EASA CPL Theory course and exams

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As part of my journey to become an EASA qualified IR instructor, I needed to take  an approved groundschool course and pass the set of CPL (Commercial Pilot Licence) exams, of which I get to skip 2 of the 13 because I have an IR. This is one step below the 14 ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) exams but the scope of the CPL is smaller and the course should be roughly 1/2 to 2/3rds of the content and timescale.

EASA mandates that for ab-initio PPL students (i.e. those learning from scratch), the instructor must have passed the CPL or ATPL theory exams. Without the theory passes, you can instruct only LAPL students.

Unlike the CPL or IR rating, there is no time limit between passing them and taking a practical FI course. This may seem considerably less onerous than in the US where you need to have a full CPL licence and IR rating before even starting an FI course, but the scope of the theory required is considerably greater (and frankly a lot less relevant).

EASA regulations for different instructors qualifications are widely inconsistent between the amount of training required vs the privileges awarded.

  • a Class Rating Instructor (which I already am) with just a PPL licence, 300 hours experience and a week’s practical training can instruct anybody who has ever held any pilot licence (even a microlight one).
  • The practical FI course covers everything in the PPL training syllabus and includes a considerable amount of groundschool and relevant theory which is checked by an examiner in the Assessment of Competence. But without the CPL theory passes you are limited to training for LAPL licences only – still the same issues teaching someone to land for the first time, or fly straight and level in trim, turn, practice landings in a field, navigation etc.
  • Many older instructors have never taken the CPL theory course and have been “grandfathered” into today’s full Flight Instructor rating.

All of the above instructors can be paid when giving flight instruction.

EASA rule-making task force RMT.0596 is actively reviewing aspects of instructor and examiner regulations and may make them more adequate and proportionate in the future.

The positioning of the CPL vs ATPL isn’t really clear

It’s hard to say exactly how much more difficult the ATPL exams are compared to the CPL. EASA specifies the minimum study hours to be 50% more with all the IFR aspects, transatlantic routes and mach speed calculations added in. In principle, a CPL should be VFR only and I believe there’s far too much ATPL related content in the course.

The potential privileges of a CPL holder sound impressive (as per EASA FCL.305)

  1. exercise all the privileges of the holder of an LAPL and a PPL;
  2. act as PIC or co-pilot of any aircraft engaged in operations other than commercial air transport;
  3. act as PIC in commercial air transport of any single-pilot aircraft subject to the restrictions specified in FCL.060 and in this Subpart;
  4. act as co-pilot in commercial air transport subject to the restrictions specified in FCL.060.

But the privileges of a CPL holder without an IR or further training are pretty limited. Anything other than single engine piston requires further training. So-called High Performance Aircraft require a further 100 question theory test (studied for and taken at an ATO). Even an airliner cruise relief pilot (operating above 20,000 feet) would need a type rating and the full ATPL theory anyway.

Nonetheless, I believe the scope of the CPL course includes far too much of the stuff associated with the full ATPL course. I had to learn about navigating at the North Pole using Lamberts Conical Projection rather than Mercator charts. Some general navigation is fair enough, such as understanding the difference between a rhumb line and a great circle route, and why changing the compass heading every so often is actually quicker for longer journeys.

There is a sense in some of the topics that the real focus is for Performance Class B twin engine propeller aircraft – something like a Twin Otter or King Air – rather than anything more powerful. Sadly this doesn’t seem to be carried throughout all of the subjects and there lacks a real sense of balance.

Most candidates will just do what it takes, accept the punishment and not actively complain. They are looking ahead to their professional career and don’t want to rock the boat. A very experienced IR examiner told me recently that there are still ATPL graduates who start their flight training not knowing which way up the ILS works. I’m sure they could quote the side-lobe frequencies by heart but that really doesn’t help when you are on approach in turbulence and have plenty of other distractions.

Choosing a CPL Theory Provider

As a result, there are very few ATOs (Approved Training Organisations) offering CPL theory courses today. Almost all are focussed on the ATPLs which have many more candidates. I did wonder whether I should go for the full ATPL myself, but I at my age I can’t see much chance of using the extra privileges. EASA is to mandate that an ATPL requires 750 hours of study while a CPL requires 500. 10% of this time must be spent in a classroom, so would mean 75 hours (10 days) off work in addition to days spent sitting exams. Many training organisations schedule 12 days or more for distance learners. They also offer separate courses for students wanting to do this intensively and be spoon fed in the classroom throughout.

The UK CAA Standards Document 31 lists all ATOs and the courses they have been approved to provide. A quick look identifies that for CPL(A) theory you can choose between six, of which only two actively offer the course today:

  • Airways Aviation at Oxford. Their website is focussed on airline pilot training and I can find no mention of a CPL theory course on offer. You’d probably be mixed in with the full ATPL course. No pricing is advertised.
  • Bristol Groundschool, Clevedon. Their website only offers the CPL(H) course and I suspect CPL(A) applicants would be steered towards their ATPL(A) course instead. No pricing advertised.
  • CATS, based at Luton and Gatwick. I used them for my IR exams and know they they would provide material for the full ATPL with some notes. They mandate 3x 4 day brush up sessions in the classroom, one before each module, which are held on the same dates and locations as for ATPL students. Pricing starts from £1499, exactly the same as for their full ATPL.
  • CAPT, based at Wycombe Air Park (previously also in Littlehampton).This is more or less a one-man operation with very low costs (and thus low prices). Their textbooks have been adopted by several partner organisations around the world, and there are specific materials with just the CPL content. Only three days of classroom are required (25 hours of the approved 250 hours course total), of which the UK CAA allow 50% to be conducted over the Internet (e.g via Skype). The full CPL course costs £795.
  • ProPilot, Coventry. Their website redirects to PadPilot at a Gloucestershire address. They seem to publish great ATPL eBooks but not actually conduct any training themselves anymore. They don’t offer any standalone CPL theory books either, although the quality of their material is to a very high standard.

So it’s really down to a straight choice between CAPT and CATS. The difference in price is one factor £795 vs £1499, the number of classroom days required is also a cost factor when working a day job (3 vs 12). The specifically scoped textbook content vs full ATPL material makes it appear less daunting. I am quite comfortable studying on my own and don’t feel I need extensive classroom environment for the theory aspects. This doesn’t work for everybody and I’ve heard of a few people who have switched to more intensive classroom courses which are much more like school. A 2017 EASA regulation review permitted remote instruction via the Internet to count as classroom time, of which apparently the Irish CAA will allow up to 100% but the UK CAA are minded to limit to 50%.

Don’t forget to add in the time to take the exams, say 3 or 4 days, at a cost of £71 each.

So I signed up with CAPT back in July 2017, then sat exams in October, December, February and April.

Groundschool Studies

The one aspect of CAPT that I wasn’t initially so happy about was the on-boarding process, but in the end it was pretty straightforward and just a misunderstanding of where to download the material. After paying the initial instalment, I had to prove that I already held a PPL (email a scan of it) plus some photo ID, fill in a new student form and was issued with the reading material by return. The way the course operates is described in detail on the CAPT website which answers most of the obvious questions. Instructor and owner Phil Croucher is very responsive to email queries and filled in the blanks.

The reading material is provided electronically (although you could print it off yourself) and is carefully sequenced so you study parts of each subject in turn, rather than completing each topic in isolation. You’ll find that many of the exam questions relate to other subjects, so building up a foundation of knowledge in the right order is important. I thought the general quality and clarity of the reading material was good, with plenty of illustrations.

ATPL theory courses are typically broken down into three modules, focussed on a specific set of about 4 exams after each stage. You read the material, take some practice questions, pass a progress test, participate in classroom revision, then take the exams themselves. The same approach is taken with the CPL course, which has 13 rather than 14 exams. The actual exams might have the same subject names but differ in content – there is an exam code that specifies each one – and draw questions from a defined set of learning objectives. The scope between ATPL and CPL differs except for two of my IR exams which also satisfy the requirements for CPL – Meteorology and Human Performance – so I could skip those. If I ever chose to sit the full ATPL exams in the future, I would only get credit for VFR comms and have to sit all remaining 13.

