The Federal Aviation Administration, or the FAA, is the government body responsible for regulating the safety of commercial air travel. The FAA, among their other functions, sets licensing standards for pilots. The FAA establishes minimum certification requirements for pilots, flight instructors and ground crew. Certification requirements include many different obligations, including the necessity of pilots to show proficiency in flying, and continued testing and education requirements.
Pilot certification is one of several types of Airman certificates issued by the FAA, and is conclusive evidence that an individual is authorized and equipped to fly a plane. Most airlines, in addition to civil laws, require that any pilots be certified by an accredited body, especially commercial pilots.
A pilot is certified under the Code of Federal Regulations, which is also called the Federal Aviation Regulations. Parts 61 and 141 of Title 14 of the Code establish the rules and regulations for pilot certification.
Categories of Certification
Pilots are certified to fly only specific types of aircrafts, depending on their abilities and qualifications. The broad categories that a pilot may be certified in are weight-shift-controls, powered parachutes, powered lifts, gliders, lighter-than-air, rotor-crafts and airplanes.
These broad categories are further subdivided into different classes of certification. The pilot must hold a specific “class” rating in order to fly that particular class of aircraft. For example, the airplane category includes single engine and multi-engine land planes, and single engine and multi-engine sea planes. A pilot with only a certification in single engine land planes could not pilot a multi-engine land plane, or any of the other 3 types of planes. The lighter-than-air category is divided into balloons and airships. The rotocraft category has a helicopter class and a gyroplane class. The powered parachute category has both powered parachutes for land and for sea. Likewise, the weight-shift-control category has a land class and a sea class.
The pilot must have a certificate within the broad category, and within the class, in order to be eligible to fly that type of aircraft.
Levels of Certification
In addition to different classes, pilots also achieve different levels of certification which carry with them different privileges. There are 6 levels of pilot certification: Student, Sport, Recreational, Pilot, Private, Commercial and Airport Transporter. Student pilot certification entitles a student to fly only with a flight instructor or under other limited circumstances. Sport pilots are authorized to fly only light sport aircrafts. Recreational pilots can fly pleasure planes–those up to 180 horsepower with 4 seats or less–during daytime hours. Private pilots can fly pleasure planes for personal or business reasons at any time of the day. Private pilots are generally not allowed to charge passengers for flight service. Commercial pilot certification allows a pilot to fly for hire and accept compensation for piloting an aircraft. The highest level of certification–Airline Transfer Pilot Certification or ATP certification–is required in order for a pilot to fly for a scheduled, commercial airline.
In addition to general certification, a specific type rating is required for certain makes and models of air-crafts. Type ratings are required to fly air-crafts that weigh over 12,5000 pounds and/or air-crafts that are powered by a turbojet.
A pilot can also supplement a Private or Commercial Certification with an instrument rating. Instrument ratings or pilot certifications may authorize multiple privilege levels, depending on the aircraft category. For example, a pilot holding an Airline Transport Certificate is automatically eligible to fly private recreational planes- including single engine or glider planes- but only with commercial privileges.
Student pilots may obtain a Student Pilot Certificate from an FAA inspector or FAA designated Pilot Examiner. Student pilots must hold a 3rd class medical examiner certificate (i.e. they must be an Aviation Medical Examiner or AME). They must be at least 14 years of age for gliders or balloons, and at least 16 years of age for other classes of aircraft. They must understand English well enough to read, speak and understand the language. They must pass a knowledge test which demonstrates their knowledge of airspace rules and procedures for relevant airports, the flight characteristics and operations for the desired aircraft, airport traffic patterns and collision avoidance. They must log a certain number of flight training hours and demonstrate the maneuvers and procedures relevant to the plane, including taxiing, takeoff, landings in various weather conditions, flying straight and turns and descents. They must also demonstrate knowledge of emergency procedures and ground reference maneuvers.
Student pilots can only fly alone, and the certificate is valid for up to 24 days after issue.
The Sport Pilot certification was established in 2004 in order to lower the barriers of entry into flying. The certificate allows pilots to fly smaller, lower powered aircrafts for recreational use. A student must first obtain a Student Pilot Certificate before becoming a sport pilot. Once this is obtained, a trainee must meet the additional qualifications to become a sport pilot. Sport pilots must be at least 17, and fluent in English. They must pass a written and practical test, and possess an AME. Sport pilots must have at least 15 hours of flight instruction with a qualified instructor, including 2 hours of cross-country instruction and 5 hours of solo flight. Sport pilots must also have an additional 5 hours of solo flight, including at least one solo cross-country flight of 75 miles or more, with a takeoff and full landing. Students must obtain the certification within 60 days of their final 3 hours of dual instruction. Sport pilots can carry only 1 passenger. They must fly during the daytime, and remain below 10,000 feet.
Recreational Pilot Certification is a supplement to the Sport Pilot Certification. Additional flight time is required, and additional privileges granted.
The Private Pilot Certificate is the most popular flight certificate. It allows pilots to fly any aircraft within their class rating for non-commercial purposes. Private pilots must be 17 years of age, fluent in English, and have AME certification. They must pass a knowledge test and a practical test. They must log at least 40 hours of piloting time, including 20 hours of time with an instructor, 10 hours of solo flight and 10 hours of cross country flight. The specific requirements for the solo flight include 1 cross country flight of at least 150 Nautical Miles, including full stop landings at at least 3 points and 1 full straight line flight of at least 50 nautical miles. To be certified to fly at night, a private pilot must have at least 3 hours of night flight time logged, as well as 1 cross country flight of 100 nautical miles or longer. They must also have 10 takeoffs and landings with a full stop. Finally, they require an additional 3 hours of flight training related to instruments and control.
Commercial pilots are entitled to compensation for flying. To obtain a commercial pilot certificate, pilots must be at least 18 years of age, fluent in English, and already hold a private pilot certificate. They also must log a specified amount of training, experience and flight time. Pilots must pass a 100 question knowledge test, as well as an oral and practical flight test administered by an FAA designated examiner or inspector. For pilots becoming licensed under FAA Part 61, commercial pilots must have at least 250 hours of flight time including 20 hours with an instructor, and 10 hours of solo flight. They must have several cross country flights of more than 50 nautical miles. To become certified under FAA Part 141, Commercial Pilots must have at least 190 hours of flight time, including 55 hours with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight. They must have several cross country and solo flights as well. Finally, night flights are required.
Airline Transport Pilot Certification is the highest level of certification. All airline pilots hold ATP certificates. Pilots must be at least 23 years of age, fluent in writing, and have good moral character. ATP certification requires 1500 hours of flight time, including 500 hours of cross country flight time. ATP pilots must also pass a difficult written examination.
The Knowledge test required to become a pilot is generally a prerequisite for practical tests. Knowledge tests are sometimes referred to as “written” tests and are generally valid for 2 years from the date they are passed. To be eligible to take a knowledge test, the applicant generally must have a signed form or permission from a flight or ground instructor who has taught a ground course or reviewed the pilot applicants self-study procedure.
The practical test required to become a pilot is administered by an FAA inspector or pilot examiner. Practical tests generally consists of an oral exam and a flight test on the aircraft. If a pilot passes a practical test, a temporary certificate is issued at the appropriate level.
The FAA may issue a limited certificate if a pilot fails to demonstrate all the relevant skills necessary to exercise all privileges within a rating.