Diary of Modular Student Pilot Passing the ATPLs

flying professor

By Helen Owton, psychologist and researcher with a PPL, a night rating and is completing an IR(R). She is a member of the Leicester Aero Club and British Women’s Pilots Association

As soon as I received my PPL licence, I signed up to CATS Aviation to start my ATPLs through distance learning. I had spent a while looking at the different options available – full time, part time, UK, abroad, locations, reputation, costs etc. I read an article about the pros and cons of each school that was on offer for me after narrowing it down: Bristol Ground School (BGS) or CATS Aviation.

Contrary to the article, I decided to choose CATS Aviation because the brush up weeks were much closer, more affordable, and there were frequent brush up sessions, and Lisa, the CATS administrator, was really helpful and friendly when I called up asking questions.

I knew I could use the Bristol Ground School question bank which still kept the costs down – every penny mattered! I asked Nick, one of my PPL instructors, what he thought about the two places, “I don’t think it matters where you study” he replied, “you’ll be fine studying anywhere”.

Everyone seemed to be saying that doing your ATPLs was like a marathon, but I thought it was more like a triathlon or maybe an Ironman (whilst juggling if you have a job(s) and family).

It’s set in three stages, like a triathlon, and at each stage you have to build up and peak at the end by completing the exams before the next stage starts. I’ve completed various triathlons so given this it was more relatable to me and it felt more achievable.

Three stages

Generally, each school segregates the topics differently into three stages. I plunged myself into studying for the first stage and booked myself on to the first brush up week while I was on annual leave at work. I felt out of practice of being a student despite the amount of previous studying I’d done. Many years had passed since then and this was a very different type of studying and examination process. It was much more intense, technical and time pressured.

I set a day-to-day, week-to-week plan for studying and tried to keep to it. The subjects in Stage 1 felt the most familiar from studying the PPL so it felt more like a natural progression.

Throughout the nine months of studying, I continuously struggled to combine working, family commitments and studying. I experienced a relationship breakup, the death of my dog, and other various family challenges so be prepared for things not to go as smoothly as you’d hoped. You need extremely high levels of motivation, resiliency and self-discipline to get through it all.

After I’d read all the books at each stage, I set about completing the CATS progress tests and whilst they didn’t necessarily resemble the question banks or the CAA exams they were helpful stepping stones. I used them to identify gaps and consolidate my learning. I felt like I was getting into the swing of studying and CATS worked for me. Once I knew I was going to complete all the progress tests I booked my next brush up.

Then I started testing myself on the BGS question bank which soon became monotonously dull and can be a real strain on your motivation. Despite studying and learning all the material sometimes I would get 40% on the first tests because of the way the questions were phrased which felt very disappointing. I never did figure out a way to work through the ambiguous phrasing.

ATPL exams

14 exams need a lot of brush up time

Brush up weeks

The brush up weeks at CATS tend to consist of four days: Tuesday – Friday, 9.30am-5pm, with one day focusing on each topic. Luckily, I could stay with a friend which made things easier and cheaper again – another bonus of choosing CATS which meant I didn’t have to find childcare for so long.

It was obviously the first brush up for many of us. I felt very nervous on my first day and I made sure I arrived early to avoid the traffic and make sure I had time to get a coffee – I’m not a morning person.

Dan, Chief Theoretical Instructor at CATS, introduced himself and he gave us all the opportunity to introduce ourselves after writing our names on a piece of paper.

“I want to hear who you are, how much flying you’ve done, what you’ve flown and what direction you’re heading in,” he said with the impression that he didn’t want too much waffling.

“Go on then” he said looking directly at me first. I kept it short and direct and he said, “I want everyone to introduce themselves just like that!” Introductions are something I dislike and so I was pleased I’d done something right already.

As he went around the class I realised just how little experience I had compared to so many others in the room. I knew that I probably had the lowest number of flying hours in the room with just 65hr and it made me feel slightly out of my depth.

I’d only just passed my PPL and I wondered whether I should’ve waited a little longer before plunging into this abyss! People seemed to have been flying for years and had life-long dreams. I was constantly reminded of just how little I knew, and this motivated me to want to learn more.

The good thing about the brush up weeks was being able to put the things we were learning into some sort of aviation context. Also, we could get drawn away from the isolated feeling of studying. Additionally, it was great chatting to different student pilots who were keen to share their flying experiences and tips. I kept in touch with a few pilots, so we could share our experiences of the exams as well as our flying adventures and ways we could save on costs.

During the brush up weeks, we had different teachers with different teaching styles. In one class, Aircraft General Knowledge, there were all sorts of pieces of aircraft laid out on the floor. Dan referred to them during the day, passed them all round the room and let us handle them all. It really helped visualise some of the different concepts we had been reading about – bringing them to life – from props, gyroscopes to different types of hydraulic liquids that we could sniff (tuning into our different sensorial dimensions).

Unfortunately, one of our instructors was difficult to tune into as he seemed so unstructured and disruptive in his flow. I recognise that not all instructors are going to suit all learners, but I wasn’t alone. Everyone agreed that he was difficult to follow.

