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 the 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:
- Student Pilot: an individual who is learning to fly under the tutelage of a flight instructor and who is permitted to fly alone under specific, limited circumstances
- Sport Pilot: an individual who is authorized to fly only Light-sport Aircraft
- Recreational Pilot: an individual who may fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower and 4 seats in the daytime for pleasure only
- Private Pilot: an individual who may fly for pleasure or personal business, but not for hire
- Commercial Pilot: an individual who may, with some restrictions, fly for compensation or hire
- Airline Transport Pilot (ATP): an individual authorized to act as pilot in command for a scheduled airline
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:
- Lighter than air
- Powered lift
- Powered parachute
- The Airplane category is divided into single-engine land, multi-engine land, single-engine sea and multi-engine sea classes
- The Rotorcraft category is divided into helicopter and gyroplane classes
- The Lighter-than-air category is divided into airship and balloon classes
- The Powered parachute category is divided into powered parachute land and powered parachute sea
- The Weight-shift-control category is divided into weight-shift-control land and weight-shift-control sea
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.
A student pilot certificate is issued by an aviation medical examiner (AME) at the time of the studentís 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 or 60 months (depending on age) 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:
- Hold at least a current third class medical certificate (except for glider, balloon or sport pilot).
- Be at least 16 years of age (14 for glider or balloon)
- Read, speak, write, and understand the English language.
- Demonstrate satisfactory aeronautical knowledge on a knowledge test, including knowledge of the following areas:
- Airspace rules and procedures for the airport where the solo flight will be performed
- Flight characteristics and operational limitations for the make and model of aircraft to be flown
- Receive and log flight training for the maneuvers and procedures appropriate to the make and model of aircraft to be flown, including:
- Preflight operations
- Taxiing or surface operations, including run-ups
- Takeoffs and landings, including normal and cross-wind
- Straight and level flight, and turns in both directions
- Climbs and climbing turns
- Airport traffic patterns, including entry and departure procedures
- Collision avoidance, wind shear avoidance, and wake turbulence avoidance
- Descents, with and without turns, using high and low drag configurations
- Flight at various airspeeds from cruise to slow flight
- Stall entries from various flight attitudes and power combinations with recovery initiated at the first indication of a stall, and recovery from a full stall
- Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions
- Ground reference maneuvers
- Approaches to a landing area with simulated engine malfunctions
- Slips to a landing
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:
- Be at least 17 years old
- Be able to read, speak, write and understand the English language
- Obtain at least a third class medical certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner (except for glider or balloon)
- Pass a computerized aeronautical knowledge test
- Accumulate and log a specified amount of training and experience, including the following:
- If training under Part 61, experience requirements are specified in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations section 61.109 including at least 40 hours of piloting time including 20 hours of flight with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including "cross-country", 10 hours of solo (i.e., by yourself) flight time in an airplane, including at least
- Solo requirements:
- 5 hours of solo cross-country time
- One solo cross-country flight of at least 150 NM total distance, with full-stop landings at a minimum of three points and with one segment of the flight consisting of a straight-line distance of at least 50 NM between the takeoff and landing locations
- Three solo takeoffs and landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower.
- Night requirements:
- 3 hours of night flight training
- One cross-country flight of over 100 nautical miles (190 km) total distance
- 10 takeoffs and 10 landings to a full stop (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport
- 3 hours of flight training on the control and maneuvering solely by reference to instruments
- If training under Part 141, at least 35 hours of piloting time including 20 hours with an instructor and 5 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including cross-country and night flights
- Pass an oral test and flight test administered by an FAA inspector, FAA-designated examiner, or authorized check instructor (Part 141 only)
The Multi-engine rating can be obtained as a Private, Commercial or ATP pilot.
This rating allows you to fly aircraft with more than one engine.
The Flight Instructor you use for this rating must be certified as an MEI (Multi-Engine Instructor).
To be eligible to pursue an Instrument Rating, the applicant must:
- Hold at least a Private Pilot Certificate.
- Pursuant to the requirement to hold the Private Pilot Certificate, the applicant must be at least 17 years old.
- Be able to read, write, and converse fluently in English.
- Hold a current FAA Medical Certificate, unless the Practical Examination is administered, in its entirety, in an FAA-certified Level D Flight Training Device.
- Receive and log ground training from an authorized instructor (i.e. ground school course) or complete a home-study course using an instrument textbook and/or videos.
Candidates for the instrument rating must be knowledgeable in IFR-related items in the AIM, the U.S. ATC system and procedures, IFR navigation, the use of IFR charts, aviation weather, requirements for operating under IFR conditions, recognition of critical weather, Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) and Crew Resource Management (CRM).
Flight Experience and Training
- Candidates must also pass the FAA instrument rating knowledge test with a score of 70% or better.
Operations Requiring an Instrument Rating
- Accumulate flight experience per FAR 61.65:
- The candidate must have at least 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot in command, which can include solo cross-country time as a student pilot. Each cross-country must have a landing at an airport that is at least a straight-line distance of more than 50 NM from the original departure point.
- The candidate must make at least one cross-country flight that is performed under IFR and transits a distance of at least 250 NM along airways or ATC-directed routing and includes an instrument approach at each airport so that a total of three different kinds of instrument approaches are performed.
- The candidate also needs a total of 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time, including a minimum of 15 hours of instrument flight training from a Flight Instructor certified to teach the instrument rating (CFII)
- Up to 20 hours of the instrument training may be accomplished in an approved flight simulator or flight training device if the training was provided by a CFII.
