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Types of Pilot Licenses- The Ultimate Guide

October 14, 2020

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In the US, a pilot license is issued by the FAA and allows an individual to fly a variety of aircraft. But let's break down the specifics of the different types.

You’ve heard the terms private pilot, commercial pilot, instrument rated, multi-commercial… to someone just diving into aviation these terms can get pretty confusing. In this article we’re going to break down the different types of pilot licenses that you can earn as a pilot.

Pilot Certificate Template

To understand this, it's important to know the difference between a certificate and a rating.

This can be confusing- but to oversimplify it: A certificate is the pilot’s license, and a rating lets you do additional cool stuff with that license.

Pilot Certificate or Pilot License?

 Technically speaking, a “pilot’s license” is not proper terminology. When people say pilot’s license, they're usually referring to a certificate- although it is used so frequently that correcting it is considered pedantic (but many pilots are pedantic.)

Your certificate is what gives you flying privileges. There are multiple types of certificates, each providing additional privileges.

Ratings to add to your Pilot License

Your ratings are endorsements that expand the privileges of your certificate. Think of ratings as expansions for your pilots license. Ratings “stack” on top of each other. Ratings are much more diverse than certificates. They include your aircraft category/class rating, “type rating” for aircraft over 12,500 lbs, turbojet or turbofan, and additional operating privileges for your certificate (instrument).

This may seem overwhelming, so let’s go over some different certificates and ratings to explain things a little more clearly.

Types of Pilot Certificates (Pilot Licenses)

In the US, pilot certificates are Student, Sport, Private, Commercial, Flight Instructor, and Airline Transport Pilot. There is also a Flight Instructor certificate which may be held in addition to a pilot certificate, but we will discuss that further at the end of the article.

 Each certificate has specific requirements, including hours flown, current certificates and ratings, and certain medical requirements.

Student Pilot License

As the name implies, this pilots license is strictly for students training to obtain further certificates. A student cannot solo without a Student Pilot Certificate. There are a few requirements in order to receive a student pilot certificate.

Requirements:
  • Must be 16 years old for airplane, 14 for glider/balloon
  • Proficiency in English
  • Meet certain TSA security requirements
Limitations:
  • Only used for soloing during training for an initial pilot certificate (sport or private.)

Sport Pilot License

Sport Pilot is a certificate that allows you to fly a Light Sport Aircraft with a number of limitations. It is the only certificate in the airplane category that only requires a driver’s license, not a medical. 

Typically this certificate is ideal for individuals that do not want to go through the hassle of obtaining a medical and only wish to fly for purely recreational purposes.

Requirements:

  • Must hold a Valid Driver’s License or at least a Class 3 Medical
  • 20 hours minimum flight time logged
  • At least 17 years of age (airplane)

Limitations:

  • Only fly light sport aircraft
  • No more than 1 passenger
  • Only fly during the day, and only under 10,000 feet MSL (mean sea level.)

Private Pilot License

A Private Pilot Certificate is the go-to for most that are seeking recreational flying. You have far less limitations than the sport pilot license, can fly larger aircraft, and are not limited to just one passenger.

In order to acquire further certifications needed for flying as a career, you must start with your private pilot license.

Requirements:

  • At least a 3rd class medical
  • Be at least 17 years of age
  • At least 35 hours under part 141 and 40 hours under part 61 (What’s the difference?)

Limitations:

  • Cannot fly for commercial purposes

Sport Pilot or Private Pilot?

A common misconception is that the Sport Pilot Certificate will be cheaper and faster than the Private Pilot Certificate.

In most cases the amount of training and flight time it takes to become proficient enough to obtain the Sport Pilot Certificate is almost the same as the Private Pilot Certificate. So generally the Sport Pilot Certificate cost the same as the Private Pilot Certificate.

Commercial Pilot License

The commercial certificate is specifically for career pilots. If you want to fly as a paid service you must have your commercial certificate.

This is not the final certificate you will need as an airline pilot, but it does open up other job opportunities to you such as corporate jet, tour guide, crop-duster and other types of flying jobs. 

Interested in what types of jobs you can have as a commercial pilot? Check out our blog post about how much pilots can make.

Requirements:

  • At least a second class medical to fly for hire
  • At least 18 years of age
  • Private Pilot License
  • 190 total hours logged part 141, 250 logged part 61.

Limitations:

  • Not qualified to fly for an airline

Airline Transport Pilot License

To fly for an airline, the FAA requires you to hold an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.

This is the goal for most career pilots, and is the certificate with the most requirements. Typically if you are starting from 0 hours, it takes around 2 years to complete your Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. The biggest reason it takes so long is the required hours. 

