Getting Your ATP Certificate

Achieving the highest level of pilot certification is harder than ever. Here is how to do it.

ATP Certification Feature

The Airline Transport Pilot Multi-Engine certificate is the crown jewel of pilot ratings and is required for pilots flying passengers or cargo under Part 121 and some Part 135 operations. Whether you intend to use the rating as a professional aviator, think you may use it in the future or want to get it simply to be able to say the letters ATP are printed on the back of your pilot's certificate, the rating confirms you are on the same level as the guy up front when you're sitting cramped into row 34 of a jampacked airliner.

While there is room for improvement in the accident rate for general aviation, the flying conducted by ATP-rated pilots has achieved a very high level of safety. Commercial jet flying has become so safe that, according to statistics published by the National Transportation Safety Board, there were no fatal accidents in the United States involving Part 121 operations in the past three reported years, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and none in the past six years for scheduled Part 135 commuter operations.

While the certificate is required only by Part 121 and 135 operations, the rating has become the gold standard, and most professional flight departments require their pilots to hold the ATP certificate, in many cases for insurance purposes because companies often provide better rates for departments whose pilots have the rating, said Mike Suckow, clinical associate professor at the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University.

While a safety record completely devoid of accidents is a novel goal, it would be a bit optimistic to believe we can achieve that level of safety. However, it appears that is the goal of our regulators because, despite the fact that professional, ATP-rated pilots have a stellar safety record, Congress felt the need to respond when one fatal accident happened in February 2009. On approach into Buffalo, New York, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed, killing 50 people. It was the first fatal airline accident in nearly three years, and it brought major changes to the process of obtaining a multiengine ATP certificate.

One change that was duly applied as a result of the Colgan Air crash was stricter limitations for airline pilot duty hours and rest times, which were implemented in 2011. This change was appropriate considering the NTSB found fatigue to be a probable cause in the accident. However, Congress went much further in its mandate and required the FAA to implement a list of changes regarding ATP certification as part of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.

Airlines had traditionally been able to hire first officers with as little as 250 hours and a commercial pilot certificate under their belts. But the new mandate, which was put in effect in 2013, requires first officers to have a type rating and an ATP with an absolute minimum of 1,000 hours. How is this possible, you may ask, as the ATP requires 1,500 hours of total flight time. If you complete a degree in an aviation field from a qualified university, you can get a Restricted ATP certificate, or R-ATP, once you've accumulated as little as 1,000 hours of flight time and are at least 21 years old.

Unless you get your R-ATP, you need to be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of total flight time, 500 hours of cross-country flight time, 100 hours of night time (or 75 hours with a minimum of 45 night landings) and 75 hours of instrument time (25 of which can be in a simulator) in order to qualify for the ATP.

Not only are first officers now required to hold an ATP certificate, but in order to qualify for the captain's seat, they also need to accumulate 1,000 hours as copilots.

The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010 didn't stop there. The FAA was also mandated to revise the training required for the Airline Transport Pilot. As a result, it has become much more difficult to qualify to take the required knowledge exam.

In the past, as with the private pilot and commercial written exams, you could either take a course or do a home study until you felt ready to take the test, at which point you would need to get an endorsement from an instructor. After that, you could simply go to the nearest Airman Knowledge Test Center, pay a nominal fee and take the test. You could get your ATP written done for less than the cost of a decent dinner out or nothing more than the cost of taking the test if you were fortunate enough to be able to borrow a prep book from a friend. If you wanted more in-depth training, there were programs through companies such as Gleim Aviation, Airline Transport Professionals and King Schools for just a few hundred dollars.

These test prep programs still exist, but as of Aug. 1 of last year, unless you seek a single-engine ATP certificate, the FAA requires you to complete an Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program (ATP-CTP). The new ATP-CTP program requirement is set forth in Advisory Circular 61.138 and requires 30 hours of ground instruction covering a long list of topics within the subject areas of aerodynamics, meteorology and air carrier operations, and 10 hours of simulator time, six of which must be conducted in a Level C full-motion simulator.

