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Golden Age Aviation, Inc.

Earl C. Downs, President


What Is A Certificated Pilot?


By: Earl C. Downs


Where does the passion for flight come from? Do we fly for the love of flight or for the thrill?  Is it nothing more than a means to an end; a job to produce income? Or, is it the aspiration to fly; the culmination of a quest? Flight may mean some or all of these things, but for many of us it’s just fun, and this is what we call “recreational aviation.” Igor Sikorsky, famed aviator and aircraft designer once said, “Aeronautics was neither an industry nor a science. It was a miracle.”


Speaking for myself, I participate in that miracle every time I fly, and I’ve been at it for 60 years.


To understand recreational aviation it’s important to understand how pilot certification works under the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) rules. The following is a brief outline to give you a taste of what the various pilot certificates mean and what they offer.


However, before we get started with an outline about pilot certificates, the issue of ultralight flying needs to be addressed. I’m flagging this out as a separate issue from pilot certificates because pilot certificates are not required to operate an ultralight. Ultralights represent the ultimate in personal recreational flying in that neither the pilot nor the ultralight aircraft (the FAA calls them vehicles) need to be FAA certificated. Learn more about ultralights from the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA).


FAA pilot certificates come in the following flavors: student pilot, sport pilot, recreational pilot, private pilot, commercial pilot, and airline transport pilot (ATP).


Student Pilot

This is the starting point for all certificated pilots at all certificate levels.  While it is called a certificate, it is really more like a driving “learner’s permit.” It starts out as nothing more than a plastic card and becomes valid for use only after your flight instructor makes various endorsements in your flight training log book. It allows a pilot in training to fly solo in a specified aircraft. All solo flying (no passengers) with a student pilot certificate is carefully controlled by the instructor.



The name “student pilot certificate” is a bit misleading. You don’t have to possess one of these in order to be a student and record (log) training flights. You must simply have it to fly solo.


Sport Pilot

This is the “more fun, less hassle” certificate that is ideal for recreational flying. It allows you to fly with one passenger in an FAA certified, light-weight, limited performance, two place aircraft. The sport pilot rules also created a new definition for an aircraft called a light sport aircraft (LSA). Its primary purpose is to allow the public to enjoy sport and recreational flying while complying with FAA rules designed specifically for this function. This is the only pilot certificate that allows the pilot to carry a passenger without the pilot holding an FAA medical certificate or participating in the FAA BasicMed plan. The required training to receive a sport pilot certificate is half that of a private pilot.


When it comes to recreational aviation, learn more about the sport pilot certificate from the Experimental Aircraft Association.


Recreational Pilot

This is the “medium” recreational license. It restricts you to flying with only one passenger, same as sport pilot, but in a heavier and higher performance FAA certified aircraft than a sport pilot is allowed to fly. The recreational pilot is not limited to flying an aircraft defined as an LSA, but the airplane limitations are still more restrictive than those for a private pilot. The training required for this certificate is slightly less than for a private pilot certificate, but more than a sport pilot certificate.


Private Pilot

A private pilot has very few passenger and airplane limitations. Until the early 1990’s, this was the entry level certificate for a certified passenger-carrying pilot. During the 1960’s, general aviation airplanes became more capable and complex, and the FAA started a policy of making the training requirements for a private pilot certificate match the capabilities of what the industry was producing. This resulted in training becoming more comprehensive and more expensive. While this more comprehensive training does meet the requirements for more advanced flying, it turns out to be overkill for pilots who only want to fly limited performance aircraft for fun and recreation. The recreational and sport pilot certificates give the pilot the option to start out simple and grow more complex if desired.


The FAA website is a good place to get more information about the private pilot and recreational pilot certificates.


Commercial Pilot

This one is commonly misunderstood. It simply means that a pilot may receive compensation to fly. The term “commercial pilot” does not automatically mean airline pilot. Charter pilots, many company pilots, crop dusters, and banner towing pilots are just a few examples of pilots flying for hire who need a commercial certificate. Becoming a commercial pilot involves a lot of flying time and expense. This certificate certainly goes beyond the needs of a recreational pilot.


Airline Transport Pilot (ATP)

This is the highest level of commercial pilot. They are your airline captains, and this certificate is often required for pilots to act in command of the larger and higher performance corporate-type airplanes. Once again, the ATP is way out of the realm of pilot certificates needed for recreational flying.


Okay, all certificated pilots start with a student pilot certificate and then move into training for the pilot certificate of their choice, but no pilot certificate of any kind will just let you fly anything that will clear the ground. All pilot certificates are subdivided into something called category, class, and type.


Category is the basic description of the flying machine such as airplane, glider or lighter-than-air (these aren’t the only categories). Some of these categories are then subdivided again into a “class” of category. For example, airplane classes include single or multi engine planes that may be for land or water. There are more classes than this for the various categories but I am just trying to introduce the concept.


A pilot certificate of any kind limits you to certain categories and classes, and sometimes the specific make and model of aircraft type in which you may “exercise” the “privileges” of your certificate. These limitations are listed on the certificate itself for all pilot certificates, except student pilots and sport pilots.


The student pilot and sport pilot certificate limitations are recorded in the form of endorsements in the pilot’s logbook. These endorsements are earned by receiving the appropriate training and testing from an authorized instructor.


One more nuance about pilot certification. Any certificated pilot may exercise (operate under) the rules of a lower pilot certificate. For example, I’m an ATP but I can operate under sport pilot rules without changing my certificate or taking a test.


There you have it in a rather engorged nutshell. There was a time when Orville Wright issued pilot licenses one at a time. That type of simplicity is gone forever but the existing regulations still support recreational flying through ultralights and the sport pilot certificate.

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