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Types of Pilot License and Ratings

Updated: Jan 19


types of pilot certificate and rating, pilot certification

In the field of aviation, pilots have the opportunity to acquire various licenses, each conferring a distinct set of privileges. Typically, the journey begins with obtaining a Private Pilot License, which is the foundational step for aspiring aviators. 


For those who aim to pursue piloting as a profession, the next progression is often towards a Commercial Pilot License, enabling them to fly commercially and make a career out of their passion for flying.


Familiarizing yourself with the diverse types of pilot certifications can propel your progress in the aviation field and bolster your professional credibility. In this blog,  we explore seven pilot certifications, its pros and cons and gain insights into potential career paths within the dynamic aviation industry.


What is a Pilot License?

A pilot license serves as an official document confirming your qualification to operate specific types of aircraft under certain conditions. Similar to how driver's licenses operate, each category of pilot license comes with its own set of limitations. 


For example, just as a standard driver’s license doesn’t permit the holder to operate commercial vehicles like 18-wheelers for monetary gain, various pilot licenses also have specific restrictions based on their class and scope.


7 Types of Pilot Certificates:

Here's an overview of pilot certificates and ratings in the United States, as regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)


1. Student Pilot Certificate

The Student Pilot Certificate is akin to a learner’s permit in driving. It is issued following a written exam and enables aspiring pilots to act as pilot in command of basic light aircraft or other specified categories.


Obtaining the certificate is a straightforward process, and many aspiring pilots typically acquire it through an online application on the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website.


Cost: 

Application to the FAA is free, but meeting the medical requirement is necessary. This entails using your driver’s license for a sport pilot certificate or obtaining a third-class medical certificate for private or recreational pilot certificates.


Timeframe:

  • Scheduling a medical appointment (if required) and application time must be considered.

  • Application should be done at the beginning of training through IACRA (Integrated Airman Certificate and Rating Application).

  • The certificate is typically issued within approximately 3 weeks, subject to FAA processing times.


Minimum Age Requirements:

  • General: 16 years old.

  • For gliders or balloons: 14 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Required, except for sport pilots.

  • A third-class medical certificate is necessary.


Restrictions:

  • Solo flying is not permitted.

  • Flying with passengers, other than an instructor, is prohibited.


2. Sports Pilot Certificate:

The Sport Pilot Certificate is designed for individuals interested in flying only light sport aircraft, which can be either factory-built or homebuilt. This certificate is more accessible and less costly than a Private Pilot Certificate due to fewer training hours required. However, it does not allow for additional ratings. To operate larger aircraft, pilots must advance to a Private Pilot Certification.


Cost:

  • Range: $4,000 to $8,000.


Timeframe:

  • Typically under one month.


Minimum Age Requirement:

  • 16 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Not required if the applicant holds a valid driver's license or meets BasicMed criteria.


Minimum Logged Hours:

  • 20 hours.


Restrictions:

  • Limited to operating light sport aircraft (LSA).

  • Prohibited from flying at night.

  • Cannot receive compensation for flying.

  • Limited to a maximum of one passenger.


3. Recreational Pilot Certificate:

The Recreational Pilot Certificate closely resembles the Sport Pilot Certificate but differs in allowing the operation of larger and heavier aircraft, certified under Part 23, as opposed to just Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs). The primary distinctions lie in the required flight hours for certification and the mandatory medical examination.


Cost:

  • Range: $5,000 to $9,000.


Timeframe:

  • Typically 1 to 2 months.


Minimum Age Requirement:

  • 16 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Required.

  • Must obtain a third-class medical certificate.


Minimum Logged Hours:

  • 30 hours.


Restrictions:

  • Limited to flying within 50 nautical miles of the home airport, unless additional endorsements are obtained.

  • Prohibited from entering airspace that requires communication with air traffic control.

  • Cannot receive compensation for flying.

  • Limited to a maximum of one passenger.


4. Private Pilot Certificate:

The Private Pilot License is the most prevalent type of pilot certificate in the United States. It grants the privilege to carry multiple passengers and operate a diverse range of aircraft, including high-performance models, provided the pilot obtains the necessary endorsements and ratings. Holders of a PPL are also authorized to fly in and out of controlled airports beyond their home base.


