Types of Pilot Licenses Explained (Student, Recreational, Private, Commercial, ATP, and more)
Most people use the terms certificate and license interchangeably when discussing the different types of pilot licenses. Are they just two ways to say the same thing, though?
After all, becoming a pilot means learning how to get things right.
Let’s see what a good old dictionary says:
Among other meanings, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘license’ as a document evidencing permission granted by competent authority to engage in a business, an occupation, or an activity otherwise unlawful.
On the other hand, ‘certificate’ means a document certifying that one has fulfilled the requirements of and may practice in a field.
Granted, the definitions are quite similar, but which one do you think seems more appropriate for pilots?
If you feel puzzled, don’t worry, even the Federal Aviation Administration uses both on its website.
However, according to an FAA safety briefing, the correct term is ‘certificate’.
Still, using ‘license’ is quite popular, especially for private and higher pilot certification.
Now we got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the different types of pilot licenses. Oops, certificates.
Common Requirements for Most Types of Pilot Licenses
Most types of pilot licenses in the US share a few common requirements.
To start with, obtaining any airman certificate requires you to be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) even required the FAA to issue an English proficiency endorsement on several types of airmen certificates in 2008.
The requirement applies to private, commercial, and airline transport pilots, as well as flight engineers and navigators who fly internationally.
The majority of pilots also need a medical certificate to exercise the privileges of their pilot certificate. Interestingly, the FAA started issuing BasicMed for general aviation (GA) pilots as an alternative to the third-class medical certificate in 2017.
Nearly every pilot must meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Receive proper ground instruction, flight training, and logbook endorsements
- Pass the appropriate aeronautical knowledge and practical tests
Other than English proficiency, the aforementioned requirements apply to most types of pilot licenses.
But not all. What are the exceptions?
Let’s start with the first one.
Student Pilot Certificate
As in most professions, pilots start as students.
The student pilot certificate is a “license to learn”, it entails no ground instruction, flight training, or knowledge test.
However, you need to be at least 16 years old (or 14 for glider or balloon) for its issuance.
It’s easy to get the certificate, and most budding pilots obtain it through an online application on the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website.
What’s the certificate good for?
You can’t do much with a student pilot certificate, in fact, you only need it before you can fly solo.
But it’s a necessary step to obtain higher pilot certification.
Sport Pilot Certificate
If you’re getting into aviation for the fun of it, a sport pilot certificate is the easiest route.
Besides the common requirements, getting your sport pilot certificate requires you to be:
- Be at least 17 years old (or 16 for glider or balloon)
- Log a minimum of 20 flight hours
- Hold a valid US State driver’s license or at least a third-class medical certificate
As a sport pilot, your privileges are limited.
You may pilot aircraft with a Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) of 1320 pounds, carry no more than one passenger, and fly only during the daytime up to 10,000 feet MSL (or 2,000 AGL).
Furthermore, you may fly only Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) and you’re not eligible for additional ratings.
Recreational Pilot Certificate
With fewer than 150 recreational pilots in the US, the recreational pilot certificate is on its way to becoming obsolete in the near future.
But for the time being, the FAA still issues the certificate.
In addition to the common requirements discussed earlier, getting your recreational certificate requires you to:
- Be at 17 years is the minimum age for any aircraft
- Log a minimum of flight 30 hours
- Have either a student or sport pilot certificate
Nearly the same restrictions of the sport pilot certificate apply to the recreational one.
So, how’s it any different?
Two words: instructor endorsements.
You can lift most limitations through the completion of a prescribed training course with an FAA-certified flight instructor.
Private Pilot License (PPL)
If the restrictions of the sport and recreational certificates sound too limiting to you, then you should consider getting a private pilot license.
Obtaining your PPL requires you to meet the following (and the common requirements to boot):
- Be at least 17 years old (or 16 for glider or balloon)
- Hold either a student, sport, or recreational pilot certificate
- Have at least a third-class medical certificate
Additionally, you must log a minimum of 35 or 40 flight hours. Why two figures? Because it depends on whether the flight school is Part 61 or Part 141.
