To qualify as a commercial pilot, you need to complete both theoretical and aircraft flight training. The Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) Theory is an important part of this instruction and covers various topics, such as meteorology, the principles of flight and navigation.


Few commercial flight schools offer ATPL theory as a residential course, with many offering distance learning or a part-time solution. We offer ATPL Theory as a full-time course where all subjects are taught in a classroom environment. 

This type of training offers a number of benefits over distance learning; training in a classroom allows students to ask specific questions of the instructor whilst also learning at the same pace of their classmates. There is also the benefit of periodic one to one reviews with an instructor throughout the training. These offer the perfect opportunity to reflect on an individual’s performance and share any praise or concerns about upcoming subjects or exams.

ATPL Theory requires considerable focus, study and revision and some students find the prospect of this element of their pilot training quite intimidating. However, as with any part of your training to become a commercial pilot, if you start as you mean to go on; prepare for each class, and review what you've learnt at the end of each day you will be successful in your training. 

What are my study options?

If you already have a private pilot's licence and EASA medical certificate you can enrol on our 'residential' ATPL Theory course.  At FTA we deliver the training using PadPilot course materials, these are accessible on an iPad or laptop – which means that you can complete additional study and revise anytime, anywhere.

If you want to continue working whilst you study, it may prove better for you to complete your ATPL theory via distance learning with a company such as Padpilot or Bristol Groundschool.

You can then enrol with FTA for the remainder of your pilot training or even a single module (perhaps one that you found difficult to study without an instructor).

We group the 13 subjects into three modules – with exams at the CAA at end of each module. You have up to six sittings to complete a total of 13 exams, although typically this can be accomplished in three sessions.  

Please see below for more detail regarding each module and the subjects within.

How is ATPL Theory delivered?

We recently restructured our ATPL Theory and the course now includes a computer-based (CBT) learning package. This supports our students with additional learning and the opportunity to complete structured self-study. 

The school day is therefore shorter so students can retain higher levels of concentration during lessons. They then spend two hours taking advantage of the CBT modules before revising and consolidating for the following day’s lessons. The material is highly, visual and adds an additional dimension to the modular and integrated programmes.

Head of Training, Phil Jones explains: “Our team of experienced instructors identified what they believe is the best course structure and stimuli for our students. This move to ‘blended learning’ with additional content and time for self-study ensures that there is a style of tuition to suit a range of learners.”

How long does the ATPL Theory take?

We deliver the ATPL Theory over nine months. The classroom-based tuition is delivered 5 days a week, Monday to Friday at our base at Brighton City Airport, UK.

Get a head start on your studying

To help you get prepare for the start of your ATPL Theory, Padpilot have introduced a new Pilot Foundation Course. This is a three-part series of digital iBooks which feature a practical and solid foundation of both industry and theoretical knowledge to equip the aspiring pilot for success during training. Click here for more information about the iBooks

Instructors also advise (if you've not studied maths or physics in a while), to refresh your knowledge with GCSE course handbooks.



A key component of the course is meteorology, including how the weather is forecast and what data is produced. We also study cloud formation, temperature, climatology and density. A key part of this subject is understanding the potential dangers of the weather and how flying is affected. Students will study other components within the topic, including: 

  • What are weather fronts? How are they formed?
  • Cloud formation and how it affects flying
  • Wind and its impact
  • What are the potential dangers of the weather?
  • How to forecast the weather
  • Weather charts and how we can use them
  • The atmosphere
  • Temperature
  • Climatology
  • Density.

Aircraft general knowledge

Here we look at the aircraft and how it operates. The aim is to gain a high level of understanding of how the different parts of the aircraft work including:

  • Power-plants
  • Aircraft systems
  • Electrics.

Air Law

After getting to grips with aircraft general knowledge, students study Air Law. Whilst this component looks at the rules of the air including how we legislate (Starting from the Chicago Convention in 1944) and the division of airspace. The course also includes other legal factors such as:

  • Martialling
  • Airport markings
  • Aircraft licensing
  • Personnel licensing
  • Air traffic services
  • Rules of the air
  • How we legislate – the Chicago Convention
  • The division of airspace.


