How it all works: Pilots
There are many different kinds of pilots. After all, millions of Americans have learned how to fly. Some fly just for fun. Some fly as a way to travel to their jobs. And some are career pilots who fly professionally to earn a living.
The basic types of pilots in successive order of qualifications include student, sport, recreational, private, instrument rated, commercial, certificated flight instructor, airline transport pilot, and designated pilot examiner. By the way, you may hear it called a pilot’s license, but technically it’s called a pilot certificate.
Pilots are certificated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for particular types of flying activities. A system of certificates, together with a set of add-on ratings is used to specify not only what types of aircraft pilots may fly, but also whether they may carry passengers, fly for hire, or fly in certain weather conditions.
Pilot certificates are earned through the successful completion of ground school, written examination, oral examination, and flight test. Pilot certificates do not expire; they are valid until surrendered, suspended, or revoked. In addition to a pilot certificate, pilots also must have a current medical certificate issued by an FAA-designated physician. Before they fly, they must meet various currency requirements.
This is where everyone starts. Student pilots learn to fly while working their way through the knowledge and flying skills needed to earn their sport, recreational, or private pilot certificate. A student pilot’s flying privileges are very limited but provide enough freedom to allow them to learn all of the basics, including standard airport-to-airport cross-country flying skills and interaction with air traffic control (ATC). In 2003, there were 87,296 student pilots.
When student pilots first start learning to fly, they complete all of their flights with a certificated flight instructor (CFI) on board. Once they’ve reached the age of 16, have a valid Class III medical, and have mastered the basic skills and educational topics of flight, they can solo (fly alone without an instructor or other certificated pilot at the controls). The destination and duration of each solo flight must be approved.
Student pilots are allowed to operate only at or near their "home-base" airports and—with a special sign-off by their instructors—travel to other local airports to practice their airport-to-airport cross-country flying skills. Student pilots learn how to fly in good weather during the day and night. They also learn basic instrument flying skills, which teach them how to fly by reading the instruments in the cockpit and without visual reference to the ground. They are not allowed to carry any passengers, or to fly for hire. They are not allowed to operate in the busiest airspace around our largest cities (Class B airspace) without special training and flight instructor approval.
Sport pilots generally fly in aircraft that fly at low speeds—less than 100 mph. The sport pilot certificate, introduced in 2004, created a new medical standard for pilots. Sport pilots do not need a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificate to fly an aircraft. They may use their current driver’s license as proof that they are medically fit to operate low-speed aircraft.
Sport pilots must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 20 hours of flight time (although experience suggests that the certificate may take closer to 30 or 35 hours to earn). This includes 15 hours of flight training and five hours of solo flight.
Sport pilots may fly cross-country; however, they cannot operate at airports or in airspace that require communication with air traffic control (ATC) unless they receive the proper training and endorsements from a certificated flight instructor (CFI). They cannot fly after dark, and they can carry only one passenger.
They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a CFI.
Recreational pilots are primarily people who learn to fly for fun, with little interest in becoming professional pilots or using airplanes as a practical means of traveling from place to place. Recreational pilots must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 30 hours of flight time (the real-world average is more than 40 hours), including a minimum of 15 hours of flight instruction.
Recreational pilots may not fly more than 50 nautical miles (about 58 miles) from an airport at which they have received instruction, unless they receive appropriate cross-country training and a special instructor’s endorsement. Recreational pilots may not carry more than one passenger at a time, and they may not fly for hire or at night. They are not permitted to operate an aircraft on any charity flights, nor in connection with a business or their employment. They may fly only single-engine airplanes that have fixed landing gear, no more than four seats, and an engine of no more than 180 hp. They may not fly in airspace where communication with air traffic control (ATC) is required unless they receive the appropriate training and have a special endorsement from a certificated flight instructor (CFI).
As a result of these restrictions, the vast majority of people studying for their recreational pilot certificate continue to earn their private pilot certificate. Because of this, there usually are only about 300 pilots with the recreational certificate each year.
Recreational pilots must have a current Class III medical, which they must renew every 24 or 36 months (depending upon age). They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a CFI.
Private pilots comprise the largest group of pilots and are among the most active fliers. In 2003, there were 241,045 private pilots. To become a private pilot, one must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time (the actual average is about 70 hours), including 20 hours of instruction and 10 hours of solo. Pilots trained according to accelerated curricula defined in Part 141 of the federal aviation regulations may be certified with a minimum of 35 hours of flight time.
A private pilot—with appropriate training, ratings, and endorsements (e.g., floatplane, taildragger, multiengine, helicopter, jet, retractable gear, pressurized, high-performance, complex, etc.)—may carry passengers in any aircraft, day or night, good or bad weather (see Instrument Rating below).
Private pilots may not fly for compensation or hire (no passenger or revenue services) but may share equally with their passengers the direct operating expenses of a flight—specifically fuel, oil, airport parking and landing fees, and aircraft rental charges.
Private pilots must have a current Class III medical, which they must renew every 24 or 36 months (depending upon age). They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a certificated flight instructor (CFI).
While technically not a pilot certificate, the instrument rating is the most common and logical step to take after gaining some experience while flying with a private pilot certificate. This add-on rating 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 instrument rating provides the skills needed to complete flights without visual reference to the ground, except for the takeoff and landing phases. All pilots who fly above 18,000 feet mean sea level (msl) must have an instrument rating.
The instrument rating makes the use of aircraft more practical for routine transportation because most of the time, an "IFR-rated" pilot will be able to safely conduct their flight in spite of the weather conditions they may encounter.
The instrument 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 at least 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.
If not used on a regular and sufficient basis, pilots must revalidate their instrument rating every 12 months by undertaking an instrument proficiency check with a CFI.
As the name implies, commercial pilots can be paid to fly aircraft. Commercial pilots 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), including 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). They 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. They may fly for hire in accordance with applicable parts of the federal aviation regulations.
Commercial pilots must have a current and more stringent Class II medical, which they must renew every 12 months. They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a certified flight instructor (CFI). There were 123,990 commercial pilots in 2003.
A certificated flight instructor (CFI) is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to give instruction to student pilots and pilots taking recurrent training or preparing for additional certificates or ratings. They also may give flight reviews and recommend their students for flight tests. CFIs must be at least 18 years old and must hold at least a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating. CFIs may earn a special instrument instructor rating, allowing them to teach instrument flying (operating an aircraft in the air solely by instrument indications without visual reference to the ground). An instructor with this rating is called a CFII.
In addition to undertaking their normal flight review every 24 months, CFIs must revalidate their instructor certification every 24 months. There were 87,816 flight instructors in 2003.
This is the doctorate degree of piloting—and 143,504 pilots were in this distinguished category in 2003. 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. They may not instruct pilots outside of air transportation service unless they also have an appropriate fight instructor certificate.
ATPs must have a current and much more stringent Class I medical, which they are required to renew every six months. Like all pilots, they must revalidate their certificates every 24 months with a flight review. However, most active ATPs undergo a checkride in an aircraft or simulator every six months.
If the airline transport pilot is the doctorate degree of piloting, then becoming a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated pilot examiner (DPE) is the equivalent of mastering advanced post-doctoral work. These individuals are few and far between. They’re almost like judges in that they have to be appointed by the regional FAA flight standards district office (FSDO). Before one can become a DPE, he or she usually has to wait for one of the current DPEs in that region of the United States to retire. As the name implies, these people have been designated by the FAA to test or examine the performance of their fellow pilots. DPEs typically have decades of real-world experience and perform the majority of official FAA checkrides or flight tests for everyone from new pilots to seasoned airline captains.
As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.