While on the surface it may appear that the new requirements will bring more business to flight schools, this is not necessarily the case. The United States has for many years been a country where people from around the globe come to learn to fly. But with these more onerous and costly training requirements, other countries may be able to offer training for professional pilots at a lower cost.

"We're going to off-shore our national asset, which was our flight training capability, because of the hurdles that we've put in place," Suckow from Purdue said.

As part of the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, Congress mandated that, in addition to airline captains, all first officers are required to hold an ATP certificate.|

The new requirements have also created a quagmire for the airlines, which are expected to lose a large number of pilots to retirement in the next 10 years and need to fill slots for low paying introductory-level first officer jobs from a training market that requires ever increasing costs.

Suckow believes there is a potential need for new labor laws to allow for airlines to require a time commitment from pilots who they put through the training required to work for them. "Maybe people will be willing to absorb the cost for this new hurdle if they can get some return on the investment," he said.

The thought could have some validity based on the potential burgeoning pilot shortage. One regional airline, ExpressJet Airlines, achieved the sign-off from the FAA for the ATP-CTP program in November. Suckow said Purdue is watching the market closely before making any decision to require the costly ATP-CTP training of its students.

On the other hand, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University dove right in and was first to offer the ATP-CTP program, achieving the certificate to offer the new course at both its Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, campuses in late July of last year. The program is spread out over a one-semester course, and ERAU even went so far as to increase the training, providing 20 hours of simulator training rather than the required 10. Eight hours are spent in a Level 6 CRJ-200 sim, which the school used previously for its jet transition course.

Since the program had already integrated the CRJ-200, Kenneth ­Byrnes, chairman of the flight ­training ­department and associate professor at ERAU, said it made sense for the full-motion sim to be of the same type. So the school purchased a full-motion CRJ-200 in which the students get 12 hours of training. The 20 hours of sim time is split as captain and first officer, allowing students to also practice flying in a crew environment.

ERAU also offers a co-requisite systems course, and Byrnes said by the time the students graduate from its four-year program, they have 1,400 hours of classroom training on airline related systems, operations, flight physiology and other topics related to the profession.

While the tuition for the ground portion of the ATP-CTP course is the same as that of any other ERAU course, the lab fee for the 20 hours of sim time is $5,000, Byrnes said. "That is about half the price to get it somewhere else," he said, referring to the number of sim hours. The ATP-CTP course is required for students who choose the airline pilot track through ERAU's bachelor of science in aeronautical science program, which 75 percent of the university's 1,300 annual students within the program do, Byrnes said.

In order to attend ERAU's ATP-CTP, you need to be enrolled in its degree program. This may change in the future, Byrnes said, but if you are looking to take the ATP written now and are already an established professional, there are other options. Aerosim in Orlando, Florida, and CAE SimuFlite in Dallas have been approved by the FAA to conduct the ATP-CTP course, and a program at Airline Transport Professionals, ATP for short, is in the works and should be available by the time you read this. Another company from Ohio that most general aviation pilots have become very familiar with, Sporty's, also quickly jumped on the ATP-CTP bandwagon.

Part of what makes the cost of the ATP-CTP course so expensive is the requirement that pilots complete a minimum of six hours of flight time in a full-motion simulator, such as this DC-9 sim at ABX Air.|

In addition to its pilot shop offerings, Sporty's has been in the flight training business since 1987. Sporty's Academy offers the ATP-CTP in Wilmington, Ohio, through ABX Air Inc., a company that Sporty's established a partnership with years ago when it began offering a degree program through the University of Cincinnati. Eric Radtke, president at Sporty's Academy, said Sporty's serves as a promoter and customer service provider while ABX delivers the training. The total cost of the program is $4,500.

Radtke said Sporty's was unsure of how popular the program would be, particularly since the requirement was only implemented on Aug. 1 of last year and many pilots crammed and completed the written test before the deadline to avoid the costly course. But the program has had a successful start. The first class, which opened its doors on Oct. 1, graduated four students, and subsequent classes were maxed out at six. A new course starts every two weeks, and Radtke said the program has been filled about two months in advance so far.

The simulator portion of the program is offered in a DC-9 sim, requiring candidates to fly on round gauges in a hands-on environment, Radtke said. While not guaranteed, students may also get some time in a Boeing 767-200 sim with a full glass panel.