Whereas another instructor was full of energy with wonderful and quirky ideas on how to remember things. The vibe of the room was completely different when Ellie taught us – our brains were buzzing with enthusiasm, and I felt much more comfortable speaking up. There were times when I spent quite a bit of time rubbing my temples trying to cram all the information into my brain!

These subjects were filled with such fresh information which required complex cognitive functioning, so it was hardly surprising that my prefrontal cortex was working overtime.

Extra help

At times, I felt like I was the only one asking for extra help until the instructor asked the class, “Is there anyone else who needs help with the HSIs?” and slowly other people came forward as well. I guess we all felt the same – embarrassed to put ourselves forward and admit we didn’t understand something.

That won’t get you through the exams though and after all the studying alone I couldn’t waste the opportunity to ask questions with an instructor right there! I was pleased I did ask her, and I think others were too.

Whilst some instructors were better than others, all came with the impression they really wanted us all to pass. This was demonstrated by a couple of teachers who went above and beyond to offer their expertise on various subjects.

One evening, Dan mentioned that he would help anyone who wanted to stay afterwards to go through VFR and IFR comms. After a long day in class a few of us sat there going through comms. “If you get 100% you have to buy me a pint” he joked as we left the classroom at about 7pm with our brains fried! His calmness in the face of our terror seemed to put us all at ease.

The final brush up week in January had a sense of finality to it. Suddenly, after five months, it had all come around so quickly. I used the brush up weeks to stay on track and keep me motivated. It was quite easy as a distance learner for targets to slide away and time to pass quickly as one student had found out and was trying to sit 14 subjects in the space of two months!

I noticed there were more students in stage 1 than other stages and I wondered what the student retention numbers were. In a 2011 article, I read that 80% of student pilots drop out of training to become a commercial pilot.

After long full days of class, I would drive to my friend’s house who had kindly cooked me dinner – I was so grateful for a delicious home cooked meal to fuel me up for the next day. I don’t remember the last time someone had cooked for me apart from my Mum and that had been a while too! I would speak to my daughter in the evening to check she was OK and let my Mum know all was going well.

Coventry Airport

Helen sat her ATPL exams at the L3 exam centre at Coventry Airport

Exam centres

I did my exams in Coventry where they hold the L3 training in the exam centre so there is a student pilot atmosphere. The centre is easy to find on the satnav and parking is free. The exam invigilators were all friendly where I sat my exams. They all followed the protocol and as students I think we all found it boring and a bit frustrating, but it was necessary and reassuring that they were doing things by the book.

There was one male aviator visitor who seemed to be quite sexist to some of the women which was very disappointing and awkward to watch, particularly as the industry would benefit from more female pilots. I can’t imagine how this sort of behaviour would encourage more women into the industry. He objectified a few of the women behind their backs in an old fashioned ‘just joking’ kind of way and was offensive about other nationalities as well.

Thankfully, I think these types of old-fashioned attitudes appear to be dying out and most of the other pilots and instructors I have met along the way have been professional, supportive, friendly and decent guys.

Exam sittings

To be able to book the exams, CATS Aviation required students to have completed all the subject progress tests and the brush up weeks. Generally, when I felt ready and knew I was passing the tests on the question banks consistently I booked my exams. After each brush up week, I was pleased to see how much they had benefited me and hoped it would all pay off in the exams.

My first exam was Operations which in hindsight was a mistake, especially at 9am! Ops was an extremely tough exam and I was completely thrown by the style of questioning. I panicked under the pressure which didn’t help, and I went backwards and forwards changing my answers feeling even more confused the more I changed my answers.

It didn’t go well, and I came out knowing I’d failed which felt soul destroying. Then I made the mistake of looking up the answers I thought I got wrong which made me feel worse.

I walked out into the corridor and saw an L3 flight instructor getting herself a coffee.

“How’s it going?” she asked empathetically.

“I just had Ops and changed all my answers!” I said with my head in my hands.

“Oh, Ops is awful and it’s so vast! And you shouldn’t go back and change your answers like that as research has shown that often the first answer is the right one.”

I took her advice onboard and tried to pull myself together for Air Law which was in the afternoon. It was incredibly hard as I felt so demoralised even though I didn’t know I’d failed Ops yet. I guess I hadn’t realised quite how I’d feel in the actual exam and hadn’t psychologically prepared myself. Letting myself get stressed in the exam would’ve had an impact on accessing memory and knowledge. The first exam was a valuable learning experience even though the stress still lingered and clouded my other exams.

In my next exams, I used the flag system which helped to focus my uncertainty to try and trust my initial instinct.

During the sittings, in between the exams, I found it tough not to let my mind wander about whether I’d failed the other exams. I tried not to beat myself up and go over and over any wrong answers. I cannot remember the last time I took an exam apart from the PPL exams, but the waiting was excruciating. I hated it already and it affected my sleeping especially in the early stages.

I wasn’t the only one. One lad I spoke to said he had failed quite a lot of subjects, “I’m not flying either,” he said miserably, “this uniform is the only thing keeping me going,” pointing to his stripes on his shoulders.

