Pilot certification in the United States is required for an individual to act as a pilot of an aircraft. It is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a branch of the Department of Transportation (DOT). A pilot is certificated under the authority of Parts 61 and 141 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, also known as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).
An FAA-issued pilot certificate is evidence that an individual is duly authorized to exercise piloting privileges. The pilot certificate is one of several kinds of airman certificates issued by FAA.
General structure of certification
A pilot is certificated to fly aircraft at one or more named privilege levels and, at each privilege level, rated to fly aircraft of specific categories. Privilege levels of pilot certificates are, in order of increasing privilege:
Categories of aircraft for which a pilot may be rated are:
Most aircraft categories are further broken down into classes. If a category is so divided, a pilot must hold a class rating to operate an aircraft in that class:
A student pilot certificate does not list category or class ratings, but is instead endorsed by a flight instructor to confer privileges in specific makes and models of aircraft.
A type rating is required in a specific make and model of aircraft if the aircraft weighs more than 12,500 lb (5,700 kg) at takeoff or is powered by one or more turbojet engines. The Boeing 747, Beechcraft Super King Air 350, and the Hawker Hunter are examples of aircraft that require type ratings.
A pilot can separately add an instrument rating to a Private or Commercial certificate. An Airline Transport Pilot implicitly holds an instrument rating; one does not appear on an ATP certificate. Instrument ratings are issued discretely for Airplane and Powered Lift categories and the Helicopter class. Glider and airship pilots may operate under Instrument Flight Rules under certain circumstances as well.An individual may hold only one pilot certificate at one time; that certificate may authorize multiple privilege levels distinguished by aircraft category, class or type. For example, an Airline Transport Pilot certificate holder may be permitted to exercise ATP privileges when flying multi-engine land airplanes, but only Commercial Pilot privileges when flying single-engine land airplanes and gliders.
FAA may impose limitations on an pilot certificate if, during training or the practical test, the pilot does not demonstrate all skills necessary to exercise all privileges of a privilege level, category, class or type rating. For example, a holder of a DC-3 type rating who does not demonstrate instrument flying skills during the practical test would be assigned a limitation reading, "DC-3 (VFR Only)".
To obtain a certificate or add a rating, a pilot usually has to undergo a course of training with a certificated instructor, accumulate and log specific aeronautical experience, and pass a three-part examination: a knowledge test (a computerized multiple-choice test, typically called the "written test"), an oral test and a practical test carried out by either an FAA inspector or a Designated Pilot Examiner.
Another form of authorization is an endorsement from a flight instructor that establishes that the certificate holder has received training in specific skill areas that do not warrant a full test, such as the ability to fly a tailwheel-equipped, high-performance, complex, or pressurized airplane.
Pilot certificates other than student pilot certificates do not expire, although they may be suspended or revoked by the FAA.However, a pilot must maintain currency — recent flight experience that is relevant to the flight being undertaken. To remain current, every pilot has to undergo a flight review with an instructor every 24 calendar months (unless he gains a new pilot certificate or rating in that time or satisfies the flight review requirement using an alternate approved means), and, for most types of certificate, undergo a medical examination at intervals ranging from six months to five years, depending on the pilot's age and desired flight privileges. Other currency requirements apply to the carriage of passengers or to flight under instrument flight rules (IFR).
A medical certificate is not necessary to fly a glider or balloon, or to fly a Light-sport Aircraft. An ultralight aircraft can be piloted without a pilot certificate or a medical certificate.
In addition to pilot certificates, the FAA issues separate airman certificates for Flight Engineers, Flight Instructors, Ground Instructors, Aircraft Dispatchers, Mechanics, Repairmen, Parachute Riggers, Control Tower Operators, Flight Navigators and Flight Attendants.
