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Pilot ATPL theory

Q: Hi I have a few questions about EASA Pilot ATPL theory.

  1. How many sittings are you typically gonna take your ATPL in?
  2. How many hours per day, approximately, are you studying?
  3. Are you reading all the books or using the CBT and aviation Exam questions?

A: For those that are not familiar with the shortenings:

  • EASA (European union Aviation Safety Agency)
  • ATPL (Airline Transportation Pilot Licence)

How many sittings are you typically gonna take your ATPL in?

Most student pilots will attempt to take the ATPL exams in 2- 3 sittings. A “sitting” is usually spread out over a few days and you could go to more than one exam in one day.

BONUS INFO. In total you can have a maximum of 6 sittings and you can attempt to pass the same subject up to 4 times. There is also a time limit. From your first sitting you have 18 months to complete all exams. It is not often talked about but it is fairly normal for students to fail an exam and as long as you pass it within your 4 attempts and 6 sittings it rarely matters. If you fail to complete all exams within the 18 months deadline or if you fail any exams more the 4 times or need more than 6 sittings – all your exams (even those you have passed) become invalid and you have to start all over again. If you do start all over again it will be with a clean sheet, so a new 18 months from first exam, 6 sitting and 4 attempts at an exam.

The pass mark for an exam is 75% and the exam is made up of several multiple choice answers (4 options). It varies from subject to subject how many questions the exam consist of. It may sound easy to have a multiple choice exam but it can be quite tricky to pick the correct answer. Usually there is 1 of the 4 answers you can pretty quickly rule out but the challenge may be that there are 2 answers that both contain correct information, but you need to figure out which one is most correct. Also the language used in the exams can be like an english test. It happens often that students select the wrong answer simply because they did not understand the question or they misread the question. Theory instructors usually preach “RTFQ2” – Read the f***ing question twice.

This link will lead you to EASA’s website and give you a description of the EASA ATPL question bank (10.000 questions)

How many hours per day, approximately, are you studying?

This would vary from person to person but there is quite a lot of material you need to go through so you can probably expect to do about 3- 4 hours of reading per day. Most pilot students will plan to go through their ATPL in less than a year and during that year they will also do actual flying. Most integrated flying schools have a 7 day study week and you may find that there will be last minute chances like “today is good weather for flying so we fly” or “today it is bad weather so we have theory instead”. Doing actual flying and ATPL theory at the same time is both a plus and a negative. It can be a plus as you can maybe better relate some of the ATPL theory when you are doing hands on practical flying. Another nice thing is that the practical flying gives you a break from the books which can be needed from time to time. Then over to the possible negative things because you do flying and theory at the same time. It can be a negative as the practical flying requires preparation too which gives you less time to study your ATPL theory. Also it is quite normal for student pilots to feel really tired after a flight lesson so your body (brain) may just not be able to pick up the ATPL theory books after a flight lesson.

Some ATPL topics will maybe be easy for your while others gives you a struggle. What is true for all subjects is that you will be reading technical english which can be quite tiring in itself. The exams will be with no books so you will need to store all the theory in your memory.

You may find that if you just read and read and read, you will come to a point where you don’t remember what you have read. That is why it is worth figuring out where you limits are in regards to how many hours it makes sense for you to read. Also some students read better in the morning than in the evening and vice versa. It is all about figuring out how you study the best. There are several study techniques like making quizzes, taking good notes, come up with sentences (mnemonic technique) but most students will find that reading and studying in small groups is the most important thing to get through the ATPL studies.

This is rarely talked about but it is not unheard of that student pilots suffer a break down at some stage of their ATPL theory leading up to “hell week” (the sitting week).

Feeling “I just cannot do it”, “this is too much”, “I will never make it”.

This is where reading/ studying with someone else will help you as you can get emotional support when you need it.

Some have the mental capacity and strength to go through the ATPL studies “distance learning”. Distance learning means that you the majority of the time will be reading by yourself. Usually there are some revisions weeks just before your exam sitting, where an instructor raps up the essentials and you will also become part of an online forum where you can catch up with other distance learning students.

