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Pilot licensing or certification refers to permits to fly aircraft that are issued by the National Aviation Authority (NAA) in each country, establishing that the holder has met a specific set of knowledge and experience requirements. This includes taking a flying test. The certified pilot can then exercise a specific set of privileges in that nation's airspace. Despite attempts to harmonize the requirements between nations, the differences in certification practices and standards from place to place serve to limit full international validity of the national qualifications. In addition, U.S. pilots are certificated, not licensed, although the word license is still commonly used informally. Legally, pilot certificates can be revoked by administrative action, whereas licensing (e.g., a driver's license) requires intervention by the judiciary system.
In the United States, pilot certification 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 and 141 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, also known as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).
In most European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and many others, licensing is issued by the National Aviation Authority (NAA) according to a set of common rules established by the Joint Aviation Authorities known as Joint Aviation Rules – Flight Crew Licensing (JAR-FCL).
Pilot licensing began not too long after the invention of powered airplanes in 1903. Since early aviation largely developed in the United States and Europe (in particular France), the first of what were ancillary licenses appeared in those nations. In the U.S. the Aero Club of America was a gathering body used to discuss the different advancements in aviation. They were formed around 1905 as an offshoot of the American Automobile Association, which already existed. As aeroplanes became more popular after public flights by the Wright Brothers and others, more and more people were buying machines and taking to the skies. Since in those days most men built their own machines, they were usually the ones to test fly them and if an individual bought a machine from one of the several manufacturers, then that particular manufacturer had a school to teach the buyer how to fly his aeroplane. The first Aero Club of America certificates were not mandatory and were more for prestige and show. The qualifications for an Aero Club ticket was to ascend in the machine and fly a course of a figure-eight at a given height. Individual states sometimes posed a mandate for a license but it wasn't a Federal cause until 1917. The first persons to be awarded certificates by the Aero Club were men who had already flown and the bestowing was honorary:
In Europe, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale or FAI was founded in 1905 and, like the Aero Club, was a prestigious aviation body. Certificates or ratings from them were not mandatory. Their criteria was pretty much the same as the Aero Club.
Pilots are 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: 
In addition, a type rating is required for particular aircraft over 12,500 pounds, or aircraft that are turbojet powered. Further endorsements are required for high performance (more than 200 horsepower), complex (retractable landing gear, flaps, and a controllable pitch propeller), or tailwheel equipped aircraft, as well as high altitude operations.
Most Private Pilot certificates are issued as "Private Pilot: Airplane Single Engine Land," which means the pilot may fly any single engine, land based airplane they are qualified in. A pilot is only qualified in the category and class of aircraft in which they successfully complete their checkride. A checkride consists of a 2 part process, an oral test and a flight test. During the oral portion, the examiner quizzes the applicant on what they learned in ground school, and asks practical questions. The flight test ensures the applicant is a safe and competent pilot. The checkride examiner's job is to see that only safe applicants become pilots. Therefore, a pilot who takes a Commercial Pilot checkride in a multi-engine, land-based aircraft and passes may only exercise the privileges of a Commercial Pilot in multi-engine, land-based aircraft. That pilot may not exercise the privileges of a Commercial Pilot in single engine or sea-based aircraft without passing the appropriate parts of a checkride in those particular categories of aircraft.
Pilots typically attain ratings in this order:
Note: Hours can often be earned concurrently and are cumulative. For example, after acquiring a private certificate, a pilot can get an instrument rating with an additional 20–30 hours hours of training. In the course of the Commercial Pilot training, most pilots also receive their high performance and complex endorsements, as well as get a multi-engine rating before applying for the Airline Transport Pilot license.
The majority of pilots hold a Private Pilot Licence. To obtain a private pilot license, one must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 35–45 hours of flight time (60–80 hours is average), including at least 20 hours of instruction and 10 hours of solo flight. Pilots trained according to accelerated curricula outlined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations may be certified with a minimum of 35 hours of flight time. Private pilots may not fly for compensation or hire. However, they may carry passengers as long as they have the appropriate training, ratings, and endorsements. Private pilots must have a current Class III medical exam, which must be renewed every 24 or 60 months (depending on age). In addition private pilots must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a certificated flight instructor (CFI).
An Instrument rating is technically not a pilot certificate, but an add-on that allows a pilot to fly in weather with reduced visibilities such as rain, low clouds, or heavy haze. When flying in these conditions, pilots follow instrument flight rules (IFR). The training provides the skills needed to complete flights without visual reference to the ground, except for the takeoff and landing phases. In the U.S. all pilots who fly above 18,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL) (a lower limit of Class A airspace) must have an instrument rating.
This rating requires highly specialized training by a certificated flight instructor (CFI) with a special instrument instruction rating (CFII), and completion of an additional written exam, oral exam, and flight test. Pilots applying for an instrument rating must hold a current private pilot certificate and medical, have logged at least 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command, and have at least 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time including at least 15 hours of instrument flight training and instrument training on cross-country flight procedures.
Commercial pilots can be paid to fly an aircraft. To obtain a Commercial Pilot License, one must be at least 18 years old and have a minimum of 250 hours of flight time (190 hours under the accelerated curriculum defined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations). This includes 100 hours in powered aircraft, 50 hours in airplanes, and 100 hours as pilot in command (of which 50 hours must be cross-country flight time). In addition, commercial pilots must hold an instrument rating, or be restricted to flying for hire only in daylight, under visual flight rules (VFR), within 50 miles of the originating airport.
Airline Transport Pilot
Airline transport pilots (ATPs) must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, including 500 hours of cross-country flight time, 100 hours of night flying, and 75 hours in actual or simulated instrument flight conditions. Most ATPs have many thousands of hours of flight time. ATPs also must have a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. ATPs may instruct other pilots in air transportation service in aircraft in which the ATP is rated. ATPs must have a current and much more stringent Class I medical exam, which renew every six months or one year (depending on age). Like all pilots, they must revalidate their certificates every 24 months with a flight review.
MPL pilots must be at least 18 years old, have a minimum of 240 hours of flying training, and 750 hours of theoretical knowledge instruction. Developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization, requirements for the Multi-Crew Pilot License (Aeroplane) – MPL(A) were included in the 10th edition of Annex 1 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Personnel Licensing), which superseded all previous editions of the Annex on 23 November 2006. MPL is a significant development in training professional pilots. It represents the first time in 30 years that ICAO has significantly reviewed the standards for the training of flightcrew. The Center Air Pilot Academy in Denmark was the first FTO worldwide to graduate MPL pilots for Sterling.
Other licenses include: