Pilot certification in the United States

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Front side of an airman certificate issued by the FAA.
Back side of an airman certificate issued by the FAA.

Pilot certification in the United States is typically 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 certified under the authority of Parts 61 or (if training was conducted by an FAA-approved school) 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 the FAA.

General structure of certification[edit]

A pilot is certified 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:[1]

Pilots can be rated in these aircraft categories:[1][2]

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:[1]

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.[1]

To legally operate under instrument flight rules (IFR), a pilot can separately add an instrument rating to a private or commercial certificate. An airline transport pilot implicitly holds an instrument rating, so the instrument rating does not appear on an ATP certificate. The FAA issues instrument ratings separately for airplane and powered lift categories and the helicopter class (INSTA and INSTH).[1] Glider and airship pilots may also operate under Instrument Flight Rules under certain circumstances.[3] 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. Similarly a Commercial Pilot holder with a glider rating may have only Private Pilot privileges for single-engine land airplanes.

The FAA may impose limitations on a 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 Flight Instructor (CFI) under 14CFR61 or enroll at an approved course at a 14CFR141 approved flight school. The applicant must 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.[4] 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. For most types of certificate, he must also 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, balloon, or light-sport Aircraft. An ultralight aircraft may 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.[5]

Pilot training[edit]

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.

Knowledge tests[edit]

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 another category rating at the same license level.[6]

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. Certain circumstances don't require sign-offs for some flight instructor or airline transport pilot knowledge tests.

Practical tests[edit]

All pilots certificates and ratings require a practical test, usually called a check ride. For each practical test, the FAA publishes a Practical Test Standards document that they expect the applicant to study, the flight instructor to teach and evaluate against, and the examiner to use 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 issues a temporary airman certificate with the new license or rating. 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[edit]

In aviation, a pilot's level of income and experience are closely related. There are multiple ways to gain the experience required for hire 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. Effective August 1, 2013, all airline pilots must have An Airline Transport Pilot Certificate (ATP) or an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate with restricted Privileges (ATP-r). An ATP allows a pilot to act as the Captain or First Officer of an airline flight and requires 1,500 hours of Total flight time as well as other requirements (i.e. 25 hours of night, 23 years old). see 14CFR61.159. An ATP-r certificate allows a pilot to act as a First Officer in a two pilot crew if they don't meet certain requirements. For example the total flight time requirement is reduced to as little as 750 hours and the age requirement is reduced to 21. see 14CFR61.160.

Experience is often gained using these common methods:

Pilot certificates[edit]

The FAA offers a progression of pilot certificates or licenses. Each license has varying experience and knowledge requirements and has varying privileges and limitations.

Student pilot[edit]

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 either 24 months (older than 40) or 60 months (younger than 40) after it was issued.[7] 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). Additional endorsements must be logged for specific airports where a student operates solo.

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:[8]

Solo requirements:

Limitations while flying solo:

Sport pilot[edit]

The Sport Pilot certificate was created in September 2004 after years of work by the Experimental Aircraft 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.

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:[9]

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.

Recreational pilot[edit]

The recreational pilot certificate requires less training and offers fewer privileges than the private pilot certificate. It was originally created for flying small single-engine planes but has since been largely replaced by the Sport Pilot certificate.
Eligibility requirements:

Limitations and restrictions:

Private pilot[edit]

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, Civil Air Patrol and many others.

The requirements to obtain a private pilot certificate for "airplane, single-engine, land", or ASEL, (which is the most common certificate) are:[14]

Commercial pilot[edit]

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.[16] 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.[17]

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 (In the case of lighter-than-air, only a commercial pilot certificate is required to teach for that category). To fly for hire, the pilot must hold a second class medical certificate, which is valid for 12 months.

Often, the commercial certificate reduces the pilot’s insurance premiums, as it is evidence of training to a higher safety standard.

Airline transport pilot[edit]

An airline transport pilot (commonly called an "ATP") is tested to the highest level of piloting ability. The certificate is a prerequisite for acting as a flight crew-member in scheduled airline operations.

The minimum pilot experience is 1,500 hours of flight time (1200 for Helicopters), 500 hours of cross-country flight time, 100 hours of night flight time, and 75 hours instrument operations time (simulated or actual). Other requirements include being 23 years of age, an instrument rating, being able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language, a rigorous written examination, and being of good moral character.[18]

An Airline Transport Pilot - restricted (ATP-r) is also available for pilots that do not meet the more rigorous requirements of an ATP. The only hour requirement for the ATP-r is 1,500 total and 200 cross country. The "total time" requirement is reduced to 750 hours for former military pilots, 1,000 hours for graduates of university bachelors degree programs, or 1,250 for graduates of university associates degree programs. The holder of an ATP-r is limited to only serving as the First Officer in a two pilot operation. Upon obtaining the requisite age and aeronautical experience, the pilot is issued an unrestricted ATP without further examination. see 14CFR61.160 (requirements) and 14CFR61.167(privileges and limitations)

Number of active pilots[edit]

As of the end of 2013, in the US, there were an estimated 617,128 active certificated pilots.[19] This number has been declining gradually over the past several decades, down from a high of over 827,000 pilots in 1980. There were 702,659 in 1990 and 625,581 in 2000. The numbers include:

These numbers are based on the highest certifications held by individual pilots.

