦  Communications (IFR & VFR)
♦  Performance
♦  General navigation
♦  Radio navigation
♦  Instrumentation
♦  Mass and balance

Then there’s the usual decisions relating to integrated or modular, UK or overseas, EASA or CAA etc. When it comes to the groundschool element things are perhaps a little more nuanced in the post-Covid-19 world. It used to be fairly simple – full-time classroom study (as either part of an integrated or modular course) or distance learning with brush up sessions after each module and before taking the exams. Both the full-time classroom, and face-to-face classroom brush up sessions are hard to impossible with Covid-19 restrictions, so the industry has adapted to provide teaching and revision online using a mixture of study material, pre-recorded and always available webinars and live interactive online classrooms.

Diarmuid O’Riordan, founder of ASG in Dublin and an Airbus TRI (Type Rating Instructor) told FLYER that Covid-19 had accelerated changes to the industry that were perhaps inevitable. The company has invested heavily in remote teaching technology to provide an immersive experience. The technology (and associated approvals!) now allows classes and revision to take place in person, remotely or as a mixture of both with full participation between physical and remote students and instructors.

What is KSA 100?

Multiple studies have identified that a significant number of accidents have crew actions central to their cause, with soft skills rather than lack of knowledge being a significant factor. 

This has led EASA to introduce KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Attitude) training and assessment alongside ATPL groundschool. 

The idea is that KSA introduces scenario-based learning alongside technical skills. Rather than an exam, cadets are assessed by instructors on four core competences: team work, leadership, problem solving and workload management. 

It’s a fairly new area for theoretical training providers, providing challenges in situations where instructors may have less direct contact with students in a group thanks to Covid-19 restrictions. With a couple of exceptions, KSA has been well received by the training industry. Director and Head of Training at Pathway, Norman Beasant, told FLYER, “The introduction of KSA100 training in groundschool is a major step forward in building future pilot core competencies and soft skills. It has been thoroughly embedded in the PadPilot iBooks. 

“As well as explaining and expanding the KSA principles, we run KSA Assessment weeks where we deliver two to three days of dedicated KSA training and assessments, culminating in team-based exercises to train and assess students in operating successfully as part of a team to solve various problems in realistic aviation-based scenarios. The feedback we have had on this training so far has been universally positive and will equip the students not only for a future airline job, but also gives them experience of the exercises that are often used by airline recruiters.”

Integrated course

Distance learning and self-study doesn’t work for everyone of course, and Matthew Woods, CTKI at Leading Edge Aviation told FLYER that the company has been determined since the beginning to innovate, and that the full-time groundschool, which is part of its integrated course provides a great opportunity to match the theory with practice by use of either the company’s Airbus sim or its aircraft. “Groundschool shouldn’t be viewed as a hoop to jump through on the way to the practical elements of flight training, it should be an immersive experience that gives future commercial pilots a solid understanding which relates not only to passing exams but to real-life flying.”

The bottom line is that no single route is right for every individual, and personal circumstances, finances, time and career considerations will need to be considered.

To start a full-time integrated course most ATOs will require that you pass an assessment, and to begin modular groundschool you will need to be 17 years old, have the equivalent of ICAO level 4 English and hold a PPL. Although not a requirement, you would also be mad not to make sure that you can get a Class 1 medical, too.

“Groundschool shouldn’t be viewed as a hoop to jump through…”

Bristol Groundschool’s Alex Whittingham and his team have taken around 15,000 people through ATPL groundschool over the last 30 years. He told FLYER, “The distance learning experience has evolved rapidly in the last five years. A good training provider will now be able to offer a full range of learning options both online and offline to suit all needs. In many ways the learning experience on professional courses now exceeds what you would expect at a university.

“The inclusion of daily live webinars has made a huge difference to the distance learning experience, as has our library of several hundred hours of recorded webinars. There are subjects which nearly everybody finds challenging, General Navigation would be an example. The solutions are good quality tuition and practice, practice, practice.

