Careers in Aviation – 9 Pilot Certificates Explained

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Careers in Aviation – 9 Pilot Certificates Explained

Post  Admin on Tue Dec 22, 2009 11:05 pm

October 19, 2009 By: av8er Category: Airline Transport Pilot, Commercial Pilot, Educational, Flight Training, General Aviation, Pilots, Private Pilot, Recreational Pilot, Sport Pilot, Student Pilot

Guest Post by: Erik Johannessen

There are millions of Persons around the world, who have learned to fly. Some of them do it just for fun, others use it as a way to travel to work and there are others who become career pilots to earn a living.

If you are starting to do research on how to learn to fly, it can sometimes become an overwhelming task, but stay calm it is not as hard as it looks!!! There are 9 different types of basic certificates. In successive order of qualifications they include student, sport, recreational, private, instrument rated, commercial, certified flight instructor, airline transport pilot and designated pilot examiner. This system of certificates, together with a set of add-on ratings is used to specify the different types of flying a pilot may do.


To successfully acquire a certain certificate, a pilot must complete ground school, written examination, oral examination and flight test. The good thing is that these certificates never expire until they are surrendered, suspended or revoked. However to be able to fly the pilot is required to remain current in certain things such as to hold a valid medical certificate and to fly a certain amount of hours per year.

Let me explain to you each certificate in more detail. Note that this information is based on FAA rules. The rules imposed by the Regulatory Agencies of your country might be slightly different, however in context they are pretty much the same.

Student Pilot
This is the starting point for everyone who wants to learn to fly. It is also the point where you will know if you will like flying or not. This can happen as early as your first flight. In my case, on the first flight I felt like I was the King of the World. Student pilot privileges are very limited, however they provide enough freedom to allow you to learn all of the basics, including cross country flying and interaction with ATC.

When you are starting to learn how to fly, you complete all of your flights with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) on board. If you have reached the age of 16, have a valid Class III medical and have mastered the basic skills and educational topics of flight, you can make your first solo (Make a flight normally at an airport with low traffic, the location may vary from CFI to CFI, without an instructor or other certified pilots at the controls).

As a student pilot you are allowed to operate only near to your “home-base” and with a sign-off by your CFI you can travel to other local airports to practice your cross country skills. You may only fly in good weather during the day and night. You may think “I have a CFI on board and if weather gets worse he can fly back”. In general terms that is true, but it would be a waste of your money, since those hours do not count towards your certificate. I personally do not recommend it, but hey, it is your money. As a student pilot you are not allowed to carry passengers or fly for hire. Flying on busy Class B airspaces is usually not permitted without a special permission from your CFI.

Sport Pilot
Sport pilots fly in aircraft that fly at low speeds – less than 100 mph. The sport pilot certificate created new medical standards for pilots. These pilots usually do not require Medical Certificates. The only proof they need is to have a current valid driver’s license.

To get this certificate you must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 20 hours of flight time. This includes 15 hours of flight training and 5 hours of solo flight.

As a Sport pilot you may fly cross-country; however, you cannot operate at airports or airspaces that require ATC communication unless you receive the proper training and endorsements from a CFI. You are also not allowed to fly after dark and with more than one passenger on board.

Every 24 months the pilot is required to revalidate their certificate by undertaking a flight review with a CFI.

Recreational Pilots
Recreational pilots are primarily people who learn to fly for fun, with little interest in becoming professional pilots or using airplanes as a practical means of traveling from place to place. Recreational pilots must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 30 hours of flight time (the real-world average is more than 40 hours), including a minimum of 15 hours of flight instruction.

Recreational pilots may not fly more than 50 nautical miles (about 58 miles) from an airport at which they have received instruction, unless they receive appropriate cross-country training and a special instructor’s endorsement. Recreational pilots may not carry more than one passenger at a time, and they may not fly for hire or at night. They are not permitted to operate an aircraft on any charity flights, nor in connection with a business or their employment. They may fly only single-engine airplanes that have fixed landing gear, no more than four seats, and an engine of no more than 180 hp. They may not fly in airspace where communication with air traffic control (ATC) is required unless they receive the appropriate training and have a special endorsement from a certificated flight instructor (CFI).

As a result of these restrictions, the vast majority of people studying for their recreational pilot certificate continue to earn their private pilot certificate. Because of this, there usually are only about 300 pilots with the recreational certificate each year.

