The type of intended flying influences what type of pilot’s certificate is required. Eligibility, training, experience, and testing requirements differ depending on the type of certificates sought. [Figure 1] Each type of pilot’s certificate has privileges and limitations that are inherent within the certificate itself. However, other privileges and limitations may be applicable based on the aircraft type, operation being conducted, and the type of certificate. For example