The numbers also include:

An active pilot is defined as one who holds both a pilot certificate and a valid medical certificate, for certifications that require a medical certificate.

Other certificates and ratings[edit]

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[edit]

FAA Medical Certificate

All certified pilots, with the exception of those with a sport or Recreational pilot certificate[21] (or when in command of balloons or gliders, including power assisted gliders), are required to maintain a medical certification commensurate with the privileges they intend to exercise as pilot-in-command of an aircraft.

For sport pilot certificate applicants or holders, regulations state that a medical is required if the applicant/pilot does not hold a valid United States drivers license.

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[edit]

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.[23][24] For all others, they expire on the last day of the month they were issued, two years from the date of issue.

Second class[edit]

A second class medical is required for those intending to exercise the privileges of the commercial pilot certificate. It is possible to obtain a commercial pilot certificate while holding a third class 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[edit]

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.[23][24] 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 until the last day of the month, twelve months after the certificate was issued, thereafter the privileges of a third class medical until the last day of the month, twenty four months after the medical was issued ( FAA $61.23 (d-1-iii) ).

Special issuance[edit]

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 are evaluated case-by-case 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. A common restriction for pilots who require glasses or contacts to meet the required visual acuity standards is that they "MUST WEAR CORRECTIVE LENSES." 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.

For color blind pilots, in many cases these restrictions can be removed through use of an FAA approved alternative office based color vision test, which if passed, the applicant must continue to retake that same test (or any other passable tests) at every renewal. If the pilot applicant is unable to pass any of the office based tests, a real world operational test is available. This test consists of a ground based chart reading and signal light test for Third Class (Called the Operational Color Vision Test or OCVT), and in addition to that, a specialized "Medical Flight Test" (MFT) is required for Second and First classes, in which the applicant performs an actual flight test with an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) for the purpose of further demonstrating the ability to perceive those colors necessary for the safe performance of airmen duties. If passed, a "Letter of Evidence" (LoE) from the FAA is issued, which indicates that the pilot's deficiency is of no concern. This allows the pilot to receive a medical certificate with no restrictions at every subsequent renewal.

Non-pilot certifications[edit]

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 (pilot certificates double as FCC radio licenses); however, other countries may require that a pilot have an FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit (RR), and the aircraft radio station be licensed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart A—General, Section 61.5 "Certificates and ratings issued under this part"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  2. ^ ultralight category of aircraft in the US requires no specific training and no certification. Examples include powered parachute, and weight-shift-control aircraft. However, sporting groups give extensive training and certification for these aircraft.
  3. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart A—General, Section 61.3 "Requirement for certificates,ratings and authorizations"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  4. ^ Certain privileges conferred by a pilot certificate are restricted when the holder reaches age 60 and expire at age 65. See "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart A—General, Section 61.3 "Requirement for certificates,ratings and authorizations"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  5. ^ "Flight Standards Service - Civil Aviation Registry - Airmen Certification Branch Responsibilities". Federal Aviation Administration. 2006-05-30. Retrieved 2008-08-22. 
  6. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart B—Aircraft Ratings and Pilot Authorizations, Section 61.63 "Additional aircraft ratings (other than on an airline transport pilot certificate)"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2008-04-26. 
  7. ^ http://www.asa2fly.com/Student-Pilot-FAQ-C356_category.aspx
  8. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart C "Student Pilots"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2008-04-26. 
  9. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart J "Sport Pilots"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2008-04-26. 
  10. ^ http://www.aopa.org/letsgoflying/cert_comparison.html?keepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=530&width=675
  11. ^ FAR 61.96
  12. ^ FAR 61.99
  13. ^ FAR 61.101
  14. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart E "Private Pilots"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  15. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart E "Private Pilots", Section 61.103 "Eligibility requirements: General."". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2014-11-10. 
  16. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart F "Commercial Pilots"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2008-04-26. 
  17. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart F "Commercial Pilots"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2013-02-21. 
  18. ^ "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors", Subpart G "Airline Transport Pilots"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved 2008-04-26. 
  19. ^ FAA Active Airmen, Table 1, retrieved 20 Dec 2012
  20. ^ http://www.asaviationservices.com/groundinstructor.html
  21. ^ Code of Federal Regulations: Title 14: Aeronautics and Space PART 61—CERTIFICATION: PILOTS, FLIGHT INSTRUCTORS, AND GROUND INSTRUCTORS Subpart D § 61.96 Applicability and eligibility requirements: General.—Recreational Pilots
  22. ^ An individual with one eye, or effective visual acuity equivalent to monocular, may be considered for medical certification, any class, through the special issuance section of part 67 (14 CFR 67.401). (http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/avs/offices/aam/ame/guide/app_process/exam_tech/et/31-34/mv/)
  23. ^ a b (http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/pdf/E8-16911.pdf)
  24. ^ a b (http://www.aopa.org/flightplanning/articles/2008/080723medical.html)

External links[edit]