There are two communications topics which are studied in the first module. These are broken down into Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR) Communications. IFR focuses more on the aircraft itself in relation to ground such as ATC clearances, Standard phraseology and emergency phraseology used, whilst also covering the key communication principles and failures within the aircraft and ground. VFR ensures that students have knowledge in meteorological data and weather reporting from the aircraft and how the equipment can be used. The subjects explored in each topic are as follows:

  • Communication principles and failures
  • Air traffic control clearances
  • Standard Radio Telephony (RT) phraseology
  • Emergency standard RT phraseology
  • Radio propagation theory
  • Meteorological data and weather reporting
  • Equipment used for VFR.

Principles of Flight

In this module we cover the principles of flight and consolidate some learning from topics in module one; linking with meteorology which including the atmosphere, wake turbulence as well as lift and drag. Other areas covered within this topic are: turning, climb and descent, stability, spins and stalls, aerofoil and propellers. Principles of flight includes the following:

  • The atmosphere
  • Lift and drag
  • Aerofoil
  • Level flight
  • Spins and stalls
  • Stability
  • Propellers
  • Turning
  • Climb and descent
  • Wake turbulence.


In this subject, our instructors teach students to understand the use and purpose of the instruments in the cockpit of an aircraft. The areas covered are as follows:

  • Pressure sensing
  • The altimeter vertical speed indicator
  • Airspeed indicator
  • Machmeter
  • Angle of attack
  • Air data computer
  • Magnetism compass
  • Altitude indicator
  • Turn indicator.


The performance of aircraft looks at climb, cruise and descent procedures with other principles regarding V speeds, asymmetric flight. The influences that affect the performance of an aircraft, engine failure and landing with other calculations that can be used regarding performance are also studied. In 'performance' we look at the following in more depth:

  • What are the situations which affect the performance of an aircraft?
  • Climb, cruise and descent
  • Engine failure and landing
  • Asymmetric flight
  • V speeds
  • Other calculations that can be used in performance.

Flight Planning

In Flight planning procedures students learn how to plan a route effectively considering factors which may have an influence. Students also look at the following:

  • How to plan a route effectively
  • Factors which can affect the planning of a flight
  • VFR planning
  • Fuel policy
  • The Jeppensen Airway Manual
  • En-route charts
  • Area charts
  • Medium-range jets
  • The point of no return
  • The point of equal time.

Operational Procedures

This topic includes air operator certificates, aircraft checks, keeping up with legislation, managing duty time, flight and cabin crew organisation, health & safety planning, emergency landings. Students will also look at adverse weather conditions and their impact as well as the following:

  • Air operator certificates
  • Keeping up with legislation
  • Aircraft checks
  • Managing duty time
  • Flight and cabin crew
  • Health and safety planning
  • Emergency landings
  • The impact of adverse weather conditions.

General Navigation

General navigation takes theory from Satellites and the Solar system and applies it to aviation. The areas we explore in more depth are as follows:

  • The solar system and satellites
  • The shape of the earth
  • Latitude and longitude
  • Great circles and Rhumb lines
  • Convergency and conversion angles
  • Magnetic/compass direction
  • How to use maps effectively.

Radio Navigation

Here we look at the principles of Radio Waves to grasp an understanding of how the communication works. The course then follows to cover the following:

  • Radio navigation beacons
  • Radars and radar principles
  • Area navigation.

Human Performance and Limitations

The Human Performance and Limitations topic gives an insight into the psychological factors of performance and how it could affect flight by studying: the eye, ear, perception and human error. The topic also covers the Human Body, Nervous System, Atmosphere and Oxygen, respiration and Human overload/underload.

  • Psychological factors of performance
  • The human body
  • The nervous system
  • Atmosphere and oxygen
  • Respiration
  • Human error
  • Perception
  • The eye
  • The ear
  • Human overload and underload.

Mass and Balance

Mass and Balance includes calculations which involve aircraft centre of gravity, weight and loading of aircraft and mathematical ideas using formulae. The other topics we cover as part of this subject are as follows:

  • Calculations involving aircraft centre of gravity
  • Weight and loading of aircraft.

Request further information about ATPL Theory: