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All About Pilot Licenses

Thinking about becoming a pilot?

Are you interested in becoming a pilot? Well, here’s something you might not know: the FAA, that is the Federal Aviation Administration offers various types of pilot licenses. These licenses come with different classifications, ratings, and rules. Depending on the license you get and the ratings you earn, you’ll be able to fly different kinds of planes. And guess what? With the right license, you could even fly for big commercial airlines and get paid for it! The first step is to figure out which pilot license suits your goals.

What is a pilot’s license?

In basic terms, a pilot’s license, also known as a pilot certificate, gives someone the permission to fly an aircraft. It’s kind of like a driver’s license but for planes instead of cars. However, the FAA sets certain rules and restrictions for pilots based on their category or rating. The FAA is in charge of making and enforcing all the rules and regulations for aviation, including pilots and other aviation-related jobs.

Did you know?

Organizations like the FAA sometimes use “license” and “certificate” interchangeably on their website, but the official term for a piece of paper that gives you the legal right to fly an aircraft is called a certificate.

Getting Started

Advanced Certifications

Becoming an Instructor

Getting Started

A good place to start your journey is by taking a free discovery flight with the Young Eagles. These flights are available for students age 8-18 and come with quite a few benefits that will help give you a head start to your licensing such as a free EAA Student Membership which comes with a log book, free access to Sporty’s Learn to Fly Course ($279 value), FAA Knowledge Exam Reimbursement ($175 value), free first Flight Lesson at the flight school of your choice ($130 value), and access to EAA scholarships and more!

Student Pilot Certificate

 

While you don’t need any paperwork to take flying lessons, you will need both a student pilot certificate and an aviation medical certificate before you can fly solo as a student so it’s a good idea to get yours when you can. Note that student pilot certificates don’t expire (but you will give it up when you get the next highest certification!) but your medical certificate will. Always be mindful that your paperwork is up to date!

Eligibility:

  • Be at least 16 years old to apply for the certificate. However, if your goal is to fly gliders or balloons, you can begin training at the age of 14
  • Be proficient in English as it serves as the primary language of communication in aviation. You must be able to read, speak, and understand English to qualify for a student pilot certificate

To apply for a Student Pilot Certificate, follow these steps:

  • Complete an application using the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) system
  • Submit your application to the appropriate authority, such as a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), an FAA-designated pilot examiner, an airman certification representative associated with a part 141 flight school, or a certificated flight instructor
  • Your application will be processed, and the necessary documents will be submitted to the Airmen Certification Branch (ACB) for review
  • After review by the ACB, you can expect to receive your student pilot certificate by mail in approximately three weeks

Note: Your flight instructor will usually help you with this step.

Medical Certificates

To become a student pilot, you’ll also need to get a medical certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). You’ll need to get a medical certificate for almost every type of pilot license, so it’s a good idea to get familiar with the process now.

These exams are like check-ups for pilots, making sure you’re healthy enough to fly safely. They’ll check things like your vision, hearing, blood pressure and other things to make sure it’s safe for you to be a pilot. Finding an examiner nearby is easy, and you can schedule your appointment with them. Medical certificates will expire and while they cannot be renewed, you can always get a new one.

Medical certificates come in different classes, too. Generally, the more privileges you have as a pilot, the higher the class of medical certificate you need to use those privileges.

Flying Just for Fun

 

Getting your Private Pilot License isn’t your only option, but it is the most common! If you’re not looking to make flying your career or only want to fly for fun with a single passenger, you can get your Sport Pilot or Recreational Pilot Certificates. These certificates take less time and training to complete, so they’re a more accessible and less expensive fast track to the sky, but they also come with a lot of restrictions because of that.

If you decide later that you’re interested in pursuing flying more seriously for longer distances, you’ll need to get your Private Pilot License anyway, which is why the PPL is more commonly seen than the Sport Pilot or Recreational Pilot Certificates. However, every flight plan is different for every pilot and you are in charge of designing yours.

Is a more restricted certificate right for you? Read about the differences and restrictions below!

Sport Pilot Certificate

 

A Sport Pilot Certificate lets you fly a light sport aircraft without needing an FAA medical certificate. This is the minimum certification you need to fly our TeenFlight RV-12. To get this certificate, the FAA mandates at least 20 hours of flight time, ground school, and passing FAA knowledge and practical tests.