Requirements:

  • First Class medical
  • At least 1500 hours total flight time in most cases
  • Commercial Pilot Certificate with Instrument Rating (because of this, your instrument rating is not listed on your certificate if you hold an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate.)
  • An Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program must be completed.

Limitations:

  • Can’t fly rockets to the moon... unless you own a rocket. Then you totally can.  

Note: If your goal is to become an airline pilot, check out our Zero Time to Airline program to get you there in 2 years.

Types of Ratings

Every one of these certificates comes with at least one rating (with the exception of Student Certificate.) On the physical certificate, these ratings state the “Category” and “Class”. 

Category

Category is the broad type of aircraft. Some examples of “Categories” are airplane, glider, helicopter, etc.

Class

Categories consist of “Classes”. Each category will consist of their own unique classes. For example, in the “Airplane” category you have the “single engine” class and the “multi-engine” class, as well as “land” or “sea” class.

So when you combine all of this information onto the certificate, you get the full spectrum of how and what you are permitted to fly. For example you could hold a Private pilot license with an Airplane Single Engine Land Rating (typically abbreviated to ASEL.)

Type Ratings

Stay with us, this is the last confusing part.

“Types” are a section further broken down from “Classes”. These refer to specific types of aircraft. In FAA speak, a "Type" is a make and model of aircraft such as a Cessna 172 or Piper PA28. Under the Airplane category, you must receive a specific type rating if:

•The Aircraft is Over 12,500 lbs

•The aircraft is powered by a turbojet or turbofan engine

Type ratings are listed on certificates as codes designated by the FAA.

Instrument Rating

The Instrument Rating is one of the most common ratings that pilots get which expands your permissions as a pilot. To understand the Instrument Rating, you need to know the difference between VFR and IFR.

This isn’t overly complicated to understand, VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules and IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. It gets more complicated than just weather conditions, but for the sake of this article let’s just say that VFR is for clear, cloudless days and IFR is for overcast, bad weather days.

Your instrument rating allows you to fly in clouds ("instrument meteorological conditions") and can be obtained with a minimum of a Private Pilot Certificate.

Examples

What do I need to pilot a Boeing 737?

Alright so let’s take all of this information and look at what a pilot would need to fly a common commercial airliner for an airline, a Boeing 737 for example.

The pilot would be flying as an airline transport, so his or her ATP certificate would certainly be needed.

The Boeing 737 is a multi engine land aircraft that is both over 12,500 lbs and utilizes turbofan engines, so a rating for Airplane Multi Engine Land is needed, as well as a type rating. The FAA lists the Boeing 737 type code as B-737.

So to fly the Boeing 737, a pilot needs to be an Airline Transport Pilot with an airplane multiengine land B-737 Rating. These certificates and ratings would appear as the picture below. 

B-737 Pilot License

Not an exact representation of a pilot certificate

To get to the ATP certificate needed above, the pilot would have started with a student pilot certificate to earn a private pilot license. Next they would add an instrument rating and a commercial certificate. If the training had been completed in a single engine aircraft, a multi engine class rating would also have to be earned. It is possible to start in a multi-engine aircraft, but this is very unusual.

Wow, thats a lot! What about something smaller?

Let’s look at a little less extreme example. What certificates and ratings would you need to fly you and a friend in a Cessna 172 on floats through the fog in Alaska?

The Cessna 172 is a single-engine aircraft, and since it is on floats it’s class is considered “sea”. You are not flying for compensation, so you do not need your commercial certificate.

Because there will be fog you will not be flying VFR, so will need to be rated to fly IFR. A sport pilot certificate will let you fly with a friend, but you need an instrument rating, which you can only get with private or higher.

So in this scenario the pilot needs to hold a Private Pilot Certificate with an Airplane Single Engine Sea class and Instrument Rating. The license would appear as the picture below.

Not an exact representation of a pilot certificate

Flight Instructor

We have one more topic to cover, Flight Instructor Certificate.

To obtain your Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), you will need to hold either a commercial or ATP certification. A CFI allows you to instruct students (obviously).

A common practice is to obtain your Instructor Certificate after receiving your commercial certificate and then instruct in order to finish the 1,500 hours needed for ATP certification.

Flight Instructor certificates are different than Pilot Certificates, so the FAA issues a second certificate to flight instructors. There are also Ground Instructor Certificates, which is yet another plastic certificate, but we won't get into that here.

Requirements:

  • Commercial or ATP certification
  • At least 18 years of age
  • Knowledge received according to Part 61.183

Limitations:

  • To train a student in a multi engine aircraft or toward instrument ratings, you must receive additional instructor ratings, MEI (multi engine instructor) and CFII (Certified Flight Instructor - Instrument)

This article largely focuses on the Airplane Category, so if you are interested in other categories you will need to learn more about their specific classes, types and other ratings.

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