What do the different pilot licenses mean: how to choose which pilot certificate is right for you.

by | FAQs for Beginners

Airline pilot with r-atp in a dark cockpit approaching a destination at duskWhen they start learning to fly, many people are confused by the terminology. What’s the difference between a pilot certificate and a pilot license? With so many options to choose from, read on to find out which one is right for you.

When you pass your practical test, your examiner will hand you your pilot certificate. A certificate is a document that proves you have completed all of the necessary tasks to become a pilot. Unless it is revoked or you hand it in, you will be a certificated pilot for the rest of your life: once a pilot always a pilot!

A license on the other hand demonstrates that you have permission to perform a task, such as driving a car or running a business. Licenses usually expire and need to be renewed.

Although both terms are used interchangeably–even by the Federal Aviation Administration–I like to think of a pilot certificate proving that you have received the training necessary, and a pilot license a being a combination of documents, including the pilot certificate, medical, photo identification and currency requirements necessary to fly a plane.

In the USA there are five certificate levels. Let’s explore them in more detail so you know which pilot license is right for you:

Additional certificates include:

What most pilot license have in common

Regardless of what the different pilot licenses mean, there are some basic requirements that apply to most pilot licenses. For instance, all pilots are required to have some form of medical, whether it’s a formal medical certificate or BasicMed, to perform the privileges of the license.

In 2008 the International Civil Aviation Organization required that holders of Private, Commercial, and Airline Transport Pilot licenses (which are recognized internationally and allow for cross border travel) be able to read, speak, write, and understand English. The English language rule also applies to certificated flight crew, such as flight engineers and navigators.

The FAA also requires that the certificate holder has received the proper ground and flight instruction and has the appropriate endorsements for the flight activities they are performing.

Student pilot certificate

The Student Pilot certificate was originally issued as part of a student pilot’s medical. Following 9/11, a separate certificate was issued, which is required for solo flight during training and a necessary prerequisite to earning a higher license. 

You need to be at least 16 years old (or 14 for gliders and balloons) to apply for the certificate which you can get through the IACRA website. Of all the different pilot licenses, the English speaking requirement does not apply to the Student Pilot Certificate.

Sport pilot certificate

If your flying goals are simply to see and enjoy watching the ground passing by from a different perspective a Sport Pilot certificate may be the easiest way and most effective way to achieve your personal flying goals. The Sport Pilot certificate was introduced along with a category of aircraft called Light Sport Aircraft which have limited speed, power, and a maximum takeoff weight of no more than 1,320 pounds. Light Sport Aircraft are limited to one pilot and a maximum of one passenger, although the weight limitation precludes carrying very much at all.

To earn a Sport Pilot certificate, you need to be at least 17 years old (16 for glider and balloon) and log a minimum of 20 hours training with an instructor. While you may get a third class medical, Sport Pilots can legally fly while holding a valid state-issued US driver’s license.

Pilots are limited to a maximum altitude of 10,000 above sea level, or 2,000 fee above ground level (whichever is higher), although the power limitation of light sport aircraft make it difficult to climb too high. Sport Pilots are also prohibited from at night or in bad weather. But like the early fabric covered trainers that pioneered early aviation, that’s hardly a limitation: among the different pilot licenses, these machines are designed for and really excel at gently cruising a few hundred feet in the air while watching the world scurrying-by below you.

Recreational pilot certificate

With fewer than 100 Recreational Pilots appearing on the FAA’s US Civil Airman Statistics page, it looks like the certificate is in danger of disappearing, although it is still issued. To earn a Recreational Pilot certificate, applicants need to be at least 17 years old, with no exceptions for glider or balloon. Pilots much log a minimum of 30 hours and hold a Student or Sport Pilot certificate.

The declining number of Recreational Pilots is partly due to the limitations placed on certificates holders, which are similar to those of the Sport Pilot certificate. The difference is that Recreational Pilot certificate holders can remove most of those restrictions by flying with an instructor and getting an endorsement to add capability to the license. The thing is, if you’re researching different pilot licenses and thinking about doing the additional training anyway, you may as well get the … 

Private pilot certificate

The amazing thing about earning a Private Pilot certificate is that you can fly in all of the same airspace as a professional pilot without the limitations imposed on Student, Sport Pilot, and Recreational certificate holders. Private Pilots can fly almost any aircraft for non-commercial purposes as long as they receive the appropriate training. They can fly jets at airliner altitudes, carry passengers, and add ratings that let them expand their capability and fly multiengine aircraft in cloudy weather. Unlike the different pilot licenses used to fly recreationally, that freedom comes with the responsibility taking your flying seriously.