If you already know now that you will struggle with technical English or you lack study discipline going integrated will probably give you the best passing chances.

Are you reading all the books or using the CBT and aviation Exam questions?

It is technically possible to go quickly through all the books and the CBT and then just start to do aviation exam questions and pass with high marks. How ever this could be a short term solution as over time in your career you will probably find that some of the technical knowledge you should have had (things you should have learned) is simply not there. Also to just practice aviation Exam questions may be risky as the question bank for the real exams is renewed by the authorities now and then. If you study the books and use the CBT there is a better chance that you will actually understand the principles. The best way forward, in our view, is to have a good read through the books at least once. If you have a CBT likewise take your time. If there are some areas/ topics you find difficult, go ask your fellow students or your instructor. The internet (youtube) can sometimes also be a great source for understanding something. Just be aware that there are some differences between FAA and EASA and how theory is explained. That is why it is a good idea to be sure that the youtube video is FAA or EASA linked. You can usually pick this up fairly easy as FAA linked videos usually have a thick american accent. Going through aviation exam questions at some stage of your training is, in our view, a must as it will prepare you for the type of questions you will get asked. Rather than just learning the right answer it can be a good technique to go back to the books or CBT if you get a question wrong. This will help you understand why the answer you picked was incorrect. Of course this takes time which is why it is important to have a robust study plan and not get behind.


  • Are pass marks relevant? Some say anything over 75% is wasted time. Technically they are correct as you will rarely show your exam results to anyone. Some airlines will ask you if you had “first time passes” – which means if you passed all your practical flying exams and ATPL theory exams in the first go. It could impact your chances of getting your very first job if you do not have first time passes. However, in our view, not having first time passes is not the end of the world. Most likely getting your first job will more be a case of network, luck and how you are able to present (sell) yourself. After you have had your first job as a pilot, you will rarely ever be asked about exam results. An employer is more likely to be interested in your flying experience and personality. Some flying schools pride themselves that their students have average scores close to 95%. While this may sound impressive and something you find a big plus just be aware that it could be an indication of a training environment that is highly competitive and maybe militaristic. This suits some while others don’t thrive well. An employer will rarely care if you have 95% or 75% pass rate. That is not to say that you should just not care about exam results at all. You should try to get good pass marks as it demonstrates you have learned the subject well and you don’t want to be close to failing a subject. Using another sitting and re-study a subject is not much fun and it will also cost you a small fee.
  • There will be a lot in your ATPL theory that you will never really use again. When you start flying you will build a practical knowledge and over time there will be a lot of the ATPL theory you would have forgotten. Somehow having gone through all the ATPL theory, gives you a good foundation to gain practical knowledge as you have a basic understanding of how a lot of things work. That is why we would recommend you to try to understand the theory and really learn the principles rather than just build up short time memory to be able to pass the exams.
  • Explaining the term “frozen and unfrozen“. Historically ATPL theory was know as “Captains theory” but as it was highly impractical that you would have to go back to school when you progressed from First Officer to Captain, it was decided that you go through all the theory when you attend your initial flight training. As the captains license for a big aeroplane is called Airline Transportation Pilot Licence (ATPL) and you are not yet a Captain when you graduate from flying schools the term “frozen” is used. Frozen means you have got the theory to be an airline captain but you lack the flying experience. Once you gain the required flying experience and you pass a captains course and check ride your ATPL becomes “un-frozen”. What confuses a lot of people as that you CPL (commercial pilot licence) allows you to be captain. While this is correct, it is important to differentiate between types of captain. To keep it very simple – a CPL would allow you to be a captain on a single pilot aeroplane and you would need an ATPL to be a captain on a multi pilot aeroplane. Aeroplanes like for example ATR, CRJ, B737, A319 are all multi pilot aeroplanes requiring an ATPL to be a captain.

If you are keen on becoming a pilot, we would recommend you to invest in a book we have written to help you – take a look here.

Happy landings,

Spoerg Piloten



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