Most pilots in the U.S. undergo flight training as private individuals with a flight instructor, who may be employed by a flight school. Those who have decided on aviation as a career often begin with an undergraduate aviation-based education. Some pilots are trained in the armed forces, and are issued with civilian certificates based on their military record. Others are trained directly by airlines. The pilot may choose to be trained under Part 61 or Part 141 of the FARs. Part 141 requires that a certified flight school provide an approved, structured course of training, which includes a specified number of hours of ground training (for example, 35 hours for Private Pilot in an airplane). Part 61 sets out a list of knowledge and experience requirements, and is more suitable for students who cannot commit to a structured plan, or for training from freelance instructors.
Most pilot certificates and ratings require the applicant to pass a knowledge test, also called the "written test". The knowledge test results are valid for a period of 2 years, and are usually a prerequisite for practical tests. Resources available to prepare for the knowledge test may be obtained from pilot supply stores or vendors. The exceptions where a knowledge exam is not required for a practical test are for some add-on ratings after the initial license, such as a powered aircraft pilot adding an additional category rating at the same license level.
In order to take knowledge tests for all pilot certificates and ratings, the applicant must have a sign-off from a ground or flight instructor. These are usually given by an instructor who has taught a ground school course, provided ground instruction or reviewed the applicant's self-study preparations.
All pilot certificates and ratings require a practical test, usually called a "check ride". For each practical test, the FAA has published a Practical Test Standards document which is expected to be used by the applicant to prepare, by the flight instructor to teach and evaluate readiness for the exam, and by the examiner to conduct the exam. A practical test is administered by an FAA Inspector or an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. The check-ride is divided into two parts: the oral exam followed by a flight test in the aircraft. Upon successful completion of the practical test, the examiner will issue a temporary airman certificate with the new license or rating.
In order to take practical tests for all pilot certificates and ratings (except Airline Transport Pilot), the applicant must have proper logbook endorsements from their flight instructor.
Becoming a professional pilot
In aviation, a pilot's level of income and experience are closely related. There are multiple ways to gain the experience to be hired by a scheduled air carrier. Air carriers generally require that the pilots they hire have hours of experience far in excess of the legal minimum. This experience is often gained using these common methods:
The FAA offers a progression of pilot certificates, each with its own set of privileges and limitations. All pilots must be at least 17 years old (16 for a student, or a glider or balloon pilot), and be able to read, write, speak, and understand English.
A student pilot certificate is issued by an aviation medical examiner (AME) at the time of the student’s first medical examination; for operations not requiring a medical certificate, a student pilot certificate can be issued by an FAA inspector or an FAA-designated pilot examiner. The student pilot certificate is only required when exercising solo flight privileges. The student certificate is valid until the last day of the month, 24 months after it was issued. Once a student has accrued sufficient training and experience, a CFI can endorse the student's certificate to authorize limited solo flight in a specific type (make and model) of aircraft. A student pilot may not carry passengers, fly in furtherance of a business, or operate an aircraft outside of the various endorsements provided by the flight instructor.
There is no minimum aeronautical knowledge or experience requirement for the issuance of a student pilot certificate other than the medical requirements for the class of medical certificate (see below) the student certificate is based upon. There are, however, minimum aeronautical knowledge and experience requirements for student pilots to solo, including:
The Sport Pilot certificate was created in September 2004 after years of work by the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA). The intent of the new rule was to lower the barriers of entry into aviation and make flying more affordable and accessible.
The new rule also created the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category of aircraft which are smaller, lower-powered aircraft. The sport pilot certificate offers limited privileges mainly for recreational use. It is the only powered aircraft certificate that does not require a medical certificate; a valid vehicle driver's license can be used as proof of medical competence PROVIDED the prospective pilot was not rejected for their last Airman Medical Certificate (see Sport Pilot Catch 22).
Before a trainee can start the solo phase of flight training, a Student Sport Pilot Certificate must be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These may be obtained from an FAA Flight Standards District Office or FAA Designated Pilot Examiner.
