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Types of certificates

Local or long distance? Date night or family outing? Clear skies or weather or not?

The type of certificate you earn will depend largely on the type of flying you want to do. Take a look at the three most common certifications and decide what is right for you.

Private pilot certificate: The driver’s license of the sky

  • 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 (and share expenses with) as many passengers as your aircraft will legally allow.
  • Fly at altitudes up to 18,000 feet.
  • Operate under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). You must earn an instrument rating to fly in clouds or other weather conditions that require navigation solely by reference to instruments.
  • You can fly at night under VFR.
  • You will be required to maintain currency and medical requirements for proficiency and health.
  • Most pilots start out with their private pilot certificate.

Sport pilot certificate: Simpler training, lighter aircraft

  • This certificate is ideal for those who want to fly recreationally and don’t plan on taking more than one passenger.
  • Requires fewer hours of training (20) than either the private pilot certificate.
  • Sport pilots can only fly smaller, slower one- or two-seat aircraft classified as light sport aircraft (LSA).
  • Flight is limited to Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions.
  • Night flying is not allowed.
  • A current and valid driver’s license is required, but you are not required to meet recurring medical certification.
  • Sport pilots can advance to a private pilot certificate with additional training.

Recreational pilot certificate: Fun flying close to home

Recreational pilots can carry only one passenger in single-engine aircraft of 180 horsepower or less with up to four seats.

  • The recreational pilot certificate requires fewer training hours than the private certificate. Since flight is limited to within 50 nautical miles of your home base, fewer hours of cross-country navigation training are required.
  • You won't have to learn to fly in airspace requiring communications with air traffic control.
  • Flying must be during daylight hours in good weather. Night and instrument flying is not included in the curriculum.
  • You can fly up to 10,000 feet (unless flying over terrain, such as a mountain, that is higher than 10,000 feet.)
  • The recreational pilot certificate provides the opportunity to fly many common aircraft. With additional training, you can add privileges that will enable you to fly at night, farther than 50 nautical miles, and/or in towered airspace, all of which could also get you closer to a private pilot certificate.

If you’re not sure which type of certificate is right for you, head out to your local airport and talk to management of the local flight school. Tell them what your goals are and they can help you choose the right path to get you in the air.

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.