Types of Pilot Licenses – Getting Started

There are different types of Pilot’s Licenses available to those bitten by the flying “bug”. They each have specific requirements including medical exams, practical / written exams, flight hours, and flying exams. Take a look below and see which license might be right for YOU.

  • Recreational Pilot – The recreational license was meant for recreational (read, VERY casual) pilots that were going to stay outside of controlled airports (those with an air traffic control tower) and within 50 miles of their home airport. For some “ordinary” people or flying enthusiasts who simply want to go for a ride every now and again, the recreational pilot certificate might be desirable. This license is still available to student pilots, but most feel that the Recreational license is less popular because most requirements are the same as the Sport Pilot designation with a few more hours required for Sport Pilots.

You must be at least 15 years old to begin training, and 17 years old to take the FAA practical exam. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand English, and you must obtain a Student Pilot certificate and 3rd Class Medical exam.

You must complete and pass (a minimum score of 70%) the FAA Recreational Pilot Written Exam, you’ll need at least 30 hours of flight time, 15 hours of which need to be instructional flights, and 3 hours of solo flight. Additionally, a recreational pilot trainee must achieve at least two hours of training to an airport at least 25 nautical miles from their home airport.

  • Sport Pilot – This license was created with aviation enthusiasts and hobbyists – it costs a lot less than a Private Pilot’s license, but has more restrictions. It does NOT require an FAA medical certificate. If you’re limited by time and / or budget, and won’t be flying outside of your local area, this may be an option for you.If you’ve never had an aviation medical exam, you can fly with just a valid driver’s license.

If you’ve never been denied an aviation medical certificate and have no known health conditions that would adversely affect the safety of flight, then you can fly with a valid drivers license. If you have a known medical condition that could affect flight safety, or you’ve been denied a medical certificate anytime in the past, you must go to an aviation medical examiner to obtain a medical certificate.

For flight training, you’ll need to complete at least 20 hours of flight time in a light sport aircraft. Fifteen of those hours must be instructional (with an instructor) and at least 5 will be solo flight hours.

Once you pass your written test, you’ll also need to complete a “checkride”. The “checkride” is the final test before you earn your Sport Pilot certificate, and it consists of an oral exam and a flight exam. The oral exam is verbal, and it consists of an examiner asking you questions about the aircraft, flight limitations, weather, aeronautical charts, aerodynamics, and other topics.

Once you pass that oral exam, you’ll take the flight portion. During the flight, you’ll be evaluated on specific aircraft maneuvers, including how you operate the plane during normal flight and how you operate the plane during an emergency situation.

  • Private Pilot – The private pilot certificate or license continues to be the most commonly sought-after pilot certification. Some people want to achieve the private pilot certificate because of their dedication to flying as a hobby or sport, others want the convenience of travel for vacations or visiting distant family members. Some private pilots and aircraft owners use their airplane as a primary mode of transportation to business meetings, conventions, or events.

For still others, it’s a step in the road toward becoming an airline pilot.Private pilots are well-trained – enough to navigate a small aircraft through our nation’s airspace by themselves – and during their training, a private pilot learns aircraft maneuvers, navigation techniques, emergency procedures, and cross-country flight planning.

Private pilot training is more intense than training for a sport pilot certificate or a recreational pilot certificate, but not quite as extensive as for a commercial pilot certification.

An applicant for a private pilot license / certification is required to have at least 40 hours of flight time, of which 20 are with an instructor, and 10 are solo flights. Additionally, you’ll need at least 3 hours of cross-country training with your instructor, including 3 hours of night flying, one cross-country that is over 100 nautical miles, 10 takeoffs, and landings, and 3 hours of basic instrument training.

On top of that, you’re required to have 10 hours of solo flying, which includes 5 hours of a solo cross-country flight, and one cross-country that is over 150 nautical miles with landings at three different airports.

Once you pass the written exam and you’ve also completed all of your flying time (with an instructor and alone), you’ll be ready to schedule your “checkride.” The check ride is given by a designated FAA examiner, and it consists of a verbal / oral exam and a flight exam.

The exam can last from 2 to 6 hours, depending on your level of knowledge and the examiner’s methods. The ground portion (verbal / oral) is usually done first and can last from 30 minutes to a few hours. If you are successful in the verbal / oral exam, the examiner will then conduct the flight portion of the exam, which typically lasts 1-2 hours.

If you are successful in the flight portion of the exam, your instructor will help you to complete the FAA paperwork online. You’ll need to pay your instructor (check with him or her beforehand to be sure you’ll be ready) and they will give you a temporary certificate to use while you await the official FAA certificate in the mail.