To qualify for the Sport pilot certificate, an applicant must:
The above requirements are for heavier-than-air powered aircraft (airplanes). The requirements for gliders, balloons, helicopters, and dirigibles vary slightly.
Sport Pilots are only eligible to fly aircraft that are either certified specifically as light-sport aircraft (LSA) or were certified prior to the LSA regulations and are within the maximum weight and performance limitations of light-sport aircraft.
The restrictions placed on a Pilot exercising the privileges of a Sport pilot certificate are:
The Sport pilot certificate is also ineligible for additional ratings (such as an Instrument rating), although time in light-sport aircraft can be used towards the experience requirement of other ratings on higher certificate types.
The recreational pilot certificate requires less training and offers fewer privileges than the private certificate. It was originally created for flying small single-engine planes, and has since been largely supplanted by the Sport Pilot certificate. It is significantly more restrictive than a private pilot license. The holder is restricted to 50nm from his field of departure and from operating in the vicinity of airports with a control tower, though these restrictions can be lifted with additional training and endorsements.
The private pilot certificate is the certificate held by the majority of active pilots. It allows command of any aircraft (subject to appropriate ratings) for any non-commercial purpose, and gives almost unlimited authority to fly under visual flight rules (VFR). Passengers may be carried and flight in furtherance of a business is permitted; however, a private pilot may not be compensated in any way for services as a pilot, although passengers can pay a pro rata share of flight expenses, such as fuel or rental costs. Private pilots may also operate charity flights, subject to certain restrictions, and may participate in similar activities, such as Angel Flight and flights for organizations such as Pilots-n-Paws, CAP (Civil Air Patrol), and ARF (animal rescue flights).
The requirements to obtain a private pilot certificate for "airplane, single-engine, land", or ASEL, (which is the most common certificate) are:
A commercial pilot may be compensated for flying. Training for the certificate focuses on a better understanding of aircraft systems and a higher standard of airmanship. The commercial certificate itself does not allow a pilot to fly in instrument meteorological conditions. For aircraft categories where an instrument rating is available, commercial pilots without an instrument rating are restricted to daytime flight within 50 nautical miles (93 km) when flying for hire.
A commercial airplane pilot must be able to operate a complex airplane, as a specific number of hours of complex (or turbine-powered) aircraft time are among the prerequisites, and at least a portion of the practical examination is performed in a complex aircraft.
The requirements are:
By itself, this certificate does not permit the pilot to set up an operation that carries members of the public for hire; such operations are governed by other regulations. Otherwise, a commercial pilot can be paid for certain types of operation, such as banner towing, agricultural applications, and photography, and can be paid for instructing if he holds a flight instructor certificate. To fly for hire, the pilot must hold a second class medical certificate, which is valid for one year.
Often, the commercial certificate will reduce the pilot’s insurance premiums, as it is evidence of training to a higher safety standard.
Airline transport pilot
An airline transport pilot (commonly called an "ATP" or "ATPL") is tested to the highest level of piloting ability. The certificate is a prerequisite for acting as a pilot-in-command in scheduled airline operations.
The minimum pilot experience is 1500 hours of flight time and 500 hours of cross-country flight time. Other requirements include being 23 years of age, instrument rating, being able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language, a rigorous written examination, and being of good moral character.
With the advent of private commercial space flight ventures such as Scaled Composites' Tier One program, the FAA has been faced with the task of developing a certification process for the pilots of commercial spacecraft. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 required companies to obtain a launch license for vehicles, but at the time manned commercial flight - and the licensing of crewmembers - was not considered. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act has led to the issuance of draft guidelines by the FAA in February 2005 for the administration of vehicle and crew certifications. Currently, the FAA has not issued formal regulatory guidance for the issuance of a Commercial Astronaut Certificate. The FAA has established the practice of awarding "Commercial Astronaut Wings" to commercial pilots who have completed a spaceflight; currently, two awards have been made, to SpaceShipOne pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.
