Are you ready for takeoff?
If you’re interested in learning to fly airplanes and getting your pilot’s license, the first step will be deciding which license is right for you. There are several different types of pilot licenses, so this can get confusing for someone who is new to the world of aviation. Please note that the official term for what we typically call a pilot’s license is technically a pilot’s certificate.
These different licenses (or certificates) determine:
- The types of aircraft you’re allowed to fly
- How far you’re allowed to fly
- When you’re allowed to fly (Day vs. Night, etc)
- Much, Much, More
Here is an overview of each of the 7 types of pilot licenses and the requirements to obtain each. Keep in mind that this is intended as a summary of each certificate so you can get an idea of which might be best for you now and down the road.
Student Pilot Certificate
As you begin your journey to become a pilot, this will likely be the first certificate you earn. Although you do not need a student pilot certificate to start taking lessons and fly with your instructor, a student pilot certificate allows you to fly alone under certain circumstances. This is basically a learners permit for future pilots.
According to the FAA, here are the requirements to be eligible for a student pilot certificate:
- You must be at least 16 years old (If you plan to pilot a glider or balloon, you only have to be 14 years old)
- You must be able to read, speak, and understand English
- You must then fill out and submit an application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application Website (IACRA) or fill out a paper application using FAA form 8710-1 and submit it to a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), an FAA designated pilot examiner, an airman certification representative associated with a part 141 flight school, or a certificated flight instructor.
You should then receive your student pilot certificate by mail in about 3 weeks. If you want to speed this process up, make sure to use the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application website (IACRA).
Sport Pilot Certificate
The Sport Pilot Certificate is the next easiest to earn of the pilot certificates. This certificate is used to fly certain aircraft that fall under the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category. This includes small airplanes with up to 2 seats, gyroplanes, glider, rotorcraft, and powered parachute.
This is the most restrictive certificate next to the Student Pilot Certificate. Restrictions for the Sport Pilot Certificate include:
- Only being able to fly aircraft under a certain weight
- Prohibited from flying at an altitude over 10,000 feet
- Can only fly during the day
- Allowed only in specific airspace
The requirements to get this certificate are also easier than others. This includes just 20 total hours of flight time with 5 of those hours being solo and the remaining 15 being with an instructor. In addition, you must pass an FAA Sport Pilot Knowledge test and FAA Sport Pilot Practical test.
This certificate also usually does not require FAA Medical Exam as long as the applicant has a current valid Driver’s License.
The Sport Pilot Certificate is a great starting point for someone looking to get their feet wet in flying small aircraft until they move on to get a more advanced certificate.
Recreational Pilot Certificate
The Recreational Pilot Certificate is the next step up from the Sport Pilot Certificate but is not a full Private Pilot Certificate. This allows you to fly aircraft that are heavier than a Light Sport Aircraft, but still has many limitations. These limitations include:
- Flights less than 50 nautical miles of departure airport
- Only being allowed to fly during the day
- Not being able to fly into controlled airports (A,B,C, or D airspace)
This is a good option for someone who wants to fly short flights as a hobby, but wants to do so in larger aircraft than a Light Sport Aircraft.
The requirements to obtain a Recreational Pilot Certificate include:
- Pass a required oral and practical flight test administered by a FAA designated examiner.
- Pass a knowledge check
- Currently hold either a Student Pilot Certificate or a Sport Pilot Certificate
- Complete 30 hours of flight time which must include 15 hours of flight training, 3 hours of solo time, and at least 2 hours of cross-country flight
Private Pilot Certificate
The next certificate on the list, the Private Pilot Certificate is also one of the most common. A common analogy of this certificate is that of the regular driver’s license you have for your car. It allows you to do much more than the previous certificates discussed including flying at night, into airports, flying with passengers, and the ability to fly most airplanes.
Although you can do much more than with other certificates, The Private Pilot Certification does not allow you to be compensated as a pilot or in some specific weather conditions.
This is the certificate most people think of when they think of getting their pilot’s license.
The requirements for obtaining a Private Pilot Certificate include much more training and a medical exam. The training includes over 40 hours of flight time which includes flying solo, at night, cross-country, take-offs, landings, and more.
Commercial Pilot Certificate
A Commercial Pilot Certificate allows you to be compensated as a pilot. With this certificate you are allowed to take on charter flights, freight planes, tow banners, and similar activities. It does not allow you to fly scheduled aircraft
As you can imagine, this certificate requires much training and flight time due to how complex the aircraft and procedures are at this level.
In addition to being required to hold a private pilot certificate, this certificate requires over 250 hours of flight time, written exams, medical exams, and more. This is the real deal. If you have interest in flying as a profession as opposed to a hobby, this is a great goal to work towards as it will allow you to become a professional pilot.
Flight Instructor Certificate
If you dream of someday becoming a commercial airline pilot, then this is likely the next step for you. This certificate allows you to gain experience, record more flight hours, and get paid as a flight instructor while you work towards becoming a commercial airline pilot.
This path makes sense for a lot of pilots since it allows you to not only learn more advanced skills, but get paid while you do it. The next (and final) certificate on this list requires many hours of training and flight time, so getting that time in the air is easier to accomplish when working as a flight instructor instead of having to pay for flight time.
The requirements to earn your Flight Instructor Certificate include:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Fluent in English
- Currently hold a Airline Transport Certificate or Commercial Pilot Certificate
- Pass the Fundamentals of Instruction exam (FOI)
- Pass the FAA Flight Instructor Knowledge exam
As you can see, this certificate requires a lot of hard work and dedication. But, if you plan to advance your career as a pilot, it can be well worth it.
Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
The Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP) is the top-tier of pilot certificates. This is the certificate that allows your to be a commercial airline pilot. All commercial airlines require the ATP certification in order to be a pilot with them.
As you can imagine, this is the most difficult, time consuming, and in depth of the pilot certifications. The requirements to earn the Airline Transport Certificate include:
- At least 1500 hours of flight time with 250 of those hours as pilot-in-command
- A Commercial Pilot Certificate
- Be at least 23 years old
This just goes to show how much experience the pilot’s have whenever you take a commercial flight.
As you can see, there are several different types of licenses (or certifications) and they each serve their own purpose. If you’ve always wanted to learn to fly, I would strongly recommend you reach out to a couple of flight schools to discuss what might work best for you. Flying airplanes can be a great hobby as well as a rewarding career.
For more information on becoming a pilot, take a look at the FAA’s site where they go into detail on your first steps to becoming a pilot. Visit them here.
Good luck out there!