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Privileges, Limits, and Requirements of a Private Pilot License

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TLDR: You need 40 hours of flight time, be at least 17 years old, get medically examined, and pass a written and oral exam to become a pilot.

For many, flying is a fantasy. A dream, and little more than that. That dream is part of what draws people to Superman and all the other books and comics and characters that make flight something more than imagination.

A Private Pilot license is one way to make the dream reality.

Like any license, some limits and responsibilities come with a Private Pilot license. If you’re considering getting a certificate of your own, or even if you already have one and want to brush up on the details, this is the article for you.

We’ll go over the particulars so you can decide if a Private Pilot license is right for you. We’ll also help outline the regulations you need to use your certificate responsibly, and where the privileges of flight are limited.

Of course, while this article is intended to be helpful, it’s no replacement for familiarity with official FAA regulations and restrictions. If you’re concerned about whether something is permissible with a Private Pilot license, you should always refer to the FAA website, or the rules and regulations provided by your flight school, to be certain.

A Quick Look:

Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at the different limitations and privileges we’ll be discussing.

Private Pilot Limitations

Medical Flight Others things to consider
Must have a 3rd class Medical Certificate. Must receive approval to fly in certain control airspace. You are allowed to fly with passengers, but cannot act as a pilot for hire or charge for your services.
Must not fly if you are aware of any medical condition which might impair your ability to fly. Maintain continuous awareness of which airspace you are in. You cannot act as a pilot for a business except in circumstances ‘incidental’ to the normal operation of that business.
Must renew and maintain your medical clearance, at the appropriate interval. You may only fly aircraft for which you have appropriate training and certifications.
Must have your Medical fitness evaluated by an FAA Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) You cannot fly in conditions not suited to visible flight, unless you have an Instrument Rating.

Private Pilot Privileges

Flight Compensation and Other Privileges
You are allowed to act as Pilot-In-Charge in some, limited, circumstances. (see CFR 91.146) On flights with passengers, you are allowed to ask for pro-rata compensation for the operational costs of the plane.
You are allowed to fly out of all public airports, including in Class B. You can participate in Search and Locate missions, and request compensation for operating costs.
You are allowed to fly at night You can tow gliders and unpowered ultralight vehicles.
You are allowed to fly into bordering nations.

What is A Private Pilot License?

In case you don’t already know what a Private Pilot license is, it’s one of several licenses that allows you to pilot certain sizes and classes of aircraft. But a Private Pilot license also limits the use of those aircraft and does not (generally) allow you to be paid as a pilot. We’ll talk about the exceptions later on.

Most often, a Private Pilot license is obtained as one of the early stages of acquiring a higher-level license. There are a few reasons for this.

For one thing, getting your Private Pilot license usually requires a significant investment in schooling. You’ll need to pass a combination of written and practical tests to get this license. You’ll also need to log a bare minimum of 40 flight hours and have your flight log signed by a flight instructor.

Those opportunities are usually easiest to find in a flight school, although it is possible to work with a private instructor or take advantage of some other learning opportunities.

Another reason is that other license levels are suitable for those wishing to learn to fly as a recreational activity that are cheaper and easier to get. Lower certification levels also tend to be easier to maintain than a Private Pilot license or higher.

There are many limitations placed on pilots with a Private Pilot license, but they also have more privileges than those with a recreational or sport license. We’ll get into more details later.

Who Regulates Private Pilot’s License Requirements, Privileges, and Limitations?

The regulations on Private Pilot license come from a number of sources. In the U.S. the highest authority is the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration. There is also a larger international aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which helps standardize requirements across the different national aviation regulatory bodies.

Other Non-Commercial Pilots Licenses:

While these aren’t specifically related to the Private Pilot license, it’s worth looking at other types of pilot’s licenses for comparison. When it comes to non-commercial licenses, the Private Pilot license is currently the highest level.

Sport Pilot License

This is a new form of pilot license that is designed for people who are looking to fly something larger than an ultralight or a glider, but who are not interested in pursuing a higher license level or are unable to get that higher license level.