It should be noted that the Scaled Composites' SpaceShip One is formally registered as a glider, reflecting the fact that most of its independent flight is unpowered (notably return). As a result, SpaceShip One's Test Pilots are required to be certified as commercial glider pilots.
Number of active pilots
As of the end of 2006, there were 597,109 active certificated pilots, according to the AOPA Jan. 12, 07 newsletter which cites the FAA's estimates. This number has been declining slowly over the long term, down from a high of over 827,000 pilots in 1980. The numbers include:
Within those groups, there were:
An active pilot is defined as one who holds both a pilot certificate and a valid medical certificate, so this value omits pilots who do not have a medical certificate (particularly troublesom are glider, balloon, and sport pilots, these pilots do not require a medical certificate).
Other certificates and ratings
United States military pilots are issued an Aviator Badge upon completion of flight training and issuance of a pilot's certificate. Badges for crew or ground positions are also issued to qualified applicants.
Medical certification and requirements
All certified pilots, with the exception of those with a sport pilot certificate or when in command of balloons or gliders, are required to maintain a medical certification commensurate with the privileges they intend to exercise as pilot-in-command of an aircraft.
To obtain a medical certification, pilots are required to undergo a medical examination from an Aviation Medical Examiner, or AME. The Aviation Medical Examiner performs an examination based upon the class of certification desired.
Medical certifications are divided into three classes:
Third class certifications require the least involved examinations of all medical certifications. They are required for those intending to be pilot-in-command of an aircraft under the Private or Recreational pilot certificates or while exercising solo privileges as a student pilot.
To qualify for a third class medical certificate, pilots must meet the following requirements:
For pilots under 40 years of age, third class medical certificates expire on the last day of the month they were issued, five years from the date of issue. The FAA changed this rule from three to five years on July 24, 2008. For all others, they expire on the last day of the month they were issued, two years from the date of issue.
Second class certifications are required for those intending to exercise the privileges of the commercial pilot certificate. It is possible to obtain a commercial power pilot's license while holding a third medical, but the licensee cannot exercise privileges beyond that of a private pilot.
To qualify for a second class medical certificate, pilots must meet the requirements for the third class certificate plus:
Second class certificates are valid until the last day of the month, twelve months after they were issued. The certificate holder may then only exercise the privileges of a third class medical certificate.
First class certificates are required for those intending to be pilot-in-command in an air carrier operation requiring an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Other operations, including those under Part 91, may require a first class medical for insurance purposes, although it is not a federal requirement in such cases.
To qualify for the first class medical certificate, pilots must meet the requirements for the third and second class certificates plus:
For pilots under 40 years of age, first class medical certificates expire on the last day of the month they were issued, one year from the date of issue. The FAA introduced this rule on July 24, 2008. For all others, they are valid until the last day of the month, six months after they were issued. The certificate holder may then only exercise the privileges of a second class medical certificate.
Pilots who do not meet the above requirements may be issued a medical certificate under a "special issuance." A special issuance is essentially a waiver for a disqualifying condition and is evaluated on a case-by-case basis depending on the class of certificate requested. Minor problems can be overcome by a special issuance from an Aviation Medical Examiner, while others require a special issuance from the FAA directly.
Restrictions may be placed upon a medical certificate to mitigate any concern for safety. For instance, color-blind pilots are typically issued a restriction reading, "NOT VALID FOR NIGHT FLIGHT OR BY COLOR SIGNAL CONTROL." This mitigates the concern that color-blind pilots may not be able to identify those colors required for the performance of safe airman duties by preventing situations that are considered potentially unsafe.
In many cases, these restrictions can be removed through a "Statement of Demonstrated Ability" (SODA), or a "Letter of Evidence" from the FAA indicating that the pilot's deficiency is of no concern.
In addition to pilot licenses the FAA also issues other airmen certificates.
Pilots do not need FCC licenses to use the radio within the United States; however, other countries may require that a pilot have an FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit (RR), and the aircraft radio station be licensed.
Published in July 2009.
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