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Stepping Stones

Sport and recreational certificates offer alternative entries to aviation

Recreational training myths

For initial flight training, the recreational pilot (and sport pilot) certificate can offer students more variety by allowing them to choose if they want to incorporate cross-country and ATC communication training. Here are a few misconceptions many pilots have about taking the recreational route to the private pilot.

Recreational pilots have no desire to obtain advanced certificates. Most recreational pilots progress to earn the private pilot certificate. As of January, the FAA’s Airmen Certification Branch recorded only 748 recreational pilots; 47 certificates were issued last year. The FAA does not track the number of recreational pilots who have advanced to other certificates.

The recreational is too limiting. Recreational pilots can add many of the privileges offered by the private. They can fly cross-country and in airspace that requires communication with ATC after they receive the proper training and a logbook endorsement from a CFI. (See the training requirements and privileges chart on page 48.)

One of the reasons many students go straight for the private could be purely emotional, speculates Julius Salinas, aviation coordinator at Lake Superior College in Minnesota. Many students have dreams to fly family and friends on long trips, but in reality, they might not be able to afford it, or the family might not enjoy flying. In the end, they exercise recreational privileges.

Students should go straight to the private—it requires only a few more hours. While the minimum number of hours for the recreational is only 10 fewer than for the private pilot, the average that it takes for students to finish these certificates widens the gap—and it grows even larger with sport pilot. The sport pilot requires a minimum of 20 hours (suggested average is 30 to 35); recreational a minimum of 30 hours (average is more than 40); and private a minimum of 40 hours, but it actually averages nearly 70 hours. Sporty’s Academy in Batavia, Ohio, provides recreational pilot training and says that students who pursue the recreational at the school and then transition to the private complete the recreational training and transition in about 10 to 15 fewer hours than students who go straight to the private.

It costs more money. Recreational (and sport) students earn their certificate in fewer hours than private pilot students, cutting the cost of training. Students who transition to the private can earn the certificate in fewer hours, too. Students can save up to $1,500 at Sporty’s by going the recreational route because it cuts 10 to 15 hours of training, which more than covers the cost of an extra knowledge exam and checkride.

Todd Ritchey is like many pilots who pursue the professional pilot track. He earned a two-year degree in aviation, paid his dues as a flight instructor building hours, and eventually became the captain of a Beech King Air 200. In February he landed a copilot job at Delta Air Elite Jet Center, flying a Lear 31 business jet from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

What is different about Ritchey is that he didn’t start flight training with the private pilot certificate in mind. He earned the recreational pilot certificate and then transitioned to the private.

The recreational pilot and sport pilot certificates aren’t just for pilots who take leisure flights to nearby airports and have no desire to fly farther or faster. They can be another point at which student pilots who dream of becoming airline transport pilots (ATPs) begin climbing the professional ladder. “For anybody who wants to do it for fun or professionally, it’s a great place to start,” Ritchey says of the recreational certificate.

Students have more flight-training options today than they did 20 years ago. The recreational pilot certificate, introduced in 1989, and sport pilot certificate, rolled out in 2004, were designed to help reduce the cost and time involved in learning to fly. Sport pilot also eliminates the need for a medical certificate—a valid driver’s license will suffice, although sport pilots still must meet the requirements in Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 61.53. (Those who transition to the recreational or private pilot will need an FAA medical certificate.)

Both are entry-level certificates and require fewer flight-training hours than the private because they don’t confer as many piloting privileges as the private. However, privileges can be added to these more restrictive certificates with additional training, paving the way for a smooth transition to the private—or higher.

Focused training

The sport and recreational training programs break initial flight training into a narrowly focused, more manageable curriculum; build a solid foundation of basic flight skills; offer flexibility that allows students to tailor the training to meet their learning style; and make it easier for students to step up to the private pilot.

“With sport and recreational [certificates] becoming a little more popular, pilot training is just going to shoot off into any direction now,” says Nick DeLotell, an instructor at the Ohio University Community Flight Program, who is instructing his first recreational student. That’s why his student, Earl Stump—a professor at the university—chose the recreational route, a “step-wise approach” to the private pilot certificate.

