FAA Certificates

(in order of increasing complexity)

In the United States, the authorization to fly an aircraft is called a Pilot’s Certificate. Just like a driver’s license, its level determines your privileges and limitations. In addition to that, each certificate can have what’s called ratings. They further specify what category and class of aircraft you are allowed to fly, for example a glider, or an airplane, or a hot air balloon. Ratings also specify in what weather conditions you are allowed to fly. Some types of aircraft, such as turbo-jet airplanes or heavy aircraft require their own type ratings. What follows is only a brief description of certificates and ratings. The full list of their requirements and limitations can be found in Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR). FAR is the law governing all aspects of aviation in the country.

Let’s start with some terms that you will need:

VMC – Visual Meteorological Conditions – weather conditions with minimum of 3 miles visibility and cloud bases no lower than 1,000 feet above ground.

IMC – Instrument Meteorological Conditions – weather conditions with visibility less than 3 miles and/or cloud bases lower than 1,000 feet above ground.

ATC – Air Traffic Control – collective name for all facilities directing the flow of air traffic.

Solo flight, or simply Solo – flight with only student pilot on board (no instructor) before taking a practical test flight for a certificate or a rating. Most certificates require a certain number of solo hours flown to qualify.

Before starting taking lessons, you need to decide which category of aircraft attracts you most of all. This decision can be dictated in part by such factors as minimum age restrictions or by medical certificate requirements. For example, a pilot can exercise privileges of a Sport Pilot Certificate with only valid Driver's License provided he/she never applied for an FAA medical certificate or was never denied one. Pilots of gliders and balloons are not subject to medical certification at all.

Minimum age for a Private Pilot Certificate in a glider or a hot air balloon is 16, in all other categories – 17. Minimum age to solo in a glider or in a hot air balloon is 14, in all other categories – 16. It creates an opportunity for teenagers to get busy with a serious activity during critical periods of their lives. It helps them to develop responsibility and possibly choose their future profession.

Recreational Pilot Certificate. This is the most limited certificate. It lets you fly only within 50 miles from the departure airport and only in day VMC. It prohibits flight in airspace requiring radio communication with ATC. Thanks to the recent changes in regulations, both the 50-mile and the communication restrictions can be removed by taking additional training and receiving appropriate endorsements from an authorized instructor. Even though other limitations remain, this certificate is much more attractive for recreational flying now than before. Requires total of 30 flight hours. Approximate cost is $5,000.

Sport Pilot Certificate. This certificate was born thanks to the long-term efforts of Experimental Aircraft Association. It opens doors to aviation to people who otherwise would never fly. The main feature of this certificate is that it doesn't require an FAA Medical Certificate, only a valid driver's license, but only if you never applied for an FAA Medical Certificate or never had it denied. Just like a Recreational Pilot Certificate, it prohibits flight in airspace requiring radio communication with ATC but it doesn't have the 50-mile limitation and comes with full cross-country privileges. It also has a day VMC only limitation and you are allowed to fly only specially certified light-sport or home-build aircraft (low performance two-seaters with low maximum gross weight) or normally certified aircraft conforming to light-sport aircraft limitations. Requires total of 20 flight hours. Approximate cost is $4,000.

Private Pilot Certificate. This is the starting point for most pilots. The most experienced airline captains started with this certificate too. It lets you fly only for private purposes in all airspace below 18,000 feet and only in VMC. You may not receive compensation for your services as a pilot, but you can share flight expenses with your passengers. Requires total of 40 flight hours. The cost is from $8,000 to $9,000. If you train 1-2 times a week, it takes about 5-7 months. If you train full time, it takes about 3-4 months.

Summary of certificates for recreational flying

Privileges or limitations

Sport Pilot

Recreational Pilot

Private Pilot

Total flight hours required

20

30

40

Minimum Medical Certification

Valid US driver's license

3rd class FAA Medical Certificate

3rd class FAA Medical Certificate

Radio communication allowed?

With additional training

With additional training

Yes

Cross-country limitations

No limitations

Limited to within 50 miles; no limitations with additional training

No limitations

Aircraft limitations

Max. 1320 lbs max. gross weight, max. speed 120 kts.

max. 180 hp

No limitations

Max number of passengers

1

3

No limitations

Flight above clouds allowed?

No

No

Yes

Night flight allowed?

No

No

Yes

 

Instrument Rating. This rating is usually added to the Private Pilot Certificate, but you can add it at the commercial level. It allows you to fly in IMC. To receive this rating you need to hold at least a Private Pilot Certificate and have about 90 flight hours. The exact number depends on the kind of flying you have done up to this point. The cost is about $7,000. If you train 1-2 times a week, it takes about 3-4 months. If you train full time, it takes about 1 month.

Commercial Pilot Certificate. This is a certificate allowing employment as a pilot. It could be cargo or passenger transportation, aerial photography, scenic flights, agricultural operations and so on. For more information see the chapter on Career in Aviation. Prerequisites are a Private Pilot Certificate and total of 250 flight hours. Minimum age is 18 years old. The cost depends on how you acquire the necessary hours plus about $3,000. If you train 1-2 times a week, it takes about 2-3 months. If you train full time, it takes about 1 month.

Airline Transport Pilot Certificate. This certificate is required only to serve as a captain on a commercial aircraft. To start as a First Officer all you need is a Commercial Pilot Certificate. Prerequisites are a Commercial Pilot Certificate and 1,500 total flight hours. Minimum age is 23 years old. The cost depends on how you acquire the necessary hours plus about $4,000. If you train 1-2 times a week, it takes about 4-5 months. If you train full time, it takes about 2-3 months.

Multi-engine Rating. This rating allows flying aircraft with two or more engines. It can be added to a Private or Commercial Pilot Certificates. It can also be acquired concurrently with applying for these certificates as well as for the Instrument Rating. If you add this rating to an existing certificate, the cost is about $3,000 and it takes about a month part-time, 2 weeks full-time. If you train for a Private or Commercial Certificates in a multi-engine airplane, higher rental cost of a multi-engine airplane must be factored in the corresponding numbers.

Certified Flight Instructor.  Technically speaking this is not a pilot certificate. It is an additional certificate letting you teach people to fly. You need to have a Commercial Pilot Certificate with Instrument Rating to apply. Many pilots consider this certificate the most difficult one requiring special efforts and concentration during training. The cost is about $5,000. If you train 1-2 times a week, it takes about 6 months. If you train full time, it takes about 2-3 months.

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