- Within 60 days of the practical test, the candidate needs to log 3 hours of instrument training from a CFII in preparation for the test.
- Receive and log training, as well as obtain a logbook endorsement from your CFII on the following areas of operation: preflight preparation, preflight procedures, air traffic control clearances and procedures, flight by reference to instruments, navigation systems, instrument approach procedures, emergency operations, and postflight procedures.
- Successfully complete the instrument rating practical test (an oral and flight test), as specified in Practical Test Standards (PTS) for the instrument rating, which will be conducted by an FAA designated examiner.
A pilot must have an instrument rating in order to act as Pilot in Command of a flight below VFR weather minimums and/or under IFR. The rating is also required:
- When flying an airplane under Special VFR at night (helicopters are excepted from the regulation.)
- When a commercial pilot is flying an airplane carrying passengers for hire, on flights in excess of 50 nautical miles (90 km) or at night.
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 12 months.
- Be at least 18 years of age
- Hold a private pilot certificate
- Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language
- Accumulate and log a specified amount of training and experience; the following are part of the airplane single-engine land class rating requirements:
- If training under Part 61, at least 250 hours of piloting time including 20 hours of training with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including several "cross-country" flights, i.e. more than 50 nautical miles (93 km) from the departure airport (which include Day VFR and Night VFR 100nm between points, with a time of at least 2hrs; also one cross country which is done solo 250nm one way, 300nm total distance with landings at 3 airports) and both solo and instructor-accompanied night flights
- If training under Part 141, at least 190 hours of training time including 55 hours with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including several cross-country, solo, and night flights
- Pass a 100-question aeronautical knowledge test
- Pass an oral test and flight test administered by an FAA inspector, FAA-designated examiner, or authorized check instructor (Part 141 only)
Often, the commercial certificate will reduce the pilotís insurance premiums, as it is evidence of training to a higher safety standard.
Biennial Flight Review
The flight review (previously the Federal Aviation Administration referred to this as a biennial flight review, usually abbreviated BFR) is a review required of every active holder of a U.S. pilot certificate at least every 24 calendar months. The flight review consists of at least 1 hour of ground instruction and 1 hour in-flight with a qualified flight instructor.
Before being able to act as pilot in command (PIC) a pilot must have completed a flight review within the previous 24 calendar months. The FAA and instructors are quick to point out that it is not a test.
There is no pass or fail criteria, although the instructor giving it can decline to endorse your log-book that a flight review has been completed.
A flight test (administered by an FAA representative or Designated Pilot Examiner) that leads to a new certificate or rating may be substituted for the flight review. Completion of a proficiency check administered by a check airman (typically air carrier pilots) can also be used.
If you are in the U.S. Armed Forces, and have passed a pilot proficiency check within 24 months, you do not need to have a BFR. (61.56(d))
IFR currency requirement
Under FAR 61.57, to be eligible to fly in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) an IFR-rated pilot must accomplish and log at least the following IFR procedures under actual or simulated IMC every 6 months:
An Instrument Proficiency Check administered by a CFII within the last 6 months is another way of complying with the IFR currency requirement.
- 6 instrument approaches
- Holding procedures
- Intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems
Certified Flight Instructor
A person who holds a flight instructor certificate ( called a "Certificated Flight Instructor", or CFI) is authorized to give training and endorsements required for, and relating to:
- A student, private, commercial or other pilot certificate;
- The 3 hours of training with reference only to instruments in preparation for a Private Pilot certificate, note that this does not need to be a CFII
- An Instrument Rating, only if the CFI has an Instrument Instructor Rating (CFII); This cannot be given by a "Safety pilot". A safety pilot can only be used to help maintain instrument proficiency with an instrument-rated pilot by flying the required six instrument approaches-holding-intercepting/tracking courses, within preceding six calendar months.
A Flight Instructor Certificate is only given if he has met the experience requirements (detailed below);
- a flight review, endorsement (BFR), or recency of experience requirement;
- preparation for a practical test (typically three hours within the preceding 60 days in preparation for a certificate or rating); or
- endorsement for a knowledge test (written examination)
Certain limitations are placed on the instruction a flight instructor may give; for example, flight instructors wishing to train applicants for a flight instructor certificate must have held their own flight instructor certificate for at least 24 months and given at least 200 hours of instruction. Specific training programs have additional requirements or limitations.
Flight instructors in the United States must hold at least a commercial pilot certificate or ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) certificate. Individuals wishing to give instruction in airplanes or powered-lift aircraft are additionally required to hold an instrument rating in the desired category and class. Holders of a sport pilot certificate may obtain a flight instructor certificate with sport pilot rating, allowing them to give instruction for the sport pilot certificate in light-sport aircraft.
All individuals desiring flight instructor privileges must pass two additional written exams (Fundamentals of Instruction, or FOI; and a knowledge test specific to the category of aircraft in which instructional privileges are desired, such as fixed-wing) as well as a practical test. Flight Instructors must be at least 18 years of age to be eligible.
An instrument instructor rating authorizes a certified flight instructor to give training and endorsement for an instrument rating.
A multi-engine instructor rating authorizes a certified flight instructor to give training and endorsement for a multi-engine rating.
Airline Transport Pilot
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 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, 100 hours night time, 75 hours instrument (simulated or actual). 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.