“The recreational gives you increasing responsibilities, but it’s not overwhelming,” Stump explains, adding, “It’s not as daunting, either. We’re taking things and making them bite-size.”

Both certificates narrow the scope of knowledge required to become a pilot by omitting air traffic control communication, night flying, and instrument training. The recreational also limits cross-country training. Eliminating those areas for recreational and sport pilots allows students to concentrate on takeoffs, landings, and basic maneuvers. “By focusing on the recreational, you’re really learning how to fly the airplane physically,” says Charles Zunk, who started with the recreational and now has a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating and high-performance endorsement.

Students can conquer one aspect of training at a time without feeling overwhelmed because they aren’t subjected to as much information as private pilot students. “I think it is important in your initial flight training to take things step by step, and I think the recreational lets you absorb information better,” says Johann Gebauer, a junior and CFI at Ohio University who worked his way up from the recreational certificate. Gebauer not only absorbed the information quickly, but also mastered to commercial standards the basic maneuvers required for the recreational certificate.

A solid foundation

The narrow scope of flight training for the recreational and sport allows students to build a solid foundation upon which to base the rest of their training to become a professional pilot. “A private student might still be learning these foundational skills while he’s learning cross-countries,” DeLotell said.

What might normally cause a student stress when thrown into initial training, like air traffic control communication, may not seem as daunting once he or she has built confidence in several other areas of flying. For example, Ritchey initially was intimidated by talking to ATC. The recreational allowed him to focus on flying the airplane without the added stress of translating what seems like a foreign language. However, he learned how to communicate during his quick transition to the private when he was able to devote his full attention to communication because he already had built a solid foundation of flight skills. Now, communicating with ATC is part of his everyday job.

Students also could customize their training for the sport or recreational to include ATC communication now that an endorsement to fly in Class B, C, and D airspace is available. Those who live near several towered fields may want to receive the training while working toward their certificates so they can receive an endorsement from their instructor.

Smooth transition

After earning the recreational or sport pilot certificate, pilots can make a smooth transition to the private. Pilots with either certificate will need to receive night, instrument, ATC communication, and additional cross-country training. Depending upon the aircraft used to get the sport certificate, a student may need to transition to another aircraft for the private.

Some students have transitioned to the private just two months after earning the recreational. Gebauer worked out a short transition course with Ohio University. Most colleges should be able to provide a transition flight class to the private pilot certificate. See AOPA’s Aviation College Database to find institutions that offer recreational training.

Clover Park Technical College in Puyallup, Washington, offers initial flight training for the private. Starting this summer or fall, the school hopes to institute sport pilot training, according to Bill Coyner, chief flight instructor. The school’s aviation maintenance program is restoring a Piper Cub that can be used for the training. “I would like to see someone who became a sport pilot eventually upgrade,” Coyner says. Advancing from the sport pilot certificate would be possible at the school.

The step up to the private pilot certificate often is smooth because the pilots have built confidence in their flying abilities by passing a previous checkride and flying as pilot command. “You know you’ve demonstrated how good you are,” Gebauer points out. Sport and recreational pilots can exercise the privileges of their certificates while continuing to train for the private pilot certificate, which often helps pilots stay motivated to finish the training. “It gave me a wider range of things that I could do without the instructor beside me,” Zunk explains. Pilots have this similar freedom when working toward the instrument rating.

The transition checkride to the private also can be simple. The only new information will be detailed cross-country procedures (for recreational pilots), towered airports and ATC communication, night and instrument flying. The basic maneuvers, takeoffs, and landings are the same. By this point, recreational and sport pilots have learned the same information as students who went straight for the private pilot. But they already have one checkride under their belt, which Zunk says helped him to feel more comfortable during the private pilot checkride. The more experience working with an FAA designated pilot examiner, the better—it’s something pilots have to do along each step of the way as they work up the professional ladder. Building experience should be every pilot’s goal, whether pursuing flying for leisure or a career. “It’s a ladder,” Stump says, adding, “It’s a life-long learning experience.” The sport and recreational provide two other avenues to enter the learning process.

Alyssa J. Miller is an assistant editor for AOPA’s electronic publications. A private pilot, she is training for the instrument rating.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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