The FAA offers a progression of pilot certificates, each with its own set of privileges and limitations.
A student pilot certificate is issued by an aviation medical examiner (AME) at the time of the student’s first medical examination; for operations not requiring a medical certificate, a student pilot certificate can be issued by an FAA inspector or an FAA-designated pilot examiner. The student pilot certificate is only required when exercising solo flight privileges. The student certificate is valid until the last day of the month, 24 or 60 months (depending on age) after it was issued. Once a student has accrued sufficient training and experience, a CFI can endorsethe student's certificate to authorize limited solo flight in a specific type (make and model) of aircraft. A student pilot may not carry passengers, fly in furtherance of a business, or operate an aircraft outside of the various endorsements provided by the flight instructor.
There is no minimum aeronautical knowledge or experience requirement for the issuance of a student pilot certificate other than the medical requirements for the class of medical certificate (see below) the student certificate is based upon. There are, however, minimum aeronautical knowledge and experience requirements for student pilots to solo, including:
The Sport Pilot certificate was created in September 2004 after years of work by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). The intent of the new rule was to lower the barriers of entry into aviation and make flying more affordable and accessible.
The new rule also created the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category of aircraft which are smaller, lower-powered aircraft. The sport pilot certificate offers limited privileges mainly for recreational use. It is the only powered aircraft certificate that does not require a medical certificate; a valid vehicle driver's license can be used as proof of medical competence PROVIDED the prospective pilot was not rejected for their last Airman Medical Certificate (see Sport Pilot Catch 22).
Before a trainee can start the solo phase of flight training, a Student Sport Pilot Certificate must be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These may be obtained from an FAA Flight Standards District Office or FAA Designated Pilot Examiner.
To qualify for the Sport pilot certificate, an applicant must:
The above requirements are for heavier-than-air powered aircraft (airplanes). The requirements for gliders, balloons, helicopters, and dirigibles vary slightly.
Sport Pilots are only eligible to fly aircraft that are either certified specifically as light-sport aircraft (LSA) or were certified prior to the LSA regulations and are within the maximum weight and performance limitations of light-sport aircraft.
The restrictions placed on a Pilot exercising the privileges of a Sport pilot certificate are:
The Sport pilot certificate is also ineligible for additional ratings (such as an Instrument rating), although time in light-sport aircraft can be used towards the experience requirement of other ratings on higher certificate types.
The recreational pilot certificate requires less training and offers fewer privileges than the private certificate. It was originally created for flying small single-engine planes, and has since been largely supplanted by the Sport Pilot certificate. It is significantly more restrictive than a private pilot certificate. The holder is restricted to 50 nautical miles from his field of departure and from operating in the vicinity of airports with a control tower, though these restrictions can be lifted with additional training and endorsements.
The private pilot certificate is the certificate held by the majority of active pilots. It allows command of any aircraft (subject to appropriate ratings) for any non-commercial purpose, and gives almost unlimited authority to fly under visual flight rules (VFR). Passengers may be carried and flight in furtherance of a business is permitted; however, a private pilot may not be compensated in any way for services as a pilot, although passengers can pay a pro rata share of flight expenses, such as fuel or rental costs. Private pilots may also operate charity flights, subject to certain restrictions, and may participate in similar activities, such as Angel Flight, Civil Air Patrol and many others.
The requirements to obtain a private pilot certificate for "airplane, single-engine, land", or ASEL, (which is the most common certificate) are:
A commercial pilot may be compensated for flying. Training for the certificate focuses on a better understanding of aircraft systems and a higher standard of airmanship. The commercial certificate itself does not allow a pilot to fly in instrument meteorological conditions. For aircraft categories where an instrument rating is available, commercial pilots without an instrument rating are restricted to daytime flight within 50 nautical miles (93 km) when flying for hire.
A commercial airplane pilot must be able to operate a complex airplane, as a specific number of hours of complex (or turbine-powered) aircraft time are among the prerequisites, and at least a portion of the practical examination is performed in a complex aircraft.
The requirements are:
By itself, this certificate does not permit the pilot to set up an operation that carries members of the public for hire; such operations are governed by other regulations. Otherwise, a commercial pilot can be paid for certain types of operation, such as banner towing, agricultural applications, and photography, and can be paid for instructing if he holds a flight instructor certificate. To fly for hire, the pilot must hold a second class medical certificate, which is valid for 12 months.
Often, the commercial certificate will reduce the pilot’s insurance premiums, as it is evidence of training to a higher safety standard.