Progress was ticked off on the Aviation Exam dashboard as I progressed through each module, with progress tests every week. The progress dashboard below encouraged me to keep up with the weekly ration of learning. Note, CAPT no longer use the Aviation Exam for textbook content or progress tests, only for the revision question bank.

Searching on the internet will almost certainly find several useful resources. An ATPL student from a few years ago published his notes which serve as useful reminders of the key formulas and factors for each subject.

I found the “Easy Access” format of the most relevant EASA rules quite helpful. An independent website called Part-Aero has an even easier to use interface, although the search facility could do with a bit of improvement.


Only very specific models of electronic calculator, whizz wheel (circular slide rule/flight computer) are permitted in the exam room – apparently because they now have so many invigilators in different places that they need to be very specific about what to check for.

The Transair whizz wheel from my original PPL course had been good enough for my IR tests but is not one of the specifically approved models: CRP-1/CRP-5/CR-3/CR-6 or ARC-2, so I had to buy a new one on eBay.

I still had a Jeppesen training manual from some years ago that I’d bought on eBay. It has been marked up with felt tip highlighter in a few places and had quick reference tabs stuck on for each of the reference plates. I didn’t want to risk being disqualified for bringing in dubious materials – the penalties can include being barred from any exams for 12 months and all previous results discarded – so I borrowed a brand new book for use. In the end, I think I only referred to it once or twice at most.

By the way, there’s a new EASA version of the Jeppesen training manual available to buy. Make sure you get the right one – I double-checked with the CAA that the older JAR one is still the one they use rather than the newer EASA version which will come into use from August/September 2018. For CPL exams, it’s only the VFR chart ED-6 that I ever used but you have to buy the whole manual. Some of the exams provided a specific printed booklet, but the quality of colour resolution just wasn’t good enough in my opinion.

I have several electronic calculators – you just need a fairly basic one that has common scientific functions like square root, sine, cosine etc. – but it has to be one on the approved list and none of mine were. Before I ran out to Tescos to buy one for £5, I unearthed one of my daughter’s primary school models – fortunately not her bright pink one.

Question Bank

I’ve heard some in the industry complain about the use of practice question banks, arguing that the students end up being able to parrot back answers to known questions rather than actually understanding the principles. I have to say I found them extremely useful, not just to identify which aspects of the theory I hadn’t grasped but also to train you in exam technique and some of the quirks of the exam setters. Wrong answers typically result in a lengthy explanation or quote from the regulations from which you can then work out the right answer rather than just telling it to you straight.

My course with CAPT included free access to AviationExam which is one of the best resources. It doesn’t tell you the right answer if you get a question wrong but instead provides an explanation so you can work it out. Sometimes that’s just a copy of textbook learning for how the weather works or the principles of flight, other times it’s a copy from the relevant EASA regulations.

Here are some examples from AviationExam:

I sincerely hope this one has been scrubbed, since EASA licences are valid for life and the question relates to rating validity. The correct answer given is “dependent upon…”

A tougher one related to Lamberts Conical Projection, handy when you are next flying to the North Pole although the co-ordinates given are somewhere near Copenhagen.

There’s often one totally ludicrous answer. I’m told the long term plan is to make it a choice out of three rather than four, so new questions will have an option that can quickly be discarded. Often two of the remaining three can be quite close, and you might possibly be more tempted by the third answer here.

The explanations sometimes included clearly marked up diagrams of the flow required to work through tables or performance charts. I found these particularly helpful.

A lot of the questions try to catch you out and there is a lot involved with good exam technique. Reading (and re-reading) the question is critical. Simply studying the textbook isn’t enough to pass, you really need to delve into the depths of a question bank to understand the somewhat offbeat questions that get asked.

I also subscribed to the Bristol Ground School question bank just before one set of exams. It provided another angle on the likely questions, including many duplicates, fewer overall than AviationExam and possibly fewer of those that were now out of date.

I felt that both question banks still had far too many IFR questions in the CPL stream, and hadn’t filtered out quite as many of the ATPL-only questions as perhaps they need to.

Exam Timescale constraints

There’s a limit to the number and timing of the tests. You can study for as long as you like before taking the first exam, after which the clock starts ticking. The limits are:

  • Maximum of 6 sittings. Typically these are 4 day periods (Monday to Thursday) during which you can take any (or all) of the exams. Exams even within each sitting don’t have to be sat at the same exam centre.
  • Maximum of 4 attempts at each subject. So you can fail a subject three times, pass on the fourth and still be OK. Fail a fourth time and you have to start from the very beginning and sit all the exams again from scratch.
  • Maximum of 18 months. The clock starts in the month you sit your first exam and runs until your last.

Since I didn’t need to take Meteorology or Human Performance Limitations, I was able to select an additional topic for my first module and move ahead more quickly. I was pleased to pass all four first time with an average of 85%. Some of this was remarkably similar material to the IR – for example you have to sit Radio Navigation VFR which has some slightly different questions than Radio Navigation IFR. In my view, this exam was entirely pointless given my IR and that I frequently use Radio Navigation aids all the time hence my 95% pass mark. There wasn’t a huge amount relating to the latest developments in the subject (eg PBN) but the most bizarre questions included asking what the geodetic datum used by GLONASS is (it’s PZ90 rather than WGS84 in case you were wondering). The consequences of this fact aren’t stated anywhere and I struggle to see the relevance, especially at CPL level. It would be far more helpful to know that Russian aviation maps have heights marked in metres rather than feet, or that they use QFE even more than we do.

EASA have been spending a lot of money refreshing the question bank, introducing some 1500 new questions each year and reviewing 2000. They plan to refresh and replace the entire 10,000 questions by 2021. This has led to a growing divergence between the practice question banks and the ones you see in a real test. Some would say this is good because simply learning the question bank answers doesn’t adequately test candidate knowledge and understanding. However some of the bizarre and obtuse questions that have been added continue to give EASA a bad reputation with hard working students, as borne out by comments on the QB systems. There were certainly a few that I still have no clue how to answer or what the examiner was actually trying to determine.

The process of sitting electronic exams

The process and availability of theory exams has changed out of all recognition since I sat my IR theory back in 2012, when I marked crosses on a paper answer form. It’s all been computerised and automated, from making the initial booking, sitting the exam to issuing the result. One you’ve registered, which typically takes a day or so to be verified, you can view the available dates and locations for exams – anywhere from Scotland to Florida to Malaysia.

Although EASA and UK CAA get a lot of complaints,  I’d say that the administration of the exams and the introduction of the electronic system has been a success. This is quite a large scale operation, with thousands of exams sat annually. There was only one hiccup during all my exams where one unfortunate candidate couldn’t login to take his test – the system had cancelled it for some reason – and despite an urgent support phone call by the invigilator to Gatwick, he had to leave. At least he was able to take it a few hours later after lunch.

Previously you had to go to Gatwick and exams ran to a specific monthly schedule – if you couldn’t make a specific date (e.g. due to a business commitment) then it could put you back a couple of months. Now you can attend any of about 10 centres in the UK which advertise a range of dates almost every week of the year. Bookings have to be made at least by the week before but can be deferred at no cost if you decide you aren’t ready. Some venues get booked up early (probably by their own students) while others have plenty of capacity.

I sat most of my exams at Oxford which now handles more candidates than any other centre including Gatwick. It’s quite conveniently located for many students, has free parking, a cafe and plenty of capacity – up to 30 students if there are two invigilators. The system emails you a reminder of your exam the day before and clearly states what you are allowed to take in with you. It doesn’t remind you which type of ID document you said you’d bring along when you first registered (you must have some form of photo ID such as passport or driving licence), and that could catch some people out. They are naturally very strict in checking that nobody is taking an exam on behalf of someone else.

Above shows the lounge to relax and revise between exams.

I met several other students, mostly ATPLS, many foreign, mostly in their early 20’s, including a growing proportion of female candidates. One middle-aged lady had decided it was now or never for her airline career, so perhaps it’s not only blokes that have mid-life crises and dream of a life on the flightdeck.

A list of candidates and desk numbers for each exam is posted on the wall, from which you figure out where you will be sitting. Your individual papers and login details will have been placed on your desk before you enter the room. No phones or personal items are allowed at your desk – even wristwatches have to be taken off after one candidate apparently tried to photograph questions using a fancy new model – but there are cubbyholes at the side of the room for bags.