One of the biggest differences between a Sport Pilot license and the other forms of license on this list is that it doesn’t require an Aviation Medical Certificate. If you are medically able to drive a car and have a current valid driver’s license, you are eligible for a Sport Pilot license.

You are significantly more limited with this license. You can only fly aircraft with a maximum of 2 seats, and your aircraft cannot exceed 1,320 lbs. at takeoff and landing (on land).

However, it only requires 20 hours of flight time before certification.

Recreational Pilot License

This is the license one step down from the Private Pilot license. It requires 30 hours of flight training at a minimum. Recreational Pilots are required to get and maintain the same 3rd class Airman’s Medical Certification as the Private Pilot license.

Don’t worry, we’ll cover the medical certifications, and the requirements of the 3rd class certification, later.

With this license, pilots are usually only allowed to fly aircraft with one passenger. They are not given the same privileges that come with the Private Pilot license in terms of other types of flight but have a few more freedoms than a Sport license.

Student’s Pilot License

This license needs to be earned in order to start logging solo flight time. It’s also the only license on this list that can be earned before the potential pilot turns 17. A student license can be earned at 16, assuming all the other requirements have been met.

All other pilot’s licenses require the pilot to be at least 17 years old.

Higher Levels of License:

After you acquire your Private Pilot license, you are allowed to pursue a higher level of certification assuming you meet the medical, education, and experience requirements of those licenses.

The higher licenses issued by the FAA are the Commercial Pilot License and Airline Transport Pilot License.

There is also a non-pilot license called for Flight Instructors which is necessary to teach Pilots to receive their licenses.

These licenses generally require a higher level of airman medical certification. They require more flight time, additional practical and academic tests, and may require a college degree.

Like all pilot licenses, it’s recommended that you get the required level of airman medical certification since you’ll need that certification to complete licensure. Otherwise, you’ll have to leave the program partway through if you find out you aren’t medically eligible.

Important Terminology:

While we can’t go into every regulation, privilege, and limitation in-depth, there is some terminology you’ll need to know if you want to get your private pilot’s license and to understand the existing regulations.

We’ve already covered some, like FAA and ICAO, but here are a few more. These will help translate this, and other articles, outlining your pilot’s privileges and limitations.

Airman Medical Certification

These certifications are regulated by the FAA and specifically by the Federal Air Surgeon. They must be performed by FAA-approved Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) and have a strict set of requirements candidates must meet in order to qualify.

CFR and FAR

These acronyms refer to the specific regulations governing aviation. CFR stands for the Code of Federal Regulation. FAR stands for Federal Aviation Regulation. You must abide by both CFR and FAR regulations and restrictions wherever they apply to your level of certification.

With additional privileges usually come additional regulations, so you will need to keep more of these regulations in mind with a Private Pilot license than you would with a Recreational or Sport license.

Medical Certification for Private Pilot’s License:

These basic medical requirements should be met as soon as possible. If it turns out you aren’t medically eligible for the license level you want, it is possible to appeal in some cases and get some exceptions. Generally, however, exceptions aren’t given.

It’s much better to know ahead of time if you’ll be able to get your license, preferably before you’ve spent a bunch of money working on it.

This is one of the most important limitations that come with your private pilot’s license, so we’re going to spend some time exploring it.

The FAA Act of 1958

This act is important because it outlines the government’s responsibility both to promote aviation itself and to support safety within aviation.

One of the goals of the bill was to help streamline the medical approval process, and to create more urgency behind regulations that protect pilots, passengers, and the general public. After all, aviation is not risk-free, despite the many assists modern technology and better training have given us.

Despite the goal of streamlining, medical approval can take quite a while. The system is often bogged down, and there may be clerical and bureaucratic errors along the way. We mention it because you should plan some extra time in the medical approvals stage.

Basic Certification Requirements:

Since we’re focusing on the Private Pilot license, we’re also going to focus on the 3rd class medical certificate. That’s what is required for that level of license.