Want to get your license in as few hours as possible?
Studying aviation theory helps reduce the time to master flight maneuvers. A great option for that is taking an interactive ground school, such as the private airplane pilot course on Pilotinstitute.com.
Here’s the cool part about your PPL, though:
You can fly any aircraft, so long as you receive appropriate training, for non-commercial purposes. Moreover, you can pilot aircraft in almost any VFR condition, fly at night, and carry several passengers.
Better yet, you can add ratings to your license, such as the instrument or multi-engine ratings.
Commercial Pilot License (CPL)
Want to make a living as a pilot? Then you need to get a commercial pilot license.
While not a ticket to an airline job right away, a CPL allows you to earn money as skydiving, photography, or pipeline patrol pilot among other entry-level aviation jobs.
But because a CPL demands much higher piloting ability than a PPL, it comes with more stringent requirements (as well as the common ones):
- Be at least 18 years old
- Hold a private pilot certificate
- Have at least a second-class medical certificate
You must also log at least 190 or 250 hours of flight time. Again, the number of hours depends on your choice of flight school.
The commercial pilot license has very few limitations, and you may further enhance it with an instrument rating (IR) and a multi-engine rating (ME).
What privileges does it grant you?
Mainly, your CPL allows you to get paid for the transport of persons or property, which you may not do with a PPL.
Flight Instructor Certificate
Your career options are limited as a commercial pilot. Besides, towing banners or dusting crops to accrue flight time takes a long time.
A better way to get enough flight hours for an airline job is becoming a certified flight instructor (CFI). You also keep your piloting skills sharp by conducting flight lessons regularly.
What does it take? Other than the common requirements, you need to:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Hold a commercial or an airline transport pilot certificate
As a flight instructor, you can train pilots, conduct flight reviews, and issue endorsements required for pilot certificates, ratings, knowledge tests, and checkrides.
Besides, your instructor certification paves the way to becoming an instrument (CFII) or multi-engine (MEI) instructor by attaining the necessary ratings.
Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate
This is the pinnacle of pilot licenses, it’s also a requirement to work for a scheduled airline.
You must demonstrate immaculate aeronautical knowledge, flight proficiency, and be of good moral character to obtain your airline transport pilot certificate.
On top of the common requirements, here’s what it takes to become an ATP certificate holder:
- Be at least 23 years old (or 21 for restricted ATP)
- Hold a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating
- Have a first-class medical certificate
- Complete an Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program (ATP-CTP) for a multiengine rating or when issued concurrently with a type rating
You also have to log 1,500 hours for the unrestricted (full) ATP certificate.
But you need fewer hours for a restricted ATP (R-ATP) certificate. How many exactly? Here’s a brief overview:
- 1,250 hours for associate’s degree holders
- 1,000 hours for bachelor’s degree holders
- 750 hours for current or former US military pilots
What can you do with ATP that you can’t with an R-ATP?
You can be a pilot in command (PIC) with an ATP certificate, while you can only act as a co-pilot with a Restricted ATP certificate. Once you log a total of 1,500 hours, though, you can get the full ATP certificate.
Remote Pilot Certificate
You don’t need a pilot certificate to fly drones for recreation. However, you must abide by certain rules, procedures, and guidelines.
But certification is necessary for operating a drone for commercial purposes.
You must obtain a remote pilot certificate to become a drone pilot under the FAA’s Small UAS Rule (Part 107).
How? Well, you need to meet the following requirements if you’re a first-time pilot:
- Be at least 16 years old
- Be in a physical and mental condition to safely fly a drone
- Pass the initial aeronautical knowledge exam
- Able to easily access the drone during all UAS operations
Noticed anything? The remote pilot certificate requires no medical certificate, pilot training, or passing a practical test.
It’s even simpler to obtain if you’re already a Part 61 certified pilot. In addition to a current flight review, you only need to take these steps:
- Complete an online training course on the FAASTeam website
- Send an application through the Integrated Airmen Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website.