Cost:

  • Range: $9,000 to $15,000.


Timeframe:

  • Minimum: 6 months.

  • Maximum: 1 year.


Minimum Age Requirement:

  • 16 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Mandatory.

  • Requires a third-class medical certificate or compliance with BasicMed.


Minimum Logged Hours:

  • 35 hours.


Restrictions:

  • Cannot receive compensation for flying activities.

  • Additional ratings required for specific types of flight or aircraft operations, such as:

  • Multi-engine aircraft.

  • Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).

  • Endorsements are necessary to qualify for flying high-performance and/or complex aircraft.


5. Commercial Pilot Certificate:

While many associate commercial pilots with flying large airliners, a Commercial Pilot Certificate is broader and is necessary for anyone wishing to be compensated for their flying services. This includes various roles such as aerial firefighting, working for Border Patrol, or other solo operations that are compensated, all of which require a commercial certificate. To pilot large jets for major airlines, obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate is essential beyond the commercial certification.


Cost:

  • Range: $50,000 to $70,000 for individuals starting with no prior experience.

  • Additional expenses are involved for acquiring specific ratings and endorsements.


Timeframe:

  • Typically 6 to 9 months, subsequent to obtaining a Private Pilot Certificate.


Minimum Age Requirement:

  • 18 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Mandatory.

  • Requires a second-class medical certificate.


Minimum Logged Hours:

  • 250 hours.


Restrictions:

  • Limited to operating aircraft for hire with a restricted number of passenger seats and under specific operating conditions.


Prerequisites and Additional Certificates:

  • A Private Pilot Certificate is a prerequisite for commencing commercial pilot training.

  • Possessing an instrument rating removes certain restrictions on the commercial certificate, allowing for operations beyond 50 nautical miles from the departure airport and enabling night operations.


6. Certified Flight Instructor Certificate (CFI)

A Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) is an individual authorized by the FAA to teach aspiring pilots. To instruct in specific areas, such as instrument flight rules (IFR) or multi-engine aircraft, CFIs must obtain relevant ratings, enabling them to teach and endorse students in those specific areas.


Cost:

  • Range: $5,000 to $10,000.

  • This is in addition to the costs incurred for obtaining private and commercial pilot certifications.


Timeframe:

  • Typically 2 to 4 months, including time spent earning private and commercial pilot certifications.


Minimum Age Requirement:

  • 18 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Required.

  • A third-class medical certificate or compliance with BasicMed under certain conditions is necessary. However, a medical certificate is not required if not acting as Pilot in Command (PIC).


Minimum Logged Hours:

  • 250 hours.


Restrictions:

  • CFIs must obtain specific ratings to instruct in areas such as instrument flight and multi-engine aircraft operations.


Prerequisite Certifications:

  • Possession of a Private Pilot Certificate.

  • Holding a Commercial Pilot Certificate.


7. Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate:

The Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certification represents the highest level of pilot certification. ATP certified pilots are qualified to fly large commercial aircraft, transporting hundreds of passengers on long-haul flights globally. With this certification, along with appropriate type ratings, recency of experience, and endorsements, pilots can operate almost any civilian aircraft, barring military aircraft.


Cost:

  • Range: $80,000 to $150,000.

  • This includes the costs of completing private, commercial, and instrument certifications and ratings, as well as accumulating necessary flight hours.


Timeframe:

  • Accumulating the required 1,500 logged hours can take several years.

  • The ATP training itself typically lasts about 1 year, especially when undertaken through a structured program.


Minimum Age Requirement:

  • 23 years old.


Medical Examination:

  • Mandatory.

  • Requires a first-class medical certificate.


Minimum Logged Hours:

  • 1,500 hours.


Restrictions:

  • Specific type ratings are necessary to fly certain aircraft.

  • Maintaining recency of experience is crucial for operating as an ATP for hire or as Pilot in Command (PIC).


Prerequisites Certificates:

  • A Private Pilot Certificate is required.

  • A Commercial Pilot Certificate with an instrument rating is necessary to accumulate the required flight experience.