Recreational pilots must have a current Class III medical, which they must renew every 24 or 36 months (depending upon age). They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a CFI.
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Private Pilots
Private pilots comprise the largest group of pilots and are among the most active flyers. In 2003, there were 241,045 private pilots. To become a private pilot, one must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time (the actual average is about 70 hours), including 20 hours of instruction and 10 hours of solo. Pilots trained according to accelerated curricula defined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations may be certified with a minimum of 35 hours of flight time.

A private pilot — with appropriate training, ratings, and endorsements (e.g., floatplane, tail dragger, multiengine, helicopter, jet, retractable gear, pressurized, high-performance, complex, etc.) — may carry passengers in any aircraft, day or night, good or bad weather (see Instrument Rating below).

Private pilots may not fly for compensation or hire (no passenger or revenue services) but may share equally with their passengers the direct operating expenses of a flight — specifically fuel, oil, airport parking and landing fees, and aircraft rental charges.

Private pilots must have a current Class III medical, which they must renew every 24 or 36 months (depending upon age). They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a certificated flight instructor (CFI).

Instrument Rating
While technically not a pilot certificate, the instrument rating is the most common and logical step to take after gaining some experience while flying with a private pilot certificate. This add-on rating allows a pilot to fly in weather with reduced visibilities such as rain, low clouds, or heavy haze. When flying in these conditions, pilots follow instrument flight rules (IFR). The instrument rating provides the skills needed to complete flights without visual reference to the ground, except for the takeoff and landing phases. All pilots who fly above 18,000 feet mean sea level (msl) must have an instrument rating.

The instrument rating makes the use of aircraft more practical for routine transportation because most of the time, an “IFR-rated” pilot will be able to safely conduct their flight in spite of the weather conditions they may encounter.

The instrument rating requires highly specialized training by a certificated flight instructor (CFI) with a special instrument instruction rating (CFII), and completion of an additional written exam, oral exam, and flight test. Pilots applying for an instrument rating must hold at least a current private pilot certificate and medical, have logged at least 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command, and have at least 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time including at least 15 hours of instrument flight training and instrument training on cross-country flight procedures.

If not used on a regular and sufficient basis, pilots must revalidate their instrument rating every 12 months by undertaking an instrument proficiency check with a CFI.

Commercial Pilots
As the name implies, commercial pilots can be paid to fly aircraft. Commercial pilots must be at least 18 years old and have a minimum of 250 hours of flight time (190 hours under the accelerated curriculum defined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations), including 100 hours in powered aircraft, 50 hours in airplanes, and 100 hours as pilot in command (of which 50 hours must be cross-country flight time). They must hold an instrument rating, or be restricted to flying for hire only in daylight, under visual flight rules (VFR), within 50 miles of the originating airport. They may fly for hire in accordance with applicable parts of the Federal Aviation Regulations.

Certified Flight Instructor
A certificated flight instructor (CFI) is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to give instruction to student pilots and pilots taking recurrent training or preparing for additional certificates or ratings. They also may give flight reviews and recommend their students for flight tests. CFIs must be at least 18 years old and must hold at least a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating. CFIs may earn a special instrument instructor rating, allowing them to teach instrument flying (operating an aircraft in the air solely by instrument indications without visual reference to the ground). An instructor with this rating is called a CFII.

In addition to undertaking their normal flight review every 24 months, CFIs must revalidate their instructor certification every 24 months. There were 87,816 flight instructors in 2003.
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Airline Transport Pilots
This is the doctorate degree of piloting — and 143,504 pilots were in this distinguished category in 2003. Airline transport pilots (ATPs) must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, including 500 hours of cross-country flight time, 100 hours of night flying, and 75 hours in actual or simulated instrument flight conditions. Most ATPs have many thousands of hours of flight time. ATPs also must have a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. ATPs may instruct other pilots in air transportation service in aircraft in which the ATP is rated. They may not instruct pilots outside of air transportation service unless they also have an appropriate fight instructor certificate.

ATPs must have a current and much more stringent Class I medical, which they are required to renew every six months. Like all pilots, they must revalidate their certificates every 24 months with a flight review. However, most active ATPs undergo a check ride in an aircraft or simulator every six months.

Designated Examiner
If the airline transport pilot is the doctorate degree of piloting, then becoming a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated pilot examiner (DPE) is the equivalent of mastering advanced post-doctoral work. These individuals are few and far between. They’re almost like judges in that they have to be appointed by the regional FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). Before one can become a DPE, he or she usually has to wait for one of the current DPEs in that region of the United States to retire. As the name implies, these people have been designated by the FAA to test or examine the performance of their fellow pilots. DPEs typically have decades of real-world experience and perform the majority of official FAA check rides or flight tests for everyone from new pilots to seasoned airline captains.

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