The Different Pilot Licenses Explained
by Ralph Wetterman
Maybe you’ve been thinking about becoming a pilot but aren’t sure if you want to fly your own private jet or transport passengers on commercial planes. Whether you decide to become a pilot for fun or for a living, the bottom line is that you’re going to have to get a license.
Unlike a standard driver’s license that would allow you to hop behind the wheel of a sedan or an SUV, pilot licenses are a bit more nuanced. In the U.S., pilot certification is 100 percent mandatory for an individual to act as a pilot-in-command of an aircraft or helicopter without a solo endorsement from a CFI. It’s regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation that issues all pilot licenses.
Not that you thought you could get away with flying a plane sans credentials, right?
Student Pilot Certificate
Planes are a lot of responsibility. Becoming a pilot takes time, money and determination. Here are some key things to know.
First off, it helps to understand the legal age requirement before you start working towards your ticket to the clouds. To begin training, you must be 16 years or older (14 for glider or balloon students). Though it may sound alarming that a high school student can get a student pilot certificate, there are plenty of other steps involved. You need to be fluent in the universal language of aviation, English and obtain a 3rd class medical certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner.
Then you have to submit two forms (an Integrated Airmen Certification and Rating Application) to a Flight Standards District Office, an FAA pilot examiner, an Airmen Certification representative at an authorized flight school, or a Certified Flight Instructor. This probably already sounds like a lot of revolving doors and bureaucracy, but don’t fret! Your application will be reviewed by the Airmen Certification Branch, and you can expect receipt of the certificate by mail in approximately three weeks.
Private Pilot License
Okay, you've done your stalls and falls and simulated emergencies. Now it's time to see if you measure up for the most common pilot license issued by the FAA. To obtain it requires a valid government issued ID and a minimum of 40 hours flight time. You must pass a written exam and FAA check ride. But that’s not all. There’s more work involved, even after you pass these tests. Every two years, you must complete a 3rd class class medical exam if over 40 years old. If you’re under 40, you need to take the exam every five years.
The license itself gives you certain parameters. For instance, you can fly single-engine aircraft in clear weather under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). You may fly alone or with passengers, but you can’t be compensated for these flights more than the pro rata share. Additional training and an FAA check ride are required to become rated to fly under Instrument Flight Rule (IFR) conditions. You can also earn a seaplane rating and or tailwheel endorsement.
To become multi-engine rated, you need additional training in type and pass another check. To fly in inclement weather, you must satisfy similar IFR requirements for a private instrument rating.
But to stay proficient costs money. You're a good stick, right? So, why not get paid to fly? Here's how...
Commercial Pilot License
If you want to see a paycheck from flying, you’ll need to obtain a Commercial Pilot License. This category allows you to charge a fee for operating an aircraft. You can even fly VIPs in corporate aircraft weighing up to 12,500lbs!
To get qualified, you need to be at least 18 years old, fluent in English, pass all exams, log a minimum of 250 flight hours and undergo a more stringent, 2nd class Medical Certificate exam every 12 months. A Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) must write an endorsement stating that you’re a sound pilot and have successfully checked off your ground school courses. But that’s not all: You then must pass an FAA check ride.
You've logged a bunch of hours, flown in inclement weather and handled the unforeseen well. Now it's time to move into the passing lane: airline piloting.
Airline Transport License
To obtain a commercial airline pilot rating, complete the private and commercial license programs before applying for an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. You must be at least 23 years old and have a valid driver's license. You must have logged 1,500 hours in various weather conditions and both single- and multi-engine aircraft. In fact, 50 of those 1,500 hours must be reserved for multi-engine planes. The total hours requirement is lowered to 750 hours for former military pilots, 1,000 for graduates of university bachelor's degree programs, or 1,250 for graduates of university associate degree programs. You must complete the instrument and ground school courses and pass a 1st class medical exam every 12 months if younger than age 40, and every six months if you are over 40.
The hardest part is getting hired! While you wait to get called up, start teaching to build hours and make you more desirable than the other pilot applicant pool.
Certified Flight Instructor
A Certified Flight Instructor certificate allows you to train student pilots in the skills and knowledge required to safely fly different aircraft in various weather conditions. You must be at least 18 years old, hold an active commercial pilot license, complete ground school, pass all written exams, have an instrument rating and pass the 2nd class medical exam. More than 15 hours of Pilot-In-Command time must be logged while supervising a student, and you must be able to demonstrate in-depth instruction in such things as takeoffs, landings, unusual attitudes, and spin recovery.
An endorsement is required from your instructor stating that you have completed the above. As a CFI, you can gain employment at an educational institution, at an FAA-certified flight school, or you can even start your own flight school.
Other Licenses and Certificates
If you don't have the money, time, or need to go far and wide, you can still fly.
Recreational Pilot License
A Recreational Pilot must be at least 17 years old, pass a written and flight test and earn a medical certificate. This certificate requires only 30 flight hours and fewer hours of cross-country navigation training. You must fly within 50 nautical miles of your home base, unless you earn additional endorsements. Recreational pilots are not required to learn to fly in airspace requiring radio communication with air traffic control, at night or in instrument conditions.
Sport Pilot Certificate
A Sport Pilot License is issued to those over 17 and fluent in English. The certificate allows operation of light aircraft, gliders, gyroplanes and powered parachutes. You must have at least 20 hours of flight time and pass a relatively simple test. The Sport Pilot must possess either an FAA medical certificate or valid driver's license. This license can be earned in as little as two weeks.