  • To be eligible for the sport pilot certificate, you must:
    • Be at least 17 years old (or 16 years old if you are applying to operate a glider or balloon).
    • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English.
    • Hold at least a third class medical, or hold a current and valid U.S. driver’s license for operations in light-sport aircraft other than a glider or balloon.

You cannot use your sport pilot certificate to fly:

  • While carrying more than one passenger.
  • While carrying a passenger or property for payment
  • For compensation or hire
  • As part of a business
  • While carrying more than one passenger.
  • At night.
  • In Class A airspace.
  • In Class B, C, or D airspace, at an airport located in Class B, C, or D airspace, and to, from, through, or at an airport having an operational control tower unless you have met the requirements specified in §61.325.
  • Outside the United States, unless you have prior authorization from the country.
  • In a passenger-carrying airlift sponsored by a charitable organization.
  • At an altitude of more than 10,000 feet MSL(Mean Sea Level) or 2,000 feet AGL(Above Ground LeveL).
  • When the flight or surface visibility is less than 3 miles.
  • Without visual reference to the surface.
  • If the aircraft has a maximum forward speed in level flight that exceeds 87 knots CAS, unless having met the requirements of §61.327.
  • If the aircraft has a maximum forward speed less than or equal to 87 knots CAS, unless you have met the requirements of §61.327(a) or have logged flight time as pilot in command of an airplane with a maximum forward speed less than or equal to 87 knots CAS before April 2, 2010.
  • While towing any object.
  • As a pilot flight crewmember on any aircraft for which more than one pilot is required by the type certificate of the aircraft or the regulations under which the flight is conducted.

Recreational Pilot Certificate

 

With a Recreational Pilot Certificate, you are allowed to fly as pilot in command (PIC) in a light, single-engine aircraft without supervision. Also, recreational pilots receive less cross-country navigation training because they are permitted to fly within 50 nautical miles of their home base, unless they get additional endorsements. To get this certificate, the FAA mandates at least 30 hours of flight time, ground school, and passing FAA knowledge and practical tests.

  • To be eligible for a Recreational Pilot Certificate, you must:
    • Be at least 17 years old (or 16 years old if you are applying to operate a glider or balloon).
    • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English.
    • Have an FAA-approved medical certificate

You cannot use your sport pilot certificate to fly:

  • While carrying more than one passenger.
  • In an aircraft rated for  more than four passgeners.
  • For compensation or hire.
  • More than 50 Nautical Miles from their departing airport without additional endorsements/training.
  • At night.
  • In Class A airspace.
  • In Class B, C, or D airspace, at an airport located in Class B, C, or D airspace, and to, from, through, or at an airport having an operational control tower unless you have met the requirements specified in §61.325.
  • Outside the United States, unless you have prior authorization from the country.
  • In a passenger-carrying airlift sponsored by a charitable organization.
  • At an altitude of more than 10,000 feet MSL(Mean Sea Level) or 2,000 feet AGL(Above Ground LeveL).
  • When the flight or surface visibility is less than 3 miles.
  • Without visual reference to the surface.
  • If the aircraft has a maximum forward speed in level flight that exceeds 87 knots CAS, unless having met the requirements of §61.327.
  • If the aircraft has a maximum forward speed less than or equal to 87 knots CAS, unless you have met the requirements of §61.327(a) or have logged flight time as pilot in command of an airplane with a maximum forward speed less than or equal to 87 knots CAS before April 2, 2010.
  • While towing any object.
  • As a pilot flight crewmember on any aircraft for which more than one pilot is required by the type certificate of the aircraft or the regulations under which the flight is conducted.

Flying with Bigger Goals

Private Pilot License

The Private Pilot License (PPL) is the most common type of pilot license issued by the FAA. With a PPL, you can fly alone or with others, but you cannot be paid for flying or taking people on flights. It allows you to pilot almost any aircraft (with the right ratings) for personal use, lets you bring along several passengers, and allows you to fly at night and in various types of airspace, without any distance limits.

You’ll find that some of the steps and requirements to getting this license are similar to getting your Student Pilot Certificate.

