Generally speaking, there are 7 major types of pilot licenses, and they are: Student, Sport, Recreational, Private Pilot (PPL), Commercial Pilot (CSEL, CMEL), Airline Transport Pilot, and Certified Flight Instructor.
However, some of these levels have separate licensures depending on the aircraft. CSEL, for instance, is a Commercial Single-Engine License where CMEL is a Commercial Multi-Engine License, and CSEL pilots aren’t qualified to fly multi-engine aircraft commercially.
There are also smaller certifications that are required as prerequisites to some of the licenses, and most have to do with IR’s, or “instrument ratings,” which qualify pilots to fly at night or in inclement weather, among other things. Different medical examinations may also be required for advanced licenses.
- 1 Quicklook: Types of Pilot Certificates
- 2 What Are Pilot Certificates?
- 3 How Do Pilot Certificates Work?
- 4 Why Are Pilot Certificates Important?
- 5 7 Types of Pilot Certificates
- 6 Which Type is Best for You?
- 7 Training Complete
Quicklook: Types of Pilot Certificates
- Student: For pilots in training.
- Sport: For daytime operation of lightweight and ultra-lightweight aircraft – often home builds – and not at controlled airports.
- Recreational: For pilots operating slightly larger aircraft than those with a Sport license, but still only by day and not at controlled airports.
- Private: For pilots who want to fly multiple aircraft at night and at controlled airports. This is the most common license.
- Commercial: For pilots who want to be paid for their services.
- Airline Transport: For commercial airline pilots.
- Certified Flight Instructor: For individuals who want to get paid to train other aspiring pilots.
What Are Pilot Certificates?
The number of different certifications, ratings, medical exams, and more can be very confusing for aspiring and student pilots, to say the least. Actual “pilot certificates’ ‘ though, are FAA-required documents given to an individual so they can legally operate a given aircraft with a given payload at a given time of day.
How Do Pilot Certificates Work?
Similar to a driver’s license, the different pilot certificate types serve as proof that an individual is qualified to be operating the aircraft they are operating when and where they are operating it. They are earned by a combination of written knowledge, in-flight time, and a nod of approval from an instructor.
Why Are Pilot Certificates Important?
Simply put, flying can be dangerous, especially at night or in inclement weather. Aircraft vary in size and how they operate and ensuring every pilot in the air is qualified to safely be there is in everyone’s best interest.
7 Types of Pilot Certificates
Here is a closer look at the 7 major certificates pilots need to safely operate in our airspace.
For all of these certifications, proficiency in English is required because it is the international language for aviation (communication with air traffic controllers, for instance). So if you can read this, you’ve already got the first step out of the way! Nice work.
All of the other certifications in this article require a certain number of flight hours to be logged in order to earn the certificate. A student certificate (also called a student pilot license) gives an aspiring pilot the legal right to start logging their hours after completing a number of prerequisites that are done on the ground.
Requirements: In order to hold a student pilot certificate, you must be 16 years old (14 for glider or balloon operation), submit a student pilot application, and obtain a medical examination from a qualified “AME” or aviation medical examiner.
Who This Is For: This is required as a prerequisite for all other certifications on this list.
Benefits: You get to legally fly a plane! (under heavy supervision, of course)
Disadvantages: Extreme limitations, and no solo flights nor flights with any passengers aside from an instructor.
Sport certificates are fairly new and were unofficially created to allow homebuilders to fly their small aircraft around legally. Think of a retired farmer with an airstrip, a garage, and a lot of time on his or her hands. With that in mind, sport certificates do not qualify pilots to fly into controlled airports and may only carry one passenger at a time.
Requirements: Not many! Sport pilots do not need an FAA medical exam (in most cases), and the certificate requires only 20 hours of flight time as a student pilot.
Who This Is For: Experimental pilots who don’t want to use their aircraft for travel, just for a good time. Parachutists, glider pilots, and balloon pilots may only have to get this cert.
Benefits: The quickest and most inexpensive way to legally fly an aircraft in the U.S.
- Can’t fly above 10,000 feet
- Can’t fly in Class B, C, or D airspace
- Can only have 1 passenger
- Can’t fly at night
A recreational pilot certificate (a.k.a. a recreational licence) is only a slight step up from a sport certificate, and is also quite easy to earn (compared to the others, anyway). It allows pilots to fly slightly larger aircraft than a sport certificate, but most of the restrictions beyond that are very similar.
