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A Breakdown of the 7 Different Types of U.S. Pilot Certificates

Before you can get behind the control wheel of a plane, you must first qualify for a pilot certificate (the official term for a pilot’s license). These certificates dictate things such as type of aircraft you’re allowed to fly, when you can fly, how far you can fly and much more. There are seven main types of pilot certificates a pilot can earn in the United States – this article breaks down their individual purposes and requirements so you can pinpoint which one is right for you. Keep reading to find out more!


Student Pilot Certificate

This is likely the first certificate you’ll obtain on your quest to become a pilot, acting as a “learners permit” for flying a plane. A student pilot is defined as an individual who is learning to fly under a flight instructor and who is permitted to fly alone under limited circumstances, however they don’t need one in order to start training.


To be eligible for a student pilot certificate, these are the main requirements you must meet:

  • Be at least 16 years old. If you plan to pilot a glider or balloon, you must be at least 14 years old.
  • Read, speak, and understand English.
  • Have proof of identity, such as government-issued photo ID.
  • Complete an application through the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website or by paper using FAA form 8710-1 and submit it to 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.


Sport Pilot Certificate

Sport pilot certificate is next up and is relatively easy to obtain, compared to others on this list. Requiring only 20 hours of training, minimum, a pilot with a sport certificate is authorized to fly only light-sport aircraft (LSA). LSAs have limitations such as only two seats, no night flight and altitude limitations.


If you plan on flying an LSA, you will need to meet the following training requirements:


  • Complete 20 hours of flight time:
    • 15 hours of flight training from an authorized instructor.
    • 5 hours of solo flight.
  • Complete an FAA knowledge test on applicable aeronautical knowledge areas.
  • Complete an FAA practical test for the applicable light-sport aircraft privilege.


Recreational Pilot Certificate

Introduced in late 2014, a recreational pilot license (RPL) is a relatively new alternative to a private and sport pilot license. It allows pilots to fly light, single-engine aircraft as the pilot in command, independently of a flying school, without supervision. In addition, the pilot can only fly during daytime, must remain within 50 nautical miles (NM) from the origination airport and cannot fly into controlled (A, B C or D) airspace or towered airports. For some farmers or enthusiasts who simply want to go for an airplane ride every so often, the RPL is a good choice, as recreational pilots may fly larger aircraft than sport pilots, but they have more limitations on where they may fly.


To obtain a recreational pilot certificate, you must meet the following training requirements:


  • Pass a required knowledge test
  • Pass a required oral and practical flight test administered by an FAA designated examiner
  • Hold either a student or sport pilot certificate.
  • Complete 30 hours of flight time:
    • 15 hours of flight training
    • 3 hours of solo time
    • 2 hours of cross-country flight, greater than 25NM


Private Pilot Certificate

Next on our list is the private pilot certificate – perhaps the most common type of license that most pilots obtain. If a student pilot license is the “learning permit” of the sky, a private pilot license is the “driver’s license”. A private pilot license allows you to fly in most airplanes (some additional instrument rating tests may be required for more advanced aircraft) alone or with other people, almost anywhere inside the U.S., as well as outside the country (as long as regulations of that country are followed). However, there are restrictions; for example, you may not receive compensation for flying  or fly in certain weather conditions.  


Those trying to obtain a private pilot license must meet the following training requirements:


40 hours minimum which consists of at least:

  • 20 hours minimum of flight training with an instructor on areas of operation, including:
    • 3 hours of cross country flight training in a single-engine airplane.
    • 3 hours of night flight training in a single-engine airplane.
    • 3 hours of flight training by reference to instruments in a single-engine airplane.
    • 3 hours of flight training in a single-engine airplane within the 60 days prior to the practical test.
  • 10 hours minimum of solo flying in a single-engine airplane on areas of operation, including:
    • 5 hours of solo cross country flying.
    • 1 solo cross-country flight of at least 150NM total distance with full stop landings at 3 points and one segment of at least 50NM between takeoff and landings.
    • 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower.


Commercial Pilot Certificate

A commercial pilot certificate grants you the ability to fly for compensation or hire, with some restrictions. While this certification doesn’t allow operation of scheduled airliners, this is what is needed to fly charters, tow banners, freight planes and the like.


In order to become a commercial pilot, meet the following requirements:


  • Must be at least 18 years of age.
  • Hold at least a private pilot license.
  • Hold at least a second-class medical certificate from the FAA.
  • Log training hours by an authorized instructor.
  • Pass a pilot knowledge test administered by the FAA.
  • Have at least 250 hours of recorded flight time:
    • 100 hours in powered aircraft.
    • 100 hours of pilot-in-command training.
  • Pass the FAA written and FAA checkride flight exams.


Flight Instructor Certificate

For those looking for an exciting, rewarding career as a pilot, a flight instructor certificate may be the best choice for you. Often, this is the first step to the next certificate (airline transport pilot), allowing you to build up hours, experience and expertise in a variety of areas, all while getting paid to teach others how to fly. Becoming a flight instructor involves learning a bit about instructional design, learning theory, and going into all commercial pilot topics much more in depth.


In order to become a flight instructor, meet the following training requirements, including:


  • Flight instructor applicants must be at least 18 years old, be able to read, speak, write and understand English, and hold either a commercial pilot certificate or an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.
  • Pass the Fundamentals of Instruction (FOI) exam.
  • Pass the FAA Certified Flight Instructor Knowledge exam.
  • Hold an instrument rating in the desired category and class of airplane.


Airline Transport Pilot Certificate

At the tip-top of the certificate scale is the highly desired airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. This certification authorizes you to fly for a scheduled airline, a dream of many aspiring pilots. By far the most difficult to obtain, the requirements to become certified are much more in-depth than other certifications on this list.


To be eligible to take the FAA ATP practical test, candidates must have:


  • Minimum 1500 hours of experience in aircraft.
    • 250 hours as pilot-in-command.
  • Be at least 23 years old.
  • Obtain a commercial pilot certificate.


To take a deeper look at the requirements needed to obtain an ATP certificate, visit this section on the FAA’s website.


Choosing the Right Certificate For You

Only you can make the decision about how far you want to take your training and the level of certificate you want to achieve. Overall, a private pilot certificate is a good place to start, giving you the freedom to fly a variety of aircraft solo, while putting you in a good place to climb the ladder should you so choose.


Do you want to obtain a pilot certificate? Get in touch with our team of professional flight instructors at Inflight Pilot Training today!


Inflight is a leading pilot training company serving the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. With a reputable training program and extensive roster of highly skilled, certified flight instructors, it’s our goal to help you achieve the certification you want. From private pilot certificates to airline transport pilot certificates and everything in between, we can help you reach your goals – get in touch with our team of flight instructors to find out more.

For additional information on Inflight training programs, contact us today or call (952) 698-3000.