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The Difference Between Category, Class, and Type of Aircraft Every Pilot Must Know

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When I first started my flight training I found it difficult to remember the difference between category, class, and type of aircraft. 

If you’re a new pilot, hopefully this guide helps you learn and remember the differences.

One of the most confusing things the FAA does—and there are many, by the way—is how they divide up aircraft. The FAA oversees the entire US airspace system, which means they deal with everything from drones and airliners to military fighters and hot air balloons. 

Then, think of all the things the FAA does with these various aircraft types. They certify them to fly (airworthiness certificates) but also certify people to fly them (airman certificates). 

So, it’s understandable that the FAA classification system is a little confusing. Never fear! We’re here to clarify the differences and tell you everything you need to know about categories, classes, and types of aircraft.

Airworthiness Certificates for Aircraft

Every aircraft you fly has an airworthiness certificate. 

It’s issued by the FAA to show that your plane was found to be airworthy when it was built. The exact certification process and what standards it had to meet depend on what category of airworthiness certificate it gets.

Categories of Airworthiness Certificate

The category of airworthiness certificate depends on the broad grouping of its intended use and what operating limitations it will have. Examples include normal, acrobatic, utility, transport, limited, restricted, and provisional.

Classes for Airworthiness Certificate

Groups of aircraft with similar propulsion, flight, or landing characteristics. These include airplane, rotorcraft, glider, or balloon.

Types for Airworthiness Certificates

This is the make and model of the plane. Examples are Cessna C-172 or Piper PA-28.

Examples of Airworthiness Certificates

Utility, Airplane, Cessna C-152

Transport, Airplane, Boeing 787

Normal, Rotorcraft, Robinson R22

Category, class, and type of aircraft a private pilot must know

Airman Certificates for Pilots

Now, forget all of that for a second and let’s look at airmen certificates for pilots. 

The categories, classes, and types of AIRMAN certificates are different, but some of them sound the same! Let’s look at what you can expect to see on your card as you pass those checkrides.

Categories of Airman Certificate

For pilots, the category of aircraft is the overall grouping. Common examples are airplane, glider, rotorcraft, and lighter-than-air. There are also powered lift, weight-shift controlled, and powered parachute.

Classes of Airman Certificate

The class is a more specific description, narrowing down the category. That makes sense since not all airplanes are the same. 

Category—Possible classes

Airplane—Single-engine land, single-engine sea, multi-engine land, multi-engine sea

Glider—None

Rotorcraft—Helicopter, gyroplane

Lighter-than-air—Balloon, airship

Powered lift—None

Category, class, and type of aircraft

Types for Airman Certificates

The type of aircraft is the make and model, but it only appears on an airman certificate if you are required to have a type rating. 

Type ratings are only required for large or turbine-powered aircraft. The FAA defines a large aircraft as weighing more than 12,500 pounds (maximum takeoff weight).

Many planes are designed to be similar enough that one type rating will suffice, so some type ratings allow you to operate several models. 

This is true of the entire A320 family (A318, A319, A320, A321) and the B757 and B767. The FAA maintains a list of possible type ratings on its website. 

When you start your pilot career, you’re flying light aircraft that don’t require a type rating. Most pilots don’t have a type put on their license until they get an airline or charter job flying their first jets.

Student Pilot Certificate

Notes About Pilot Certificates

Here are a few other things you should know about all those categories and classes on your pilot certificate.

These groups are independent of the type of license you have. Types of pilot certificates that the FAA issues are Sport, Private, Commercial, and Airline Transport Pilot (ATP). 

Each item you add to your pilot certificate is a rating. One other rating is added to your category rating: the instrument rating.

If you want to add a new rating, it generally involves more flight training, building aeronautical experience, taking another checkride (practical exam), and sometimes another written (knowledge exam).

The privileges of your license do not necessarily apply to all of your ratings, depending on how you take your checkrides. For example, if you skip the single-engine checkride for your ATP, you might get an ATP, Airplane, Multi-engine with Commercial privileges for Airplane Single-engine. You would need to take the single-engine ATP checkride to get ATP privileges all around. 

Fun fact: According to Flight Aware, the Guinness Record Holder for a pilot with the most ratings is Capt. Robert Briggs. As of 2021, Briggs had 19,000 flight hours logged with 105 different ratings, 99 of them at the ATP level! 

Examples of Pilot Certificates

Airline Transport Pilot, Airplane, Single- and multi-engine, A320

Private Pilot, Airplane, Single-engine land, Instrument

Commercial Pilot, Lighter-than-air, Airship

Commercial Pilot, Rotorcraft, Helicopter
Reference: FAA Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowlege, Chapter 1 Introduction to Flying

If you want to go deeper on this subject, check out our list of the best pilot books for beginners.

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