Requirements: Must have 30 hours of flight time on a student pilot’s license.
Who This Is For: Like those with a sport certificate, recreational pilots can not fly into controlled airspace, so this is generally for pilots who want to operate personal aircraft for fun, near their place of takeoff.
Benefits: Inexpensive and allows for operation of what most laypeople would consider a “real plane” compared to some ultralights that sport pilots are qualified to fly.
- Must stay within 50 nm of departure airport
- Can’t fly in B, C, or D airspace
- Can’t fly at night
- One passenger only
This is the most common license for pilots, and what most students aim to achieve. PPLs (especially with additional ratings like IR) gives pilots a lot of legal freedom to operate aircraft, and anyone wanting to monetize their piloting abilities must first obtain a PPL.
- Receive a 3rd class medical exam from a licensed AME
- 17 years of age
- 35 to 40 hours of flight time depending on the source of instruction
Who This Is For: Pilots who want to carry multiple passengers and fly from airport to airport.
Benefits: A PPL allows pilots to utilize flight as a means of transportation, not just recreation as the sport and rec licenses do.
- Medical exam requirement
- Expensive/time consuming
- Still can’t get paid for pilot services
Anyone who wishes to monetize their piloting skills needs to seek a commercial certificate or CPL. This includes those pilots who want to carry passengers for fare, but also people who want to survey, put out fires, or a number of other things that involve payment for flight.
- A second class medical exam from an AME
- 18 years of age
- PPL holder
- 190 – 250 total hours of flight time depending on instruction type.
Who This Is For: Anyone wanting to have the option of making money for flight operations, short of commercial airline pilots (more on that next).
Benefits: Allows you to get paid for flying!
- Extensive hours and training
- Can’t operate large commercial airlines
Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
This is the most advanced certificate for pilots, and allows holders to fly major airliners for a living. Hours are aplenty, though some “shortcuts” exist for former military pilots and individuals graduating from approved universities.
- First class medical exam from an AME
- 1,500 total flight hours logged
- PPL: CPL
- IR rating on CPL
- Complete FAA Airline Transport Pilot Certification Training Program
Who This Is For: Individuals who want to fly major jets with cabins full of people.
Benefits: You can get paid to fly anything!
Disadvantages: None, really, if you’re willing to put in the time!
Flight Instructor Certificate
Pilots need to be trained to get all of these licenses, and the people who do the training are called Certified Flight Instructors and they hold a CFI certificate.
- 18 years old
- CPL holder
- Instrument rated
- 3rd class medical exam from an AME (in most cases)
- 15 hours of “pilot in command” training underneath a CFI (training someone while be watched by a trainer, if you will)
- Proficiency in instruction abilities
Who This Is For: Anyone who wants to train the next generation of pilots.
Benefits: Can train pilots and be paid to do so.
Disadvantages: More training and flight hours.
Which Type is Best for You?
If you want to make piloting a career, you should aim “high” and plan out a path to become an airline transport pilot, the most encompassing and financially serving certificate on this list. If you just want to legally fly planes around on your family plot of hunting land, however, you only have to do a fraction of the qualification work and should look at sport or recreation certificates.
The FAA has created a logical ladder for pilots to continue their training without a lot of pressure. You can have a sport license for years, and then choose to move up to a PPL, and as long as you stay current with your annual checks, you can decide years later to become a commercial pilot, even!
No matter what level of licensure you seek, there is a constant influx of new happenings in the world of aviation.
What are the different types of pilots’ licenses?
There are 7 major types of licenses for pilots: student, sport, recreation, private, commercial, airline transport, and certified instructor.
How many certificated pilots are there?
There are currently about 600,000 private pilot license holders in the U.S. (down from 800,000 in the 80s) and about 113,000 commercial pilots, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
What pilot license do I need to make money?
Anyone with a commercial pilot’s license, or CPL, can be paid for services like aerial photography, crop dusting, search and rescue, and small passenger transport. There is a separate license called an airline transport certificate that you would need to obtain to fly large, commercial airliners.