“Yes, there’s the frustration of dealing with poorly written exam questions, but the odd thing is, once it is all complete, most people say they enjoyed the course, even allowing for the (now notorious) exams.”

High pass rate

There’s a huge amount of material covered by the 13 ATPL subjects, and it would also be true to say that the relevance of some of the material raises an eyebrow. Pretty much every exam candidate will spend time hitting the various commercial question banks available to help improve their chances of not only success, but of a high pass rate.

Every single training provider we spoke to was clear about the need to really understand the subject rather than just trying to learn the answers to the likely questions.

Graham Cownie, MD of PadPilot told FLYER, “Passing your groundschool exams is an essential part of becoming a pilot, but groundschool is not just about getting through the exams so you can move onto commercial flight training. It’s important to focus on your future career, and take the opportunity to gain a comprehensive foundation of knowledge and understanding that will equip you for airline type training and beyond… For our part in the pilot training process, we’re focused on creating groundschool materials that deliver a pilot education, rather than just ‘getting you through’ the exams. Our books will do that too but understanding alongside knowledge is key…”

As I write this most of General Aviation outside of commercial training is grounded, and I doubt there are many people working in the airline industry who have experienced more challenging times.

Things will change, things will recover, so when you combine the value of knowledge with the relatively low cost of theoretical training, there really hasn’t been a better time to hit the books, tablets or screens. Hopefully a week or two after you’re able to read this the CAA will once again allow exam sittings!

The student view – Luke Tullett – LEA

I’m on an integrated course at Leading Edge Aviation. Obviously Covid-19 has changed things, but I’m happy to say that instructor access remains brilliant and there’s been a lot of encouragement and support from all quarters, including the students in my bubble. 

We study with a mix of face-to-face teaching, in the academy mixed with some video sessions too, all sessions are Instructor led so we’re always able to absorb their vast experience.

Living and studying in our student bubbles really helps. It means that we can study together both at the academy and in our accommodation, supporting each other every step of the way, this makes a huge difference. If I’m finding a subject difficult, I can guarantee that one of my course mates will be able to put a different spin on it, and helping them is a great way of cementing my knowledge too! It also gives us a degree of social interaction in a safe environment that is so hard to access with Covid-19 – the academy puts a huge importance on wellbeing.

On a personal note, visits to the sim and a flight in the Slingsby Firefly have really helped bring the theoretical learning to life as well as being a lot of fun.

The student view – Matthew Ross – BGS

Once you understand how they work, ATPLs aren’t so bad. At the start, I remember studying for module 1 with Bristol Groundschool, not knowing what to expect. After speaking with other students and doing some research I felt more comfortable. By the time the second module came around, I felt pretty good about the routine and how best to study and revise. 

I struggled the most with air law and radio navigation (RNav) because there’s little logic involved, you’re mostly required to learn facts and figures. Whereas with principles of flight and flight planning, despite these being some of the more feared exams, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the various aerodynamic aspects in POF and how fuel contingencies are calculated in FPM. 

I worked full-time and managed to study most days for an hour or two, probably totalling about 15-17 hours per week. That said, it’s a very personal decision and important to remember everybody will be different when it comes to learning and sitting exams. 

My best piece of advice is to speak to others. It helped me to have a good group of friends in a similar position, who I could talk to for support but also to ask specific questions and discuss methods and techniques for the exams. As important as that is, try not to compare yourself to others going through exams. 

Stick to a pace that works for you and if you’re struggling take a break and come back to it.

Questions, questions…

Want to know what ATPL questions are like? It’s obviously impossible to paint a complete picture, and there are certainly harder (and easier) questions, but we asked training providers to pick out a few for us…
Alex Whittingham from Bristol Groundschool

A question from Operational Procedures…
Q. You are flying to Thessaloniki Airport in Greece. Where would you find information concerning noise abatement procedures for the airfield?

1. ICAO DOC 7030 Regional Supplementary Procedures.
2. Greece AIPs, Part 3 AD 2.21.
3. ICAO PANS-OPS, DOC 8168 Aircraft Operations.
4. Notams.