Visual Requirements:

The most basic vision requirement of the 3rd class medical certification is that you have 20/40 vision. You can use corrective lenses, either glasses or contacts, to achieve that level of vision. But your visual acuity must also be consistent.

You also need to be able to see the full range of colors used in aviation. While some types of colorblindness may not be prohibitive, red/green colorblindness, the most common variety, usually is.

Additionally, your eyes will need to be evaluated for other structural or functional problems that may interfere with flight or may get worse while flying. These requirements aren’t well defined, partially because they fall under the jurisdiction and judgment of the Aviation Medical Examiner.

For instance, poor depth perception or internal eye pressure issues might be considered disqualifying but may not depending on the severity.

Auditory Requirements:

Much like vision, there are some auditory requirements for safe flight as a pilot. Tests of auditory acuity include listening to a conversation in a quiet room with your back turned to the speaker(s), while at least 6 feet away. You might also be asked to demonstrate the ability to hear in a noisy situation, or with one ear covered.

In both cases, a certain level of accuracy is required.

Like vision, it’s also required that there be no disease of malfunction of the entire auditory system, including the middle and inner ear, nose, oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx, which impairs the ability to fly. You similarly cannot have a condition in any of these areas which might be aggravated by flying.

You must always be able to maintain clear and effective audible communication.

You cannot have any condition likely to cause vertigo or any other loss of spatial awareness.

Mental Requirements:

Because of the responsibility and stress load of acting as a pilot, there are some fairly strict mental requirements you must meet as well.

You can’t have been diagnosed with a personality disorder severe enough to cause overt abnormal behavior and acts.

You also can’t have ever been diagnosed with psychosis, hallucinations, delusions, or disorganized behavior.

Similarly, you can’t have been diagnosed with bipolar.

Medication and other therapeutic interventions for these disorders will not make you eligible for 3rd class medical certification. The diagnosis by itself is prohibitory regardless of treatment.

Additionally, you cannot have any substance use disorders. Your doctor will test for physical evidence of various possible dependencies, ask you questions about your substance use, including legal substances like alcohol, and also look at your medical history for documentation of any past dependencies.

Neurological Requirements:

Neurological disorders are trickier, and many are disqualifying for pilot’s licenses, including the private pilot’s license.

For the 3rd class of medical certification, you cannot have epilepsy. Generally, you cannot have other seizure disorders or disorders that can cause seizures, either.

You cannot have experienced a temporary loss of nervous function, of any variety, without a medically explainable condition. Said condition must also be acute, rather than chronic. Chronic conditions are likely to be disqualifying.

Similarly, you cannot have experienced a loss of consciousness without having a medical explanation of its cause. Like conditions affecting other nervous functions, the loss of consciousness cannot be caused by a condition that is chronic or likely to reoccur.

There can be exceptions or additions here, at the discretion of the Federal Air Surgeon. But, in general, any nervous condition that might, even temporarily, impair your ability to safely pilot an aircraft would be disqualifying.

Cardiovascular Requirements:

In order to mee the cardiovascular requirements you cannot have had a myocardial infarction, angina pectoris, or coronary heart disease severe enough to require treatment or to present significant symptoms.

You also cannot have had a heart valve replacement or a heart transplant. Pacemakers are not allowed.

General Requirements:

Additional to all the other health requirements, the Federal Air Surgeon may also disallow medical certifications based on other conditions.

Diabetes that requires medical treatment via insulin or other blood-sugar-lowering medications is also disallowed.

FAR 67.401: Special Issuance of Medical Certificates

In some circumstances, it is understood that a pilot may be perfectly qualified to fly while also having a condition that would normally disqualify them from medical certification. This regulation allows the Federal Air Surgeon to make exceptions and issue time-limited medical certifications to pilots, including pilots pursuing their private pilot’s license or seeking to renew their existing medical certification.

Usually, this is done in cases where there is a chance that the pilot is still competent and safe to be in the air. The temporary special issuance allows the pilot to tested for continued competence and ability despite their medical condition.

It does not have to be issued under any circumstances. It’s a discretionary option, not a regular part of the process of evaluating candidates that may not meet medical requirements.