Eligibility:

  • You have to be at least 17 to get your private pilot certificate (16 for gliders)
  • You must be able to read, speak, and understand English to qualify
  • Have a current Medical Certificate
  • Have a current Student Pilot Certificate (must be able to fly solo)

After confirming your eligibility, the next steps have a little variation for the pathways but the primary requirements are:

  • Log a minimum of 35 hours of varied flight time in a formal flight school OR 40 hours with a private instructor.
    • note: you’ll likely log upwards of 60 hours in your training
  • Pass written tests at an FAA-approved testing facility
  • Successfully complete the FAA check-ride, which is the final exam that includes verbal quizzes and a practical exam where you showcase what you’ve learned in flight!

In writing, it may not seem like a lot more than a student certificate, but there’s a lot to learn before you can fly by yourself. Your hard work can really pay off though!

What’s Next?

So you’ve got your PPL and you’re wondering what’s next. Well, that’s up to you!

First things first, enjoy your accomplishment! Spend some time flying just because you can; you’ve definitely earned it. When you’re ready to explore bigger things you’re in luck because there’s always more to learn in aviation.

You can start working towards your Instrument Rating (IR), Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), Commerical Pilot Licence, or just practice on new planes you’re unfamiliar with.

Instrument Rating (IR)

Most folks will tell you that your next step after getting you PPL should be getting instrument rated, and while it’s not a requirement we agree that it’s a good choice!

What’s Instrument Rating (IR)?

In short terms, Instrument Rating mean you have been trained to use the instruments in a plane, and only the instruments in a plane, to fly. You’ve been trained to fly with your eyes closed, so to speak. If you’re in a cloud, fog, something has covered your windscreen and windows and you have only your instrument panel to guide you to safety, you’re  (more) prepared with your IR.

Getting your IR will open up a lot of opportunities for you in you aviation career and will also help keep you safer in the event of something unexpected, so it’s a really smart next step after your PPL.

To get your IR you’ll need:

  • Hold at least a private pilot certificate
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language.
  • Take a ground school training course or receive ground training from an authorized instructor
    • Training requirements will vary depending on if you get private instruction or instruction at a school
  • Receive a logbook endorsement certifying that you are prepared for the FAA knowledge test
  • Pass the required FAA knowledge test
  • Receive flight instruction on the areas of operation necessary for an instrument rating (FAR 61.65)
  • Pass the required practical test (ACS – Airman Certification Standards)

Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL)

 

Considering a career as a commercial pilot? Awesome! But before you dive in, there are some important things you need to know. A CPL is the first type of commercial licence you can get and it lets you get paid for flying! It’s quicker and less expensive to get than an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL), which you’ll need to fly commercial planes for companies like Alaska and United, so it’s a great first step.

With a CPL, and the required number of flight hours, you can take jobs doing banner towing, doing air tours, working for new stations doing traffic watches, using a small private aircraft as a taxi, or even becoming a flight instructor yourself (with a few more certifications that is!). Your time spent as a CPL will also count towards your required hours if you decide to pursue your Air Transport Pilot’s Licence as well!

Eligibility:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English
  • Hold at least a second-class medical certificate
  • Hold at least a private pilot certificate
  • Accumulated at least 250 hours of logged flight time

After you’ve met the eligibility requirements, you’ll need to go through another series of ground training courses and written, spoken, and practical exams before you can claim your Commercial Pilot Licence and start turning your hobby into an income.

Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL)

 

So, you’re eyeing those big airliners, huh? Getting your Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) is the key to unlocking the cockpit door for major airlines. With this license, you can fly not only commercial airplanes but also cargo planes and almost any other flying job you come across. Having this license will also give you an advantage on nearly any flying job you apply for due to the increased experience and commitment required.

Eligibility:

  • You must be at least 23 years old to apply for the ATPL.
  • Hold either
    • A CPL with IR OR
    • Meet military experience requirements equal to a CPL and IR
  • Hold a Multi-Engine Rating (ME)
  • Hold a 1st class medical certificate to act as Pilot in Command (2nd class to act as Second in Command)
  • Accumulate over 1500 hours of flight time in various weather conditions and different types of aircraft.
  • Testing: Pass all required tests, exams, and flight exams.
    • Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program (ATP-CTP)
    • ATPL Written Exam
    • ATPL Practical Exam

Instructor Licenses

Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)

 

Getting your Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate means you can teach budding pilots how to fly various aircraft in all sorts of weather. As a CFI, you can teach at schools, flight centers, or even start your own training program. Plus, every hour you spend teaching counts toward the 1500 hours you need to fly for airlines. To become a CFI, you’ll need to meet some FAA requirements.