Pilot Ratings and Endorsements

Every pilot license, except for the student pilot certificate, includes at least one rating. These ratings are categorized into aircraft category, class, and type.


1. Category: 

This is a broad classification of aircraft, including seven types for pilot certification:

  • Airplane: Engine-driven, fixed-wing, heavier-than-air, relying on air dynamics against wings for flight.

  • Rotorcraft: Heavier-than-air, primarily supported by lift from one or more rotors.

  • Glider: Heavier-than-air, dependent on air dynamics against lifting surfaces, not primarily engine-driven.

  • Lighter-than-air: Capable of staying airborne using gas lighter than air.

  • Powered-lift: Heavier-than-air, capable of vertical takeoff/landing, using engine-driven lift or thrust.

  • Powered Parachute: Has a flexible/semi-rigid wing, propelled by an engine, with wing deployment during motion.

  • Weight-shift-control: Powered, with a framed pivoting wing, control through pilot’s shift of the center of gravity.


2. Class: 

Refers to a classification within a category with similar operating characteristics. For example, in the airplane category, classes include Single-engine land, Multi-engine land, Single-engine sea, and Multi-engine sea.


3. Type: 

Specific to a make and model of aircraft requiring specialized training, especially for aircraft over 12,500 Ibs MGTOW or with turbojet engines. Examples include Boeing 737, Airbus 320, Embraer 170.


For example:

  • The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is an airplane (category) in the Single-engine Land (class).

  • The de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter is an airplane (category) in the Multiengine Sea (class).


Operational Privilege Ratings:

  • Instrument Rating (IR): Allows flight under instrument flight rules (IFR), enabling flying by instrument reference. This requires intensive training.


Endorsements:

  • These are logbook entries made by instructors, signifying completion of ground and/or flight training. They are essential for certification testing and specific operational privileges.


Understanding Pilot Certificates vs. Licenses

In the aviation community, the terms "certificate" and "license" are often used interchangeably when referring to pilot qualifications. However, is there a difference between these two terms?


Dictionary Definitions:

  • License: According to Merriam-Webster, a 'license' is defined as a document that gives permission from an authority to engage in a business, occupation, or activity that would otherwise be unlawful.

  • Certificate: In contrast, a 'certificate' is a document certifying that an individual has met specific requirements and is qualified to practice in a particular field.


While these definitions appear similar, they subtly differ in their emphasis and application.


FAA Terminology:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the governing body for aviation in the United States, actually uses both terms on its website. However, in an official FAA safety briefing, the term 'certificate' is identified as the correct terminology for what pilots obtain.

  • Despite this, the term 'license' remains widely used, particularly when discussing private and higher levels of pilot certification.


Ultimately, while the FAA prefers 'certificate', both terms are widely understood and used within the aviation industry to refer to a pilot's qualifications. Whether a pilot holds a 'certificate' or a 'license', the key is that they have met the necessary standards and requirements set by the authority to operate an aircraft.


How Can One Reduce the Pilot Certification Cost? 

For aspiring pilots, smart financial planning is essential when considering pilot certification due to the significant associated costs. Begin by comparing transparent pricing structures among various flight schools, encompassing tuition, aircraft rental, and instructor fees. 


Develop a comprehensive budget covering not just training expenses but also living costs, materials, exams, and potential additional fees. Explore financial aid, scholarships, and specialized aviation education loans. Consider part-time training to spread costs over an extended period. Utilize self-study before ground school, explore flight simulator options, and join aviation organizations for potential discounts. 


Key Takeaways: Types of Pilot Licenses 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offers a variety of pilot licenses, each tailored with specific requirements, privileges, and limitations, to cater to the diverse needs of aviators. These licenses are accompanied by ratings, which determine the type of aircraft and the operational privileges a pilot is authorized to exercise. 


When selecting a pilot certificate, it is crucial to consider both the type of aircraft you aspire to fly and your intended aviation activities, as different licenses are required for different aircraft and purposes. 


For example, a Private Pilot License (PPL) provides broader privileges compared to a sport pilot certificate. Additionally, it's essential for licensed pilots to always carry their pilot license when operating an aircraft to ensure compliance with FAA regulations.

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