The majority of pilots today hold the private-pilot certificate. It requires at least 40 hours of training (with 60+ hours typical) and allows you to fly day or night, near or far, as long as you follow the rules.
One of the rules is that you must fly aircraft that have a current airworthiness certificate. That’s a good thing—except that the type-certificate regulations for manufacturing these aircraft also cover planes manufactured for commercial use to fly lots of passengers many miles above the earth’s surface. Getting a new aircraft design certified by the FAA can cost many millions of dollars. That’s why there have been few new models introduced to the GA marketplace in decades. Most models are upgrades from ones that first flew 40 years ago. Even so, the latest models start at over $100,000 and go up—way up.
One of the exceptions to these rules is homebuilt aircraft. By following plans or building from a complete kit you could legally build an airplane that didn’t require a stringent certification. These are termed “experimental aircraft.” The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) was born more than 50 years ago to serve this market.
About 30 years ago a new category of aircraft snuck in under the wire: ultralights. These are single-passenger aircraft intended for flying to nearby destinations. They use limited-power engines and basic airframes to take the pilot up for sightseeing. These aircraft do not have to meet FAA certification requirements. There are many fine examples of safe and fun-to-fly ultralights buzzing around the sky. No passengers allowed!
Fifteen years ago, the FAA introduced a new pilot category with the recreational-pilot certificate. It was intended to bridge the gap between ultralight and private pilots, requiring fewer hours of training but having many limitations. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Training requirements were cut by only 10 hours (from 40 to 30), but there were some limitations applied to the certificate that limited its usefulness. You can fly a four-seat aircraft but carry only one passenger. There are less than 400 active recreational-pilot certificates.
Learning from errors is how pilots get to be old. The FAA also has learned and, with the help of the EAA and others, came up with what’s called the SP/LSA ruling. It’s actually two major rule changes, one covering sport-pilot certification and the other covering how the new light-sport aircraft are built. These rules are written to answer the need for lower-cost—but entirely safe—aircraft for pilots who want to learn as they go. For example, the sport pilot can be certified to fly a specific model type out of small airports. Once the sport pilot wants to fly into bigger airports, he or she must take additional training and get an endorsement, something like a permission slip. The sport pilot cannot fly at night but, if desired, the pilot can train for a private-pilot certificate that allows night flying. It makes sense.