  • Be at least 18 years old and hold an active commercial pilot license (CPL)
  • Complete all additional CFI training coursework
  • Pass all additional written CFI exams
  • Complete an instrument (IR) course
  • Have your Medical Certificate
  • Obtain an endorsement from your CFI showing you’ve mastered the basics of being a certified flight instructor
  • Log more than 15 hours of Pilot In Command (PIC) time while supervising a student pilot
  • Demonstrate your ability to provide detailed instruction on spins, spin entry, and spin recovery

Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument (CFI-I)

 

After becoming a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), the next step is to earn your CFII. With a CFII, you can instruct student pilots aiming to earn their Instrument Rating. You’ll also have the authority to endorse students undergoing IR training for their FAA oral and practical exams.

To qualify for CFII training, you must already hold your CPL and instrument rating. Additionally, you’ll need to pass the instrument flight instructor knowledge test and checkride.

What does all of this take?

How long does it take to earn these licenses and ratings?

 

There’s really no one answer for this; everyone learns at a different pace, and every license takes a different amount of time. While the FAA minimum flight hours is 40 for a PPL, the average student takes around 60-80 hours to master the skills necessary to be a safe pilot. You need to be prepared to invest a lot of your time studying and practicing. Unless you grew up around pilots, you’re not likely to run into aviation terms out in the wild as you would with something like driving terms, so it may be hard at first. Everyone learns at their own pace, so keep up your studies and ask questions every chance you get!

Training duration can vary based on several factors, such as weather conditions, aircraft maintenance, and individual student progress. Students who can commit to pilot training full-time with no other obligations or responsibilities can complete their training faster than someone who can only train part-time around their work or school schedules. One big factor is where and when you’re training. Training here in the Portland Metro area during summer will give you more sunny days to practice in which means you can get more clear weather flight hours in and progress faster compared to our wetter winter months.

How much does it cost to earn a pilot license?

 

Becoming a pilot definitely comes with a price tag, there’s no way around it. In fact, cost is one of the biggest barriers to becoming a pilot, which is one of many reasons we see less diversity in aviation than we do in other STEAM fields.

Flight lessons, renting planes, and getting all the necessary gear like books and headphones can add up quickly, sometimes making it hard to afford to get your pilot’s license. To keep costs down, committing to regular flight training sessions is often recommended, ideally flying at least once to three times a week. If you can’t afford to fly that often, it might actually end up costing you more in the long run, as you’ll have to spend extra time and money relearning things. It’s better to start your flight training when you’re financially prepared. This might mean holding off on training for a bit, but it’ll allow you to complete your training more efficiently in a shorter amount of time. While you’re saving up money, you can start studying for the written exam. Passing the exam beforehand can make your flight lessons smoother since your instructor won’t have to spend as much time teaching you the basics and FAA Regulations. You can expect to pay around $15,000 to get your Private Pilot License in Oregon.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help offset the cost of getting started. For students 8-18, you can take a free discovery flight with the Young Eagles, which comes with free EAA memberships, test reimbursements, access to scholarships, and more. Speaking of scholarships, there are a ton out there for people from all backgrounds, and they’re a great way to fund your training. You’ll have to put in a good amount of work to earn these scholarships, but if you’re going to be a pilot, you’re probably expecting to work hard! Though it may not be the right path for everyone, the military is also another pathway some take into aviation, as there are opportunities for a military pilot in all branches of the military.

What about Type Ratings?

 

When it comes to getting certified to fly different types of aircraft, there’s a lot to consider. The FAA and other agencies set the rules for what certifications pilots need to fly specific planes, whether it’s a small propeller plane or a big jet like a Boeing 747 or 777. Each aircraft is unique, so even if you have your ATPL, you might need extra training to fly a new type of plane. For example, if you get a job with United  Airlines, they might train you to fly their fleet of planes like the Airbus A319, Boeing 787, 777, Bombardier CRJ-200, or Embraer E175. This extra training, called a type rating, is common in the industry and helps ensure pilots are fully prepared to handle the specific quirks of each aircraft they fly. So, no matter which airline you end up with, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your type ratings!

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