Statements of Demonstrated Ability (SODA)

Statements of Demonstrated Ability work as a separate kind of medical certification. SODAs acknowledge that the pilot has a medical condition that could impact their ability to fly, but that the pilot has demonstrated that the condition does not prevent them from safely operating an aircraft.

It can be issued for whatever certification level is necessary. But, like the special issuance of medical certificates, SODAs are not necessarily standard, and not every pilot or candidate who requests to be evaluated for one will be.

FAR 61.53: Prohibition on Operations During Medical Deficiency

Why do the details of the medical certification matter? One of the biggest limitations on all pilots, not just pilots with their private pilot’s license is this.

The Prohibition on Operations During Medical Deficiency, FAR 61:53, required that pilots whose medical status has changed while they already have an active medical certification cannot fly.

Basically, that means that, after you have your certification, you are responsible to know your own medical status and to stop flying if you develop a disqualifying condition. You should wait until the condition resolves, if it is temporary, and be evaluated by an FAA authorized physician if it is not.

Examples of a temporary medical disqualification are being intoxicated with alcohol. You cannot fly until you are no longer intoxicated. A change in your eye prescription may also count as a temporary disqualification so long as your vision can be corrected to 20/40 with new corrective lenses.

But other conditions, like diabetes or heart disease that require treatment, even if diagnosed by a doctor that is no FAA authorized, represent a longer-term and possibly permanent disqualification.

It is the responsibility of the pilot to uphold this standard. It is one of the limitations of all pilot licenses that require an airmen’s medical certification, so knowing the standards is one of the most important responsibilities you will carry as a pilot.

CFR 91.146 – Passenger Carrying Flights for the Benefit of a Charitable, Non-Profit, or Community Event

This is one of the privileges of private pilot’s licenses that does not come with lower-level qualifications. Once you have at least 500 hours of logged flight time, including the flight training time needed to receive the license, you are eligible to fly for a variety of different events.

You can even carry passengers on these flights, so long as you abide by your aircraft limits, the other restrictions of the private pilot’s license, and aren’t paid to act as a pilot.

General:

With a private pilot’s license, you’re limited to flying for up to 4 of these events in a calendar year. None of the events can last more than 3 days, or at least, your services as a pilot cannot last more than 3 days.

You cannot be paid as a pilot, and you cannot use an aircraft that is regularly used as a passenger craft.

However, you can reimburse your costs, charging pro-rata (proportionately) across your passengers in order to pay for things like airport fees, fuel, and even the rental of the aircraft.

As the pilot, you are required to pay the same pro-rata amount toward the costs of the flight as any passengers.

You must have a photocopy of your license, your medical certification, and your flight logbook with you.

A private pilot’s license does not authorize you to pilot information or aerobatic displays.

Similarly, the flight must start and end at the same airport, and you cannot fly over Native Lands, or National Forest, or National Parks. The aircraft may not have more than 30 seats, excluding crewmember seats.

The entire flight must take place within 25 miles of the airport.

Every aircraft involved must be certified as airworthy. If it will be carrying passengers, it must also be certified passenger-worthy.

Charitable Events:

Eligible charitable events include any even put on by a charity recognized under section 170 of the International Revenue Code.

Eligible charities should be able to prove this status.

All of the normal regulations concerning flights conducted with a private pilot’s license remain in place.

Community Events:

Community events fall under basically the same requirements as charities, excepting that they don’t need to qualify for any specific legal designation. As long as the community event is designed to benefit some local cause, it may be considered eligible for a pilot holding a private pilot’s license.

However, a private pilot license only allows you to work as a pilot for 1 community event per year. So, of 4 possible events, you may work as pilot per year, the other 3 must be either charity or non-profit events.

Non-Profit Events:

Non-profit events are a little more regulated. The non-profit must be recognized by some Federal or State Authority, although the specific type of non-profit is not regulated.

The one specific requirement of a non-profit event is that that non-profit must include the promotion of aviation safety in its organization purposes.