The correct answer is (2). Although the answer contains some detail, which is in fact correct, the alternatives given mean that you only really need to know that the noise abatement procedures are in the Aerodrome (AD) section of the AIP. This is slightly less than the requirement in the matching Learning Objective (LO) 071 02 04 02 03 which says, ‘State that detailed information about noise-abatement procedures is to be found in Part ‘Aerodromes’ (AD), Sections 2 and 3 of the AIP’, but typical of more recent ATPL exam questions which follow the associated LO quite carefully.

From Performance…
Q. An aircraft has two certified landing flaps positions, 25° and 35°. If a pilot chooses 35° instead of 25°, the aircraft will have:

1. A reduced landing distance and better go-around performance.
2. An increased landing distance and better go-around performance.
3. An increased landing distance and degraded go-around performance.
4. A reduced landing distance and degraded go-around performance.

The correct answer is (4) and actually derives from knowledge that a PPL holder could reasonably be expected to have. (A) That a greater flap setting will reduce the landing distance because (i) the stall speed is reduced and therefore the landing speed lower and (ii) the drag from the flaps helps with the retardation to some extent. (B) That the go-around performance is degraded with large flap settings because the climb gradient comes from the excess of thrust over drag, more drag, poorer climb gradient. The best climb gradients are obtained flapless.

And finally a scenario-based question from an ATO’s internal summative assessment for 100 KSA. KSA is a new requirement for the 2020 syllabus.

Q. Preparing for the final flight of a long, four-sector day with many delays, it becomes apparent that all four cabin crew members will exceed their maximum Flight Duty Period (FDP) before they land back at home base. Commanders Discretion (CD) can be used to extend FDP, thereby allowing duties to be completed. 

The Commander must be satisfied that all crew members are fit to fly otherwise CD can’t be used and Company policy dictates non-fit crew members must disembark. 

Offloading cabin crew members has implications whereby some of the passengers might also have to be offloaded to preserve the ratio of passengers to cabin crew and in the worst case, the flight might have to be cancelled.

You are the Captain and you gather the crew together to discuss. Upon asking whether everyone feels fit to fly, they all reply ‘Yes’. However one of the crew, Jeremy, has hunched shoulders and is staring at the ground with glazed eyes. 

What is the most appropriate course of action?

1. Have a private conversation with Jeremy. Ask open questions as to his wellbeing. Be friendly. Ask enough questions to satisfy yourself that Jeremy is either fit to fly or should be offloaded.
2. All crew said they are fit to fly. Take their word for it and continue with preparations and operate the flight.
3. Ask the Cabin Manager to give Jeremy a cup of coffee. Continue with preparations and operate the flight.
4. Have a private conversation with Jeremy. Tell him he is doing a great job. Continue with preparations and operate the flight.

The correct answer is (1). Body language often indicates a person’s honest opinion/answer/response which may be contrary to what they actually say. 

If the body language and verbal communication don’t add up, it is worth digging further. Jeremy may have said ‘Yes’, but his body language didn’t. 

Asking open questions and setting a friendly environment will most likely elicit the honest answer and picture of the situation. This question could be used to assess LOs 100 02 01 09, ‘Show the ability to correctly interpret non-verbal communication’ and 100 02 03 03, ‘Show the ability to employ proper problem solving strategies’.

A rotary example from Phil Croucher of Caledonian Advanced Pilot Training
Why should the vertical shaded area of the H/V (Height/Velocity) curve be avoided?

1. There will not be enough speed available to enter into safe autorotation and perform a subsequent engine-off landing.
2. There would be too much turbulence from the main rotors as they overcome parasite drag.
3. There would be too much turbulence from the tail rotor blades as they overcome dissymmetry of lift.
4. The main rotor RPM would be too high for the flare manoeuvre.

The correct answer is (1).The vertical area is the low speed section – it will take at least 250ft to get the airspeed in a Bell 206 up to a point where you can flare and start getting the rotor speed back into the green range.

If the engine fails, you will likely be on the ground before you can even put the nose down due to the machine’s lack of forward momentum and the time available.


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