I felt so sorry for him and wondered if he would finish the training since he looked so beaten. Another lad was having to start all the exams all over again because he’d failed Flight Planning in his last sitting. I had huge respect for him not giving up and starting all the exams all over again.

There were times when I would drive home feeling quite low and depressed. I just hadn’t prepared myself for how I’d feel during the exams and afterwards.

I did get better at preparing myself before, during and after the exams. There was an exam waiting room where all the students sat and waited but I managed to go outside, get some fresh air and have some quiet time preparing and focusing. In one of my first exams, I went in wishing it was all over and was almost resigned to complete failure, but I finished that exam in good timing and even got 100% in it – I guess I owed Dan a pint! I tried to keep positive and focus on how I was moving forward instead of getting hung up on anything I’d gotten wrong.

Question banks, forums and feedback

I used as many question banks as I could get my hands on. Some QBs better prepared you for some subjects more than others. Towards the later stages, I used question banks such as ATPLGS as well as BGS which seemed to be the most helpful.

Studying alone will not get you through the exams since the phrasing of the exams was like nothing I’ve really experienced. Anything you can do to expose yourself to as many different questions is good preparation and it helps you to identity gaps in your knowledge.

I had heard people mentioning forums and Facebook groups, but I didn’t realise how helpful they would have been until half way through my exams. It’s not easy to take everything on board at once and it was too late to have all that extra input before my first stage of exams.

I managed to find the ATPL forum with feedback from past exams as well as joining the ATPL Facebook group. Not only was this really helpful and valuable feedback but it had made me feel less isolated since studying at a distance was often quite a lonely experience.

It took me a while to figure out what ‘the last 200’ meant (the last 200 listed in the BGS question bank) and I’m please I wasn’t the only person who seemed confused! I wished I’d known about it earlier but at least I had a bit of extra insight leading me into stage 3. Also, I thought to myself, “Well, if I can pass without the forums and the extra feedback then I should be ok”.

Dealing with failure

There were times during the nine months when I felt shattered but tried to stay focused. It wasn’t the time to criticise the style of testing of pilots which I didn’t think lent itself well to long term storing of information or help towards a “learning culture”. It encouraged a culture of short-term cramming and attempts to short cut the learning material which paid off for some student pilots (e.g. last 200).

There were times during the exams when I felt so angry with the CAA for not encouraging a better type of pilot. After sitting the exams, sometimes I had to wait until the Monday for the results. I guess I was looking for someone to blame. I would spend the weekend convincing myself that I’d failed all of them.

I wasn’t used to this feeling of failure – I was quite a high achiever and this was killing my motivation. At various stages, I reconsidered whether I wanted to even pursue the rest of the exams – sometimes, I really felt like giving up. In between each stage, I planned a bit of flying as well as completing my night rating which helped remind me of why I was doing this.

The first night I finished my first stage of exams was the worst. It felt so long and I woke up early anticipating the email of results. At 10am I received my first email and it was the one I’d feared I’d failed, Operations, with 68%.

After I failed Ops, I was so downtrodden after all the work I’d invested, I felt I’d failed because I couldn’t play the game. However much I hated failing, it was a good learning experience reflectively. It tested my resiliency which I thought was bullet proof.

My sister said, “It’s pretty normal… you just have infeasibly high expectations for yourself. It’s a good learning moment. I know it probably doesn’t feel like it but it’s ok to fail.”

Whilst I was advised to put any fails aside, I wasn’t keen on having it hanging over my head until the end. I added any fails into the next sitting and by sitting 4 I was pleased I had done that.

biplane aerobatics

Finished the ATPLs… time to go flying!

Passing the ATPLs

After nine months of studying, I completed all 14 ATPL exams in five sittings.

My final sitting consisted of two retakes – GNav and Flight Planning. Preparing for two exams was much easier than preparing for four or five and there wasn’t as much work to do since I’d already attempted them. I seemed to understand things much more this time round and dare I say it, I enjoyed these final two.

However, it helped having a study buddy who was at the same stage and taking the same two final exams. We chatted back and forth about different questions and it was really motivating. We really encouraged each other and kept each other positive. I wished I’d found a study buddy sooner and would highly recommend finding one.

We shared learning resources too – in particular, CAT3C Gnav booklet was really helpful and some of Tony Pike’s ATPL tutorial videos were really digestible. We sat the same exams in the same week and told each other, “We could do it!”

We both stayed positive and kept each other going – it really helped my motivation and my focus. I was determined to pass these final two! We both were. On the Friday after we sat the exams, we waited impatiently for the results hoping the CAA would send out the results before the bank holiday or else we’d have to wait until the Tuesday.

Just when I had given up that I wasn’t going to get my results, my study buddy told me she’d passed both of hers – I was delighted for her but was disappointed not to be able to celebrate with her. Then later that afternoon – the CAA had worked hard that day and sent out my results – I held my breath while I opened the emails and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief to see that I’d passed them both! I was ecstatic and felt so emotional. I told as many people as I could think of!

Finally, I’d passed all of them! I was free – it was such a big weight lifted off my shoulders and I was going to make the most of the bank holiday weekend… by going flying of course!