- Validate your identity with an authorized entity (such as an FAA-designated pilot examiner)
The remote pilot certificate’s validity period is 2 years, after which you need to pass a recurrent knowledge test to renew the certificate.
Although no formal training is necessary, it’s a good idea to acquire adequate knowledge of drone operations.
Interested in a quality ground school?
Pilotinstitute.com offers several online courses for drone pilots, including Part 107 commercial drone pilot, drone maneuvers mastery, and aviation weather for drone pilots.
A remote pilot certificate gives you access to profitable jobs that require drones, which include surveying, mapping, and photography.
Pilot Ratings and Endorsements
Except for the student pilot certificate, all types of pilot licenses come with at least one rating. The ratings include aircraft category, class, and type.
Category means a broad classification of aircraft, and 7 aircraft categories exist for pilot certification:
- Airplane: Engine-driven fixed-wing aircraft heavier than air that is supported in flight by the dynamic reaction of the air against its wings.
- Rotorcraft: Heavier-than-air aircraft that depends principally for its support in flight on the lift generated by one or more rotors.
- Glider: Heavier-than-air aircraft, that is supported in flight by the dynamic reaction of the air against its lifting surfaces and whose free flight does not depend principally on an engine.
- Lighter-than-air: Aircraft that can rise and remain suspended by using contained gas weighing less than the air that is displaced by the gas.
- Powered-lift: Heavier-than-air aircraft capable of vertical takeoff, vertical landing, and low speed flight that depends principally on engine-driven lift devices or engine thrust for lift during these flight regimes and on nonrotating airfoil(s) for lift during horizontal flight.
- Powered Parachute: Powered aircraft comprised of a flexible or semi-rigid wing connected to a fuselage so that the wing is not in position for flight until the aircraft is in motion. The fuselage of a powered parachute contains the aircraft engine, a seat for each occupant and is attached to the aircraft’s landing gear.
- Weight-shift-control aircraft: Powered aircraft with a framed pivoting wing and a fuselage controllable only in pitch and roll by the pilot’s ability to change the aircraft’s center of gravity with respect to the wing. Flight control of the aircraft depends on the wing’s ability to flexibly deform rather than the use of control surfaces.
Class denotes a classification of aircraft within a category having similar operating characteristics. For instance, the airplane category includes four classes:
- Single-engine land
- Multiengine land
- Single-engine sea
- Multiengine sea
Let’s put aircraft category and class into action:
The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a popular trainer, which is an airplane (category) that’s Single-engine Land (class). Another example? The de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter is airplane (category) that’s Multiengine Sea (class).
You get the idea.
Type refers to a specific make and basic model of aircraft that involves specialized training beyond what’s required for category and class. Aircraft with a maximum gross takeoff weight (MGTOW) of over 12,500 Ibs or with a turbojet engine require a type rating. Examples of type ratings include Boeing 737, Airbus 320, and Embraer 170.
Category, class, and type ratings determine the kind of aircraft you may fly. For example, your license would state “Airplane Single Engine Land”.
But pilots can get ratings for operational privileges too.
Most common of which is the instrument rating (IR), which requires intensive training. An instrument rating permits you to conduct flights under instrument flight rules, which means flying by reference to aircraft instruments.
Endorsements are logbook entries made by flight instructors indicating the completion of (either or both) ground and flight training. They’re a requirement for certification testing and certain operating privileges.
The FAA issues different types of pilot licenses, each with its requirements, privileges, and limitations.
The ratings designate aircraft and operational privileges accessible by your license.
Wondering which certificate suits your needs?
Start by deciding the type of aircraft you want to fly as different aircraft require different pilot licenses. You should also consider your intended aviation activity. A PPL grants you far more privileges than a sport pilot certificate.
You don’t even need a license to fly ultralights or drones for fun.
If you do have a pilot license, though, make sure you have it on you before flying an aircraft.