Whatever route you take to complete the ATP-CTP course, the next step is to take what is now called the ATP Multiengine Airplane written exam, also called the ATM. Once the written test is passed, you have 60 months to complete the practical exam before the written test certificate expires. Since the practical test can be an expensive venture in a multi­engine airplane, many pilots wait to complete this portion until they are ready to get a type rating, which could potentially happen once the pilot has been hired by an airline or other professional flight department.

In the past, the ATP written test was good for only 24 calendar months and many pilots repeated the onerous exam before actually taking the practical. So the increased time limit is a very positive change, particularly in light of the cost of the program. Also, because the time limit has been increased, you can take the ATP-CTP course and the written test as early as age 18. However, you still need to be 21 years of age before qualifying for any of the practical ATP tests.

Also, if you fail the written exam there is thankfully no need to repeat the course. You simply need to get some additional training and an endorsement from an ATP-CTP-­qualified instructor.

If, once you have the written done, you want to complete your multi­engine ATP certificate before you get hired by a company willing to put you through a type rating, there are outfits that offer training for the multi­engine ATP practical test. Sporty's offers a program using a Piper Aztec starting at $2,295, and ATP's program, which uses a Piper Seneca, costs $4,995.

The practical exam for the ATP certificate is much like the test for the instrument rating; however, as would be expected, the tolerances for passing the exam are stricter. For example, when flying a nonprecision approach, you must maintain your minimum descent altitude (MDA) within 50 feet above and 0 feet below. The practical test for the instrument rating allows for double that deviation. You must be able to stay within the limits published in the Practical Test Standards consistently and take corrective action quickly if you exceed the limits in order to pass the test. The examiner will also put an emphasis on your ability to use crew and single-pilot resource management effectively, essential skills for an effective ATP pilot.

While most pilots get new certificates and ratings because they are required for their areas of employment, in the case of the ATP to fly passengers or cargo, there are many pilots who see new ratings as opportunities to become better pilots and to add bragging rights to their pilots' certificates. Unfortunately, the new ATP-CTP ground school requirement could be too much of a barrier for many of these pilots to get the most coveted certificate of all — the multiengine ATP.

However, there is still an opportunity for you to become an ATP-rated pilot at a very low cost. The Airline Transport Pilot Single Engine written test requirement does not require the ATP-CTP ground school. Instead you can go and take the single-engine ATP written without even getting an endorsement (for the first attempt), get the training required for the practical test at a local flight school, and schedule a time for your practical test. So if you are looking to add the prestige of the ATP as part of your next biennial flight review, you can still do it without spending a large portion of your retirement money. You just won't be quite on par with the guys up front with the epaulets.

ATP-CTP Providers

Since the ATP-CTP course requirement has been in effect only since last summer, there are just a handful of training providers that have been signed off by the FAA to provide the program. Unless you're a registered student with an approved university, you are not able to attend the course at facilities such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Here are some providers that can help you complete the ATP-CTP course, the ground and sim portions of which are generally conducted over six or seven days.

Sporty's Academy/ABX Air — ABX provides the required ground and simulator training in Wilmington, Ohio. The program is offered through Sporty's Academy, and ABX Air uses a DC-9 simulator and, in some cases, a Boeing 767-200 sim. The cost for the program is $4,500.

Aerosim Flight Academy — Aerosim is a career flight training facility in Orlando, Florida, that achieved the ATP-CTP training sign-off in October. Four of the required 10 simulator hours are conducted in a Level 4 FSTD while the remainder of the training is done in a full motion sim. The cost for the program is $4,995.

CAE SimuFlight — CAE SimuFlight has more than 35 training facilities, but at this time its ATP-CTP course is offered only in Dallas. The program uses a Falcon 900 simulator and plans to add simulators for the Embraer 190 and BBJ soon. The cost for the program is $7,900 for a crew of two.

Airline Transport Professionals — Another leader in ATP training, Airline Transport Professionals or ATP, should have its program approved by the time you read this. The required 10 hours of simulator training will take place in an MD-80 sim. The cost for the seven-day program is $4,995.

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