Each exam session has a maximum duration so can accommodate a wide range of different exams. Its quite possible that nobody else in the room is sitting the same exam as you are, but even if they were, then they will be given a slightly different set of questions. Screen protectors make it impossible to read anybody else’s screen anyway. I understand that the CAA select and qualify a pool of about 200 questions for each subject from which the system chooses randomly, supposedly avoiding the more obtuse or controversial ones.


Will this sign on the door of the exam room be needed when the subject content is more appropriate and relevant?

Initially the new system used to inform candidates of their result immediately after completing each test. The groundschools warned that this demotivated and upset candidates who might then perform worse on subsequent tests in the same week/sitting. So you have to wait until the end of the week before the system informs you of your results. At least that’s better than the three week wait for a postal notification some years ago.

Result email

Clicking on the attached PDF opens the result notification, so you don’t have to login to the system to find out.

Operations was the tough one for me

Some students find Flight Planning to be the most tricky subject, typically because they run out of time. The specific subject that I found most difficult by far was Operations which has an allocation of just 25 hours of instruction mandated by EASA for both CPL and ATPL students. This is a gross underestimate given the radically new and very obtuse questions being introduced into the question bank. I failed this first time with 73% (soooo close to the 75% pass mark) by not knowing questions like “what is the minimum flight duty period for crew when rested and away from base rather than at home?” and the senior cabin crew question mentioned above. It seems that the question setters have really lost the plot with this subject, expecting candidates to have read and absorbed in intricate detail all of EASA’s 1900 page Air Operations regulations amongst several other documents.

Topics cover a huge range from leasing aircraft, flight duty periods, RVSM (reduced vertical separation minima, typically used when flying transatlantic), the number of megaphones required (depends on passengers not seats), crash axes, first aid kits, dangerous goods handling, through to the recording period of voice and flight data recorders (which depends on the age of the aircraft).

An example of a question I got wrong. How long would you wait before operating the fire extinguisher or evacuating if flames were burning through the cowling? The answers in the exam varied from those above and included several that all contained quite credible actions. Keeping the throttle full open is likely the critical element of the answer they are looking for (to suck through the excess unburnt fuel).

I resat this exam with three other new topics on a single day in my third module, thinking that with 73% last time it shouldn’t need that much more effort to scrape across the finish line. I was aiming for an “efficient pass” – ie doing enough work to pass but not needing to impress an airline with 90%+ marks on everything. Sadly I fell back to 66% although passed three other subjects sat on the same day with flying colours. I appealed by ticking a box on the online system and paying a fee (refundable if they decide you should have passed). Two highly experienced subject matter experts looked through the questions I had been given and determined that they were all perfectly in order and my result stood.

As you can see, they did helpfully list a number of documents that I should refer to in order to be able to answer those where I was deficient. Everything from the 40-page SNOWTAM format definition to sections of the 1900 page Operations guide. I double checked the questions I felt were most irrelevant and found that the Learning Objectives did include these, so I can’t formally object. Unlike exam results, there is no email alert to let you know the appeal result is available – you just have to login and find out for yourself. Their quoted timescale is 2 weeks and this took them 7 days.

Picking on some of the feedback above:

  • The question about Dangerous Goods was to select 5 from a list of 7 choices about where to find information about Dangerous Goods being loaded. I still don’t get what they were trying to assess – answers ranged from several regulatory documents to the checklist to a pre-flight phone call with the shipper. It’s possible that the regulations quoted were deliberately invalid or slightly credible documents that don’t exist.
  • Minimum flight altitude is a nasty one – the question was “who determines the method by which minimum flight altitudes are calculated”. It’s not the Operator (who actually makes the calculations) nor ICAO or EASA but the national CAA (so-called Competent Authority) because it relates to the method rather than the calculation itself. As a pilot, frankly who cares? Surely it’s what’s written into the Operations manual that really counts.
  • Flight Duty Period asked what the maximum extension is permitted with augmented flight crew (3 hours rather than the 2 I guessed). Would CPL’s often be flying with augmented crew? If they were, they’d refer to the Ops Manual to find out what’s permitted in their case. Many of the bigger airlines have iPad Apps for this kind of thing.
  • And why do CPLs need to know about leasing agreements – surely it’s down to their Operator to handle that?
  • SNOWTAMs related to the exact format of the message, whether it’s .40 or 40 or GOOD. The practice question bank used both formats so although I did know the mapping between numbers and friction levels, that wasn’t good enough. I needed to study the full text of this 20 page SNOWTAM harmonisation guide.

For my third attempt, I bought PadPilot’s ATPL Operations book. It’s very similar to CAPT content but perhaps a bit more clearly laid out and just gave a slightly different emphasis on the topic. I reviewed and verified all the learning objectives, hammered both question banks until I was getting consistently high marks (90%+) and disciplined myself to research the more off-beat questions. While you do get up to four attempts at each subject I didn’t want to fail a third time. I doubt if additional classroom time would have made any difference.

The dates suited the test centre at Bristol Ground School for me better this time, and I found the facility a bit more relaxed there with fewer students. On arriving, an instructor welcomed me and pointed me to a folder containing feedback from other students who had recently sat exams – definitely worthwhile reading through that for some of the latest questions and comments. When I said I was taking CPL theory exams, he commented that “we don’t get many of those”. While there’s no cafe, there is free tea/coffee or you can walk around the corner to the supermarket for a sandwich. The exam room is fitted with large screen laptops rather than the desktop PCs at Oxford, the tables are a bit larger to lay out your working papers etc.

My result came through on the Thursday of that week and I was relieved to have passed with 85%. I needed a bit of paper from CAPT to confirm that I had actually undertaken the course (simply passing the exams isn’t enough for the CAA, and they can’t yet confirm this electronically). This was then sent off to the CAA to reissue my licence without the LAPL only restriction – 26 pages of forms (including all my pass certificates in case they don’t have access to the results online plus  details to correct an error made on my last transaction). Let’s see if they can turn it around in less than the 5 weeks it took last time.

Reflections on the different topics

Having passed, I would say that for my purposes (instructing PPLs), the amount of irrelevant content is very high. The course material and question banks had a lot of ATPL related subject matter which I can never see being appropriate to me or even the average CPL pilot. Why should I need to know whether a senior cabin crew requires extra training and testing to qualify? Few CPLs would fly aircraft that require senior cabin crew without further training. This question is even mandatory for VFR helicopter pilots (you’d have to be flying a pretty big helicopter to require a team of cabin crew).

One subject that seems to have attracted a bunch of new questions is how to operate TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems) – beating into you that you ALWAYS do what it says, and this will either be to climb or descend (or some form of vertical manoeuvre rather than horizontal). VFR Comms is a little bit more difficult that it used to be – it was extremely trivial in the past – but still fairly straightforward. Satellite navigation inevitably includes some questions about the European Galileo system, even though it is not yet fully operational. Mass and Balance had fewer questions with calculations and more about fundamental Principles of Flight.

EASA’s review of CPL & ATPL theory

EASA has attempted to improve matters and in many subjects the new stream of questions has improved the quality of the exams, Operations is clearly an outrider and has got much worse. There has been a multi-year project to revise the Learning Objectives, on which the training materials and exam questions are based. Reading through the comments of the CRD (Comment Response Document), it was clear that EASA has pushed back on many national authorities that still wanted to retain the engineering rules to design primitive navigation equipment – many were given a response something like “we are training pilots to fly not to design and build the aircraft from first principles”. Nonetheless, the latest output of that rule-making bonanza still has a bunch of learning objectives that are far too excessive for CPLs, and certainly for your average PPL instructor to need to grasp.

Back in 2014, EASA cut back the scope of the IR theory by about 50%, creating the CB-IR exams. It’s a dead-end in that there is no credit towards ATPL or CPL, you have to take the full course and sit all the ATPLs from scratch. But it’s ideal for pilots unlikely to follow a commercial career.

