There are three primary certificates, commonly called licenses, that you can earn in order to enjoy the privileges, challenges, and beauty of flying: the sport pilot, recreational pilot, and private pilot certificates. To be eligible to receive either certificate in a single-engine airplane, you must meet a few minimum requirements.
Whatever certificate you decide to earn, you'll need to meet certain requirements for aeronautical knowledge, flight proficiency, and experience. Find out more about the process.
Which certificate you choose to earn depends on why you want to fly. The recreational certificate is a good choice if you plan to fly locally for fun at your home airport and don't foresee traveling large distances by airplane. The sport pilot certificate may be best for you if you plan on flying smaller, two-seat airplanes. If you plan an aviation career or want to fly long distances for business or pleasure, the private pilot certificate is the better choice. You can start with a recreational or sport pilot certificate and later receive the additional training for a private certificate. A table is provided at the end of this section to help you compare the types of certificates.
Private pilots can fly a variety of aircraft and travel almost anywhere in the United States.
A private pilot certificate is like a driver's license. It allows you to fly almost anywhere in the United States and even outside the United States when you comply with regulations of the foreign country where the aircraft is operated. You can carry any number of passengers, and you can share certain operating expenses with your passengers. A private pilot has fewer limitations than a recreational or sport pilot. Although there are currency and medical requirements to make sure you stay proficient and healthy, only a few other factors affect when and where you can fly. Once you earn your license, you are free to wander around in the skies below 18,000 feet to your heart's content. You might take the family on a trip to see relatives in a distant state or use an airplane to shorten the time it takes to make business trips to another city.
One restriction to a private pilot's freedom of flight comes from Mother Nature—the weather. You can fly in some weather conditions but not others, at least without additional training. As a private pilot, you can’t fly in the clouds unless you earn an instrument rating: If it's raining outside and you can't see the neighbor's house through the fog, you shouldn't be wandering around in the sky unless you've been trained in the fine art of flight in instrument meteorological conditions.
With a private pilot certificate, you can fly at night as long as you have received the required night training. Training for night flying is almost always included as part of a private pilot training curriculum. Without a doubt, a crystal-clear, moonlit night is one of the most spectacular and beautiful times to fly. Most pilots start out with their private pilot certificate.
Sport pilots may fly two-seat aircraft called light sport aircraft.
The sport pilot certificate was created in 2004 as a simpler, less expensive way to fly. This certificate requires fewer hours of training (20) than either the private pilot or the recreational pilot certificate, and sport pilots enjoy many of the same privileges as private pilots. The certificate does, however, come with limitations. Sport pilots may only fly smaller, slower one- or two-seat aircraft classified as light sport aircraft; during good weather; and not at night. See AOPA’s frequently asked questions for more information on sport pilot limitations.
A sport pilot certificate can cut the costs of training and get new pilots in the air faster. Light sport aircraft generally have lower operating costs than comparable larger aircraft, and while sport pilots need a current and valid driver’s license, they do not need to go through the recurring medical certification process. This license may be right for you if you plan to fly recreationally and don’t plan on taking more than one passenger with you. Plus, it’s easy to step up to a private pilot certificate with some additional training.
Recreational pilots can fly the most common general aviation aircraft, but are limited in how far and where they may fly unless they get further training.
Get more details on the recreational pilot certificate, as well as advice on how to decide if it’s a good fit for you, here.
Recreational pilots may fly larger aircraft than sport pilots, but they have more limitations on where they may fly. The recreational pilot certificate requires fewer training hours than the private certificate; as a recreational pilot you receive fewer hours of cross-country navigation training because you must remain within 50 nautical miles of your home base unless you have additional endorsements. You also won't have to learn to fly in airspace requiring communications with air traffic control. And night operations and flight by reference to instruments, which are part of the private pilot training, are eliminated from the recreational pilot's curriculum.
Because of the reduced training requirements, recreational certificate holders are subject to certain limitations and restrictions. As a recreational pilot, you can carry only one passenger in single-engine aircraft of 180 horsepower or less with up to four seats. It won't be a problem finding aircraft that meet the aircraft type requirements. Most general aviation aircraft that are inexpensive to rent or purchase fall into the above-mentioned categories.
As a recreational pilot, your flying must be during daylight hours in good weather. You can fly no higher than 10,000 feet unless you happen to be flying over terrain, such as a mountain, that is higher than 10,000 feet.
Earning a recreational pilot certificate may be a shorter route to flying than the private pilot certificate, with access to many common aircraft that sport pilots may not fly. It is also a stepping stone to help you build experience should you decide to get your private pilot certificate later. Depending on your point of view and what you plan to do with your flying, the restrictions may not seem limiting at all.
If you’re not sure which type of certificate is right for you, head out to your local airport! Talk to management of the local flight school or flying club. What types of aircraft do they have? How much would you need to talk to air traffic control in your area? Tell them what your goals are for flying, and they can help you choose the right path to achieving them.