To earn a Private Pilot certificate, you need to be at least 17 (16 for gliders and balloons) and hold either a Student, Sport Pilot, or Recreational pilot certificate. To make full use of the license you need third class medical, although you can fly using BasicMed with some additional limitations.

Training for the certificate requires a minimum of 35 or 40 hours. The different training minimums depend on whether you get your license at a Part 61 or Part 141 flight school. Most people take almost double these minimums, although you can take steps to minimize the amount of time you spend earning your license.

Commercial pilot certificate

If you plan to get paid and make a living as a pilot you need to get a Commercial Pilot certificate. For most professionals, a Commercial certificate is the first step on the way to the airlines, but that’s not the only way to earn a living as a pilot. In addition to airline flying, Commercial pilots can fly corporate aircraft for business passengers, or fly law enforcement and search and rescue aircraft. Commercial pilots also fly news and traffic reporting aircraft, and medical evacuation flights as well as charter and freight. Agricultural aviation includes flying crop dusters to apply pesticides and herding cattle. Commercial pilots also tow banners along beaches and take skydivers up for jumps as well as flying camera ships for movies and spotting schools of fish for fishing boats.

There’s a wide variety of flying jobs available to Commercial pilots, but perhaps the most common is flight instruction. To get a Commercial Pilot certificate you need to be at least 18 years old and hold Private Pilot certificate. You need to have logged a minimum of 190 or 250 hours of flight time (depending on whether you are training at a Part 61 or Part 141 school) and hold at least a second class medical to fly for hire.

There are some limitations placed on Commercial pilots without an instrument rating, and opportunities are enhanced with a multi-engine rating.

Airline Transport Pilot certificate (ATP)

At the top of the pilot certificate tree is the airline pilot certificate. While you do not need to be employed by the airlines to apply for it, you do need it to fly for the airlines. Applicants need to demonstrate the highest levels of aeronautical knowledge, fly to the highest standards and be of good moral character.

Airline Transport Pilots need to be at least 23 years old before they apply, although they can get a restricted ATP at age 21. To apply they need to have a Commercial Pilot certificate with an instrument rating and a first class medical certificate.Applicants also need to complete an ATP Certification Training Program (ATP-CTP) for a multi-engine rating or when issued concurrently with a type rating. The minimum number of hours required to apply for an ATP is 1,500. A restricted ATP (R-ATP) can be issued with fewer hours depending on the following prerequisites:

  • Associate degree: 1,250 hours
  • Bachelor degree: 1,000 hours
  • Current or former US military pilot: 750 hours

A restricted ATP limits the certificate holder to the co-pilot or first officer seat in an airliner. Captains flying as pilot in command (PIC) need to have the full ATP certificate.

Flight instructor certificate

Most people who plan to fly for the airlines spend the early part of their career working as a flight instructor. Teaching is a good way to learn from students and get an intensive course in a variety of aeronautical experiences!

To become a flight instructor, you need to be at least 18 and hold either a Commercial or ATP certificate. Every flight instructor will tell you that earning the flight instructor certificate is the hardest of all the certificates they earned. Unlike other certificates, the flight instructor certificate expires after two years, so it pays dividends to keep it current. Even if you no longer work at a flight school training new pilots, you can keep exercising your pilot certificate by conducting flight reviews, issuing endorsements required for pilot certificates. You can also teach advanced students after you get your instrument instructor or multi-engine instructor ratings. 

Remote Pilot certificate

If you’ve been flying drones, you already know that you don’t need a certificate to fly drones recreationally, although to avoid endangering other aircraft the FAA requires you to follow some rules and procedures.

If however you intend to fly a drone commercially, you need a Remote Pilot certificate. The Remote Pilot certificate is issued by the FAA under the Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations (Part 107).

Many pilot jobs are now being replaced by drones, such as surveying, photography, and pipeline patrol, so even certificated pilots should consider getting one. To apply for a Remote Pilot certificate you need to be at least 16 and “in a physical and mental condition” to safely operate a drone. You also need to pass an aeronautical knowledge exam and access the drone during all UAS operations. Unlike the other different pilot licenses, a remote pilot does not need a medical certificate, pilot training or to pass a practical test.

For applicants holding different pilot licenses the requirements are even less. In addition to a current flight review, you need to complete an online training course at the FAASTeam website. Apply for your Remote Pilot certificate using the IACRA website, and validate your identity with an authorized entity such as a Designated Pilot Examiner (FAA DPE) or your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).

The remote pilot certificate is valid for two years after which you need to pass a recurrent knowledge test to review it.

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