Tom Gets His ATP (Part 2): ‘The Written Exam”

Yes, there will be a test — study … hard. If you meet the pilot experience requirements for the ATP checkride (see Part I) or expect to do so within the next two years (the written results are valid that long), your next big hurdle is the ATP Written.

First, you need to make a choice — would you like an ATP under FAR Part 121 or 135?

  • Part 121 governs scheduled, “major” and “regional” airline operations — most of the “big name” airlines, and most that operate jets.
  • Part 135 sets the rules for “commuter” and on-demand service, usually flying turboprop or even piston-powered equipment.

Note: Unless you’re immediately applying for an airline job, it really doesn’t matter which, but when you sign up for the “written” you’ll be asked to specify “121” or “135.”

Expect ATP written questions on:

  • Accident reporting under National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) 830;
  • Federal Air Regulations (FAR) Part 1, Definitions and Abbreviations;
  • FAR Part 61, Certification;
  • FAR Part 91, General Operating and Flight Rules;
  • FAR Part 108, Transportation of Hazardous Materials;
  • FAR Part 119, Certification of Air Carriers and Commercial Operators;
  • FAR Part 121, Air Carrier Operations — OR — FAR Part 135, Commuter and On-Demand Operations (see the caveat below);
  • Aerodynamics and airplanes;
  • Airspace and airports;
  • Air Traffic Control;
  • IFR navigation equipment, flight planning, holding, and approaches;
  • Airplane Operating and Performance Data (questions use charts and performance data for the Beech 1900, McDonnell-Douglas DC-9, Boeing 727 and Boeing 737);
  • Aviation weather, weather reports and forecasts; and
  • Aeromedical factors.

Caveat: Although your test is supposed to be either a Part 121 or Part 135 exercise, the FAA reserves the right to throw in questions from either set of regulations. My “Part 135” exam, for instance, included seven or eight questions right out of Part 121. So, get familiar with both … and don’t assume the performance questions will be all DC-9, 727 or 737 if you take the test “121,” or all Beech 1900 if you go the “135” route.

Winning Strategy: There’s no requirement to get an instructor’s sign-off to take the ATP written. You simply schedule and take it when you’re ready. There are lots of ways to prepare for the written test, but the best possible method is to get the appropriate regulations and manuals, and study until you know them — all of them — by heart.

Practical Strategy: Since the questions and answers to the written tests are in the public domain, the 80 you’ll be asked are somewhere in the thousands of possible questions printed in the guide. If you don’t have the time (few of us do), a common tactic is to order a study guide and practice the questions and answers. (I used the Gleim guide, “the book with the red cover.’)

Other Ideas: If you’re more the “cram course” sort of test-taker, several private companies offer weekend ground schools that present test-taking techniques and memorization approach to passing the written.

The FAA has gone 100% to computerized testing at contract locations around the country. Some larger FBOs can offer the FAA tests, but it’s just as likely you’ll go to a community testing service in a mall somewhere, and take the ATP written alongside someone working toward an insurance certificate or a real estate license.

Hint: Visit the CATS web site or call 1-800-947-4228 to schedule an FAA written at a Computer Assisted Testing Service, near you.

The test questions I received, were weighted heavily toward airplane performance calculations (I had Be1900 weight and balance questions and DC-9 time enroute and fuel burn problems), and situational awareness given indications from a horizontal situation indicator (HSI) and a Radio Magnetic Indicator (RMI). There were also a lot of questions on basic aerodynamics, regulations, and weather. You’ll be given three hours to complete the ATP written — and you’ll use most of that time — so study hard, and take a few practice tests before signing up for the “real thing.”

Time Saver: Don’t try to use the diagrams, charts and tables offered on the computer screen — they’re difficult to read … and it’s hard to scroll through or tab back and forth when you need to reference more than one figure. Use the “hard copy” you’ll be provided instead.
Dry Run: If you’re not comfortable or experienced with multiple-choice computerized testing, you can run through a practice session before the timer starts.
The Real Deal: Don’t worry; you have the option of answering questions out of order, marking questions for a double-check, and reviewing any or all of your answers before you hit the “score the test” button.

Once you’ve completed the test, results are immediately available. No more waiting in agony for the results to come in the mail — on the other hand, don’t let the anticipation rush you. The testing proctor will print out and notarize your test results, which contain a coded list of any topic areas you may have missed, so you can study more before going for your checkride.

Don’t worry, if you’ve studied well, it’s not that hard and, once you’ve aced the ATP written, it’s time to go fly!