CAA Aviation House

PPL IR Theory Exams

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Yippee! Passed the (laborious) IR Theory Exams

Today I received a big white envelope from the CAA with the results of my last set of IR Theory exams. I’ve now passed the lot (all 7) and am qualified through to the next stage, ready to start the IR practical flight training which must be completed within 36 months (or I have to resit them all again).

The Instrument Rating is perhaps the most advanced qualification a private pilot can take without becoming a commercial pilot or a flight instructor. Here in the UK, we’ve had the IMC Rating which gives privileges to fly in cloud including instrument approaches, excluding airways, Class A/B/C or abroad. Few PPLs proceed to the full IR because of the high cost, and many who do so have chosen for the cheaper FAA IR instead. Perhaps 1% of qualified PPLs have the IR in the UK, compared with perhaps 30% or more in the US.

The IMC rating has been adopted under the new EASA licencing rules as an IR(R) = Instrument Rating (Restricted), and is expected to continue as such for at least a further 5 years.

The current method of obtaining a full Instrument Rating is to:

  • Take an approved groundschool course, mostly distance learning
  • Pass a set of 7 exams within an 18 month period (between first and last exam)
  • Take an approved IR flight training course of 50 hours flight time
  • Pass a practical IR Skills Test with a CAA examiner

[Note: The Competency Based Instrument Rating was introduced after I completed this course, and now involve 7 simplified exams (about half the syllabus/learning objectives) which can be taken at several test centres around the country, followed by at least 10 hours of practical training at an ATO]

The limited choice for IR Theory Groundschool

At this time, there are only two UK CAA approved IR groundschool courses. There are many more offering the full ATPL and CPL courses which involve hundreds more hours of study and mandatory classroom attendance. The small numbers of PPL/IR theory students makes this very much a sideline for these schools, and the result is high course fees (pretty much the same price as a full ATPL course).

The choice is between GTS in Bournemouth and CATS in Luton. Each has quite a different approach, and I spoke with both when enquiring about enrolment. IR students have been successful with both, and I believe the pass rate is quite high – perhaps because the few taking the courses are highly self motivated and probably already academic achievers.

[Ed Note: GTS has since closed for business, but CAPT and Bristol Ground School both now offer the CB-IR Groundschool as well as CATS]

GTS provides printed manuals tailored to the scope of the IR syllabus. There is said to be quite a lot of homework to do, and progress tests to pass before being put forward for the exams themselves. The course is split into two modules, each with a 3 day onsite classroom session at Bournemouth which has a full revision scheme to make the most of the time available. One comment from a student suggested that some additional ATPL course material is taught in addition to the specific IR scope, but this is difficult to judge. From talking others who had taken that course while I was sitting exams at Gatwick, it seemed the course was very thorough, clearly scoped with specifically prepared material and good classroom instruction. However, the total of 6 weekdays onsite in Bournemouth meant extra holidays from work for most – while it may be possible to take some of the classroom time at weekends, this is not the norm.

CATS operate online and also through an iPad App, although printed manuals can be bought for additional cost. Their course increased in price after I’d started, mandating the iPad app which previously had been an optional extra. Their material is clearly focussed on the full ATPL course, with access to that full set of manuals and a supplementary set of notes explaining which sections to read or omit. Since the ATPL scope is much greater than the IR, I felt I was reading about aspects which shouldn’t concern me, such as how flight traffic operations over the Atlantic above 30,000 feet were co-ordinated – perhaps interesting for some but not directly relevant for a single engine piston pilot. The school’s approach seems to be fairly “hands off”, leaving students much more freedom to work at their own pace and choose the order in which exams are taken. Their course structure is broken down into three shorter modules of 2-3 exams each, with one Saturday prior to the exams available for groundschool. This day is used for an instructor to answer any questions and work through issues or areas of difficulty for any of the students – the instructor’s knowledge was very thorough and he was quickly able to pull up slides or directly discuss any questions from students. However, since students had already proven that they were ready for the exam having passed progress check tests beforehand, I didn’t feel that the classroom time (a mandatory requirement inherited from JAR regulations) was really necessary. I understand that other countries (e.g. the USA) don’t require any mandatory classroom time, but presumably CATS have done their best to negotiate the minimum required to get their course approved by the CAA.

Progress as a background activity

My modus operandi was to start off by reading through the course material twice, first just reading, then secondly making notes. I had found a set of crib sheets on the internet from past students, both ATPL and IR, and these were helpful to reinforce the key points. Then I moved on to the question bank. CATS has one built in to their online system, and now provides that through an iPad App. I found the online system fairly basic – it just tells you whether you are right or wrong, doesn’t tally up progress/success and doesn’t have explanations for the majority of questions. I quickly moved on to using the question bank from, which is inexpensive, basic and functional. I found this a bit clunky to use at times, but it was accessible from my iPhone although you have to be online. This worked OK for the first module and I worked up from an initial 50% mark to around 90% regularly.

First Set of Exams

In October 2012, after some 6 months on and off study, I took and passed four exams. This involved first passing the CATS progress tests, then sending them the CAA application form for the exams. They counter signed this and sent it back to me immediately; I then forwarded it to the CAA, all by snail mail. The process seemed fairly straightforward, with my credit card being charged and then a letter back from the CAA confirming the date/time of the exams and which ones I was to sit. Strangely, the letter was entitled “Commercial Pilot Licence Exams”, which I queried and received an email back promptly confirming I was indeed down to sit the IR rather than CPL exams.

IR exams are held only at the CAA’s Gatwick offices, every 2 months on a single day. They used to stretch across two days, but in 2012 they streamlined the arrangements to fit them all in. Very few people would sit the whole set in a single day (it has been done), so you find that there is a mix of students sitting in the lobby throughout the day, brushing up with the question bank. There’s also a very nice canteen upstairs on the top floor available for coffee, lunch and tea.

Since it’s about 2.5 hours to drive to Gatwick, I chose to drive up the evening before and stay overnight at an Ibis hotel just around the corner. Traffic in that part of the country can be unpredictable, and one student arrived at just the very last minute to get in. On arrival, there is plenty of free visitor parking. The security desk was expecting me and gave me a badge, passing through the barriers into a large, light atrium with sofas where you wait to be called for each exam. I met up again with the students I’d seen at the groundschool session a couple of days earlier – there is quite a mix of backgrounds involved, perhaps half recreational (typically white collar professionals) and half commercial (resitting exams to get the EASA licence, some of whom were very experienced). I’d say less than half owned their own aircraft – many like me rented or flew commercially.

CAA Aviation House
Atrium inside CAA Aviation House Gatwick, seating/waiting area between exams

The exams are run by a very professional invigilator team, who were polite and helpful, but strict. The room was set out with those rows and rows of bare and simple desks that you recall from school or student exams many years ago. It brought back memories of my last set of exams (some professional qualifications I’d taken about 5 years ago). After leaving our laptops/iPads/mobile phones and other excess baggage out of reach, we had been allocated a specific desk for all of our exams through the day. We had to provide photo-id (passport, driving licence) which was checked during the exam. The exam papers were handed out, then the usual filling in of our details and we were off. Answers are all multi-choice by marking a computer readable form with crosses.

The finishing time was written up and a clearly visible clock on the wall was easy to track. Many people left each exam session prior to the full allocated time. You can’t leave towards the end of the exam and there is a five minute warning. I needed the full duration for meteorology, which I found difficult, and flight planning (in the second module), which I found time consuming.

In most cases, the exams were more straightforward than I had expected. The heavy revision using question banks meant that I was familiar with the kinds of questions to expect. These aren’t exactly the same – the CAA are said to revise the numbers or format of questions each year – so you do have to be able to interpret and deal with what’s asked. In many cases, they seem to be trying to catch you out – something the QBs helped to point out – while others are extremely straightforward.

Second Set of Exams

My second sets of exams was in April 2013, where I took Flight Planning, Navigation and IFR Comms. I had clashes with business and social commitments for both the December and February dates, otherwise might have taken these earlier. As explained later, I used the question bank for the majority of study. The last exam (IFR Comms) was frankly a bit of a joke, and really quite unnecessary. I finished that quickly (less than 10 minutes) and scored 100%. Flight Planning involved checking a lot of charts and maps, requiring the Jeppeson Student Manual to be brought into the exam. One student turned up without a copy, but was not given one by the invigilator – their policy being that if they did this, what would they do if more were needed than they had? One student was picked at random, their copy taken away for scrutiny, and they were given a replacement to use meantime.

Question Banks

I can’t reinforce enough the use and effectiveness of a question bank to consolidate learning and improve results. Initially I had used the built in CATS online one, which I found very clunky – their iPad App is supposed to be a lot better. Then I moved on to which I used throughout the first module.

I had been given good recommendations for as a question bank by students who had used it for the first set of exams I took. I used this almost exclusively for the second set and was very pleased with it. All questions have a detailed explanation – they don’t simply give you the correct answer (in fact they often don’t, you have to work it out from the explanation given) – and this means that you quickly re-inforce and expand your knowledge in weak areas. There are very good summary/progress tools, ensuring that questions or areas you are weak in are retested on future attempts. It’s also available as an App as part of the standard subscription, allowing use offline as long as you synchronise with the website once a month.


Exam results are sent out by post around 2-3 weeks after the exam and only state the percentage mark achieved. There are no consequences for a high or a low pass – anything of 75% or more counts – and there is no feedback about which topics or questions you got wrong. This compares with the FAA system where your practical skills test starts with an aural, and the examiner knows your weak areas and focuses specifically on them. Frankly, I’m quite happy not to be tested on much of the syllabus again apart from where it is actually put into practice.

ir exam resultsSummary

In summary, I found the IR theory content to include a lot of superfluous and irrelevant content as is said by others who have taken the course. Most of what I expect to be relevant for IR, I had already learned during the shorter IMC. But the total course content isn’t overly excessive or unmanageable or even particularly difficult. It does need time and perseverance to get through, so splitting this down into two or three chunks is quite sensible. I found CATS to be the more flexible of the two available course providers, but actually made relatively little use of their course content or QB – I’d recommend using for the bulk of  study time. CATS approach of allowing flexibility of which modules, exams and dates you work to was extremely helpful – I understand that had I failed an exam, they would not have charged extra for continued online access and support.

I suspect the pass rate is very high for those taking the IR exams because each course provided has their own progress checks, and because those taking it are all very self-motivated and independent.

The CAA strongly prefer IR candidates to take the exams in the UK rather than abroad. Having done so, I do now have the option to take the flight training and exam in any other EASA state. For me, this has to be completed within 36 months after the last exam (i.e. April 2016), otherwise I forfeit the exam passes and would have to take them all over again. The same theory exams should also be valid for the proposed new CB-IR (Competency Based IR) and EIR (En-Route IR) ratings being considered by EASA and which could become available during 2014.

I’d recommend anyone considering these reduced IR courses to think about starting and working through the theory course well in advance. I found this easier to fit in during the winter and not having any pressure to complete this before the practical training. Some discipline is required to make progress, but you can work this out to fit your own schedule and not someone elses. Once passed, you will be taken much more seriously by any flight training organisation. Pilots with aspirations to become full commercial airline pilots should do the full ATPL theory exams instead (there isn’t an upgrade path from the IR theory), but these are much more intensive – perhaps three times as much scope/depth and require many more classroom sessions.

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