CFR 61.69 – Glider and Unpowered Ultralight Vehicle Towing

You are allowed to tow a glider or unpowered ultralight vehicle so long as you meet the certification requirements of the aircraft doing the towing. No additional certifications are needed, and there are no specific regulations regarding this kind of towing once you’ve reached the private pilot license level.

Search and Locate Operations:

Sometimes referred to a search and rescue operations, pilots with a private pilot’s license are allowed to volunteer to assist in these situations. Unless you have an additional instrument flight certification, which is not required to receive your private pilot’s license, you are still limited by visual conditions.

Assisting with search and locate operations does not confer any additional privileges on the pilot. You are still expected to abide by height restrictions, to only pilot the types of aircraft you are certified to pilot, and only to pilot in conditions that support visual flight.

You can be reimbursed for your costs, including fuel, oil, and other operational expenses, during your participation in a search and locate operation.

Other Privileges that Come with a Private Pilot’s License:

In addition to the rights of a sports and recreational pilot, a Private Pilot gets a few additional privileges, while others are expanded. The height restrictions are extended up to 10,000 ft (AGL).

You’re also allowed to fly at night, which lesser licenses do not allow.

You can fly into all Class B airports. Lesser licenses restrict your flights away from the busiest of the nation’s airports.

You’re also allowed to fly out of the country, without prior U.S. authorization. You do still have to follow national and international regulations from all countries involved, potentially including alerting the flight authority of the other nation.

FAR 61.113: Pilot in Command Limitations and Privileges

One of the biggest differences between lesser licenses and the private pilot’s license is this. Under FAR 61.113, there are specific circumstances in which you, the pilot, may now act as the pilot-in-charge of a flight.

Under the right circumstances, you can also be paid for your services as a pilot. These circumstances are highly specific, however, and do still prohibit you from making a business as either a commercial or a passenger pilot.

Yet, you can be paid, or hired, as a pilot in charge by a business. This is if, and only if, the flight is incidental to the business. If you happen to work for a business and choose to fly yourself across the country for a business deal or other meeting, that would count under this. Technically, you could be hired as your own transport.

But, if flying is in any way the purpose of that business, you would no longer qualify to be the pilot in charge. Flight tours, displays, and other aviation business purposes are not allowed.

In addition, to be incidental to the business, the aircraft cannot carry passengers or property for compensation.

I.E. the business itself cannot charge another business to carry their property for them. Nor can they charge the passengers for the flight. You as the pilot can, however, use the same pro-rata distribution of your costs for operating the plane to the business or passengers as you would use for a charity or non-profit event.

Your Logbook:

You are required, with a private pilot’s license, to keep an up to date and certified logbook of your flights and flight times.

You are also required to keep a current flight review in your logbook.

Aircraft Certifications:

We won’t go into the specific aircraft certifications you may have as a private pilot’s license holder for one simple reason, there is a lot of flexibility here.

You’ll clearly be certified to fly 1-2 seater planes, planes with 180 horsepower, and other aircraft that are permissible with recreational and sport licenses.

But your additional certifications will depend on your course of study, and personal interest or optional certifications you acquire, and whether you have just received your private pilot’s license or have had it for some time and are working on a higher level of licensure.

It is, however, a requirement and responsibility of your license that you only pilot aircraft for which you have the appropriate certifications.

Exceptions can be made for aircraft you are piloting as a part of additional certification programs, under the tutelage of an authorized flight instructor, and after having met all non-flight requirements of the new certification.

Regulated Airspace:

Usually, you will not be flying into regulated airspace. Certainly, you should not do so without prior approval unless absolutely necessary due to some circumstance in flight.

But, you are required to alert the proper authorities if you do stray into regulated airspace. To that end, one of the requirements of your license is that you have the familiarity and tools needed to recognize regulated airspace.

That knowledge will be incorporated into your licensure program, so you’ll almost certainly be familiar with this process by the time you have your private pilot’s license. But in flight, you’re required to remain aware of your location.

It’s helpful to keep local landmarks in mind that will help you recognize when you’re close to regulated air space, preferably long before you’ve actually crossed into it.

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