I think they need to do that for the CPL as well. So few people sit them (and there are so few courses) because commercial pilots all go for the ATPLs. Pruning it back significantly (say by 50%) might make it easier to justify for PPL instructors and some of the more basic CPL privileges. As I said above, you still need ATPL theory or HPA theory to fly anything more serious, so bridging/upgrade courses could be beefed up if required.

In the last couple of years, a major EASA project has reviewed all the learning objectives for these exams. A new learning approach called Area 100 KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes) is to be introduced. The CRDs (Comment Review Documents) here, here, and here are worth skimming through to see what the industry thought of these changes, what some proposed and what EASA agreed with. For example, the European Cockpit Association, comment that

  • We agree with the need to establish the minimum amount/percentage of classroom instruction. However, it is not clear how we can define the minimum percentage of classroom instruction. This issue is of particular importance as the classroom instruction, in general, is necessary to check the competencies of the student.
  • We further fear that the lack of consistency between the Competencies developed by an ATO and an airline will create not only extra cost, but also a potential mismatch between the pilot profile required by the airline and the one provided by the ATO. This may cause some pilots being hired and subsequently dismissed by the airline due to their competency level being inappropriate. This will create not only an extra financial burden, but also a significant social cost for pilots-to-be.

I disagree that any classroom instruction should be mandatory at the CPL theory level. Is it reasonable to expect classroom instructors to determine whether the student is competent? Surely it’s ultimately the purpose of the exams to assess that.

It seems I’m not the only one who thinks the scope is too comprehensive and much could be deferred to type rating courses. One groundschool comment for a particular section that:

This belongs to a type-rating course such as i.e. B737 or A320 (or similar).

It is already implemented even in a MCC or JOC, as where things are reflected during ground school as well during simulator training. At the point proposed, not being later than by the latest ATPL theoretical knowledge exam, trainees would not even have seen a basic training aircraft up real close, i.e. during an Integrated ATP course or even have just around 45 hours more or less whilst having completed a PPL training course (most of the time on a basic analogue equipped trainer). It make no sense to lecture/teach these items at the time proposed! Period! The added value is none! It creates in our opinion even negative training which can result in flight safety issues even during foundation flight training.

The confusement [sic] will be complete for a trainee during foundation flight training. It should be taught at the point where needed and that is already taken care of during MCC/JOC and even more important, during type rating training.

This latest major review of the Learning Objectives is now complete. EASA Decision 2018/001/R has been made and the new set of learning objectives must be implemented by all member states no later than January 2022. It will take a couple of years before the new set of exams comes into force. This 20 page explanatory note summarises the major changes. VFR and IFR Communications has been merged into one, so there will be one fewer subject overall. Human Performance has been greatly revised, Radio Navigation has removed some of the more esoteric technical details of GPS design.

Support your local pilot organisation such as AOPA or LAA to continue to lobby for more proportional, relevant and efficient regulations.

I’ve proved it can be done but I wouldn’t underestimate the amount of time and effort required. I suspect quite a few part-time CPL theory candidates start off with the best of intentions and fall by the wayside. If you are one of those not used to self-study and can afford the time, then consider the ATPL classroom option. Otherwise, as an FI you will be limited to LAPL ab-initio and (with a CRI rating) also with pilots who already have (or have had) licences.

Next Step

My next step is to become an unrestricted instructor. This requires 25 solo signoffs and to have given 100 hours of instruction. Most instructors say that getting the 25 solo signoffs is the more difficult of the two. Sometimes signing off a student to go solo may not involve any actual flight instruction time, other times perhaps a couple of circuits to check they are current. So I suspect this will need quite a few trips up to the airport to get through this stage. For solo signoffs, the supervising instructor would often get paid while you do the work. Fortunately, the 100 hours does include any CRI instruction I’ve already done and doesn’t even have to include any ab-initio instruction at all (outside the solo signoffs), although I have done some already.

Phew, that was a long post. Glad I got that off my chest.


  1. Thanks David. Having gained a New Zealand CPL / IR and worked as an instructor in my youth before returning to the UK it has bamboozled me how to get just a CPL back here without doing the ATPL’S. A very useful guide for us more mature pilots keen to perhaps focus on the instructor route.

