FAA pilot certificates come in the following flavors: student pilot, sport pilot, recreational pilot, private pilot, commercial pilot, and airline transport pilot (ATP). Just in case you’re wondering what happened to flight instructors, the instructor’s certificate is not a pilot certificate. The following is a brief look at each one of these certificates starting at the beginning level and climbing to the highest level of pilot certification.
This is the starting point for all certified pilots. While it is called a certificate, it is really more like a new automobile driver’s “learners permit.” It starts out as nothing more than a piece of paper and becomes valid for use when it is endorsed by your instructor. It allows a student pilot to fly solo in a FAA certified aircraft. All solo flying with a student pilot certificate is carefully controlled by the flight instructor. The student pilot rules apply to all new pilots who are just starting out no matter what pilot certificate they are aiming for.
The name “student pilot certificate” is a bit misleading. A student may receive and record flying lessons from a flight instructor in any aircraft at any age without a student pilot certificate. The student pilot certificate is not required until it is time for the student to fly solo.
This is the new “more fun, less hassle, lower cost” certificate. It allows you to fly with one passenger in an FAA certificated, light-weight, limited performance, two-place aircraft. These aircraft must fall under the FAA definition of a light sport aircraft (LSA). The sport pilot certificate’s 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 “medium” recreational license. It allows you to fly with one passenger in a heavier and higher performance FAA certified aircraft than is allowed for a sport pilot. The recreational pilot eligible aircraft may not have more than 4 seats, but only one passenger may be carried even if it has up to 4 seats. The airplane may not have an engine of more than 180 horse-power, and unlike a sport pilot, recreational pilot eligible aircraft are not limited by the weight or speed of the aircraft.
A private pilot has very few passenger and airplane limitations. With proper training, private pilots are allowed to fly a variety of aircraft, including jets. The primary limitation applied to private pilots is that they may not fly as a pay-for-hire pilot.
This one is commonly misunderstood. It simply means a pilot may receive compensation to act as a pilot. The term “commercial pilot” does not automatically mean airline pilot. Charter pilots, aerial applicators (crop dusters) and banner towing pilots are a few example pilots flying for hire who need a commercial certificate.
Airline Transport Pilot (ATP)
This is the highest level of commercial pilot. They are your airline captains and pilots of large corporate aircraft.
Earlier in this discussion I mentioned that the flight instructor certificate is not a pilot license. It is a certificate that allows the already certificated pilot to perform training required by the regulations. Some flight instructors are certificated to provide flight training at all pilot levels, and some are restricted to sport pilot training only.
You can’t talk about pilot certification without addressing the concern that a pilot must be medically fit to fly. So, the FAA came up with a system to provide some assurance of pilot medical fitness. Doctors are appointed by the FAA to perform three levels of medical examinations. First and second class medical certificates apply to ATP and commercial pilots, and the third class medical applies to everyone else.
However, only sport pilots and student sport pilots are given an option of medical certification. They are allowed to use a valid state driver’s license in lieu of obtaining an FAA medical certificate. If the driver’s license lists any limitations, those limitations apply to the pilot. If a person wanting to become a sport pilot does not have a driver’s license, they must obtain an FAA third class medical certificate.
The medical rules also require a pilot with any level of pilot certificate and medical qualification to remain grounded if they know they have a medical deficiency that could affect the safety of the flight.
All pilots are trained to the same piloting skill levels when they start out. The difference in training comes with how much training is added for higher certification. For example, private pilots are authorized to fly in visibility as low as one mile, and they are also allowed to fly at night. Therefore, they must receive some instrument flying and night flying training to become certificated. Sport pilots may not fly in visibility of less than three miles, and they are restricted to day flying only. Therefore, instrument and night flying training are not required.
Training Costs to Become a Pilot
I’m only going to discuss the cost of obtaining a sport pilot, recreational pilot and private pilot certificate. My cost comparison applies to the total training to become certificated which includes the training as a student pilot. Because there are so many variables involved, I’ll make this a cost comparison and I’ll use fictitious “units” rather than dollar figures.
Let’s say it cost 100 units to obtain a private pilot certificate. You can figure a recreational pilot certificate would run about 80 units and a sport pilot certificate would come in at around 50 units. Of course if you are able to borrow or buy a plane to train in, the real dollars spent will be different than renting a plane at a flight school. However, if all three pilots in our comparison used the same system of receiving training, the cost comparison would be about as I have described.
One purpose of the sport pilot certificate was to lower the cost of becoming a certificated pilot, and it works. If your plan is to just enjoy aviation for fun and recreation, sport pilot gives you a lot of bang for your bucks. However, becoming a sport pilot can also open up a neat way to get around. Sport pilot eligible planes are allowed to cruise at up to two miles per minute and a sport pilot may fly any distance in the United States. Sport pilot is a good value.
So far, I have been comparing sport pilot with the other pilot certificates as it relates to someone starting out as a new pilot. However, sport pilot also offers something to already certificated pilot. Sport pilot is unique in that it is the only pilot certificate that allows a state issued driver’s license to be used as medical certification. This means a pilot holding any pilot certificate is allowed to let their existing medical certificate expire and simply operate under the rules for sport pilot (they can’t do this if their medical certificate has been denied or revoked). These pilots do not have to re-certify or take a new test to do this.
Sport pilot, has found its place in the FAA pilot certificate lineup. It has introduced people to flying that never thought they could do it, and I know many pilots with higher pilot certificates who are now operating as sport pilots and enjoying its simplicity. When it comes time to sit around the aviators’ table to raise our glasses in recognition of recreational aviation, a sport pilot can proudly lead the salute.
"Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."
-- Andre Gide