    1. Thanks. I’d emphasise that you can instruct as an FI without taking any CPL theory exams, but are limited to LAPL students only. Most FIs these days also qualify as CRIs (no extra training or exams required, just ask the FI examiner to tick a box), which also gives full privileges for training anybody with a licence from when you’ve passed your FI Assessment of Competence.

  2. As a CRI specialising with glass panel such as Cirrus and Diamond aircraft. I have been considering the full FI course for some time. David’s post has highlighted my worst fears, and confirms my opinion that it’s a waste of time even bothering to consider doing the tk exams. I instruct pilots who are good at the exams, however not very competent at actual practical and safe flying. I am the opposite of this so will complete the full FI without the tk exams and stick with LAPL, trial lessons and the more advanced instructing that I currently do requiring only a CRI. Some of my students hold a CPL or even ATPL with many more hours than my 1,000 and yet they still benefit having me as their instructor. The ability to pass examinations does not necessarily mean that you one will automatically be a good pilot. The ability to fly an aircraft skilfully differs from the that required to pass exams . . .

  3. Thank you for the excellent write up David and one which I had ready prior to signing up for a CPL Theory course at CAPT (for the purpose of instructing only) and am currently over half way through Module 1 with the first set of exams booked for mid-March. I do have a question which relates to your reply above with regards to obtaining a CRI Rating on the basis of your FI AoC by having the examiner tick a box on your application form. Am I correct in saying the ATO in question will need to also be approved to conduct CRI(SE) course in the first instance (in addition to FIC approval) and if so will you also require a Course Completion Certificate for the CRI course as well as the FIC (you know what our CAA is like!)? I will be looking at ATOs in due course for my FIC course and this is something I would like to do from the outset. Many thanks in advance and once again well done for getting through these CPL exams! They are certainly not a walk in the park.

    1. As you will have read above, I already had my CRI rating when I completed the FI practical course. The examiner treated the Assessment of Competence flight as covering both my initial FI and my CRI revalidation, and signed my licence/forms as such. I’ve heard other FI’s have completed/passed both CRI and FI ratings simultaneously, and this is quite common, especially if the FI doesn’t have CPL theory exams. My understanding is that the CRI course is considered a subset of the FI, so everything is included. You may be correct that the ATO would have to be approved to run both courses, and there seems to be quite a few ATOs that have FI but not CRI training course approval. You can check ATO approvals for specific schools listed in CAA Standards Document 31.

    2. Hi David. Thanks for this very interesting comment. I am a 2000 hr 55hr year old PPL and feel that becoming an FI would be a great way to continue enjoying my passion and provide a lot more focus for my flying for the next 5-1o yrs! However, like yours and the other comments I cannot see the point of going the ATPL exam route as I really dont plan to go professional. But finding a good CPL course seems harder now in 2021 than when you first posted.
      I would be really interested to hear how Richard got on at CAPT – I am sure by now he is all done and dusted!

      1. Becoming an FI can be very rewarding, albeit not financially. I would recommend you research the market for FI positions before investing a lot of time and money. All the FI seminars and training courses are heavily booked up at the moment, which will lead to a surplus of instructors next year, so there will be a lot of competition. It’s very hard to predict what the situation will be like in a year or two, so proceed at your own risk.

  4. Hi, you have provided a lot of very helpful information.

    Is there a good text book to study for the exams?

    Best regards,


    1. CPL theory course must be provided by an approved Groundschool ATO (Aviation Training Organisation) and can’t be done simply from books as is the case in the USA. Groundschools supply their own reading materials, often electronically with an option for printed versions. Typically this is the full ATPL course material with some notes about which sections don’t apply for CPL. Having said that, I found the PadPilot ATPL eBooks, available independently online, to be excellent with good explanations and clear graphic diagrams.

  5. Hi David

    A great post and am in the middle of these ludicrous CPL theory exams for the very same reason as you to become an FI. It’s no wonder that the majority of flight instructors are pilots on their way to an airline career, keeping their hours up. For those who are actually looking for a career (full time or part time) the CPL theory route is onerous to say the least. No wonder my local airfield has a high turnover of FI’s.
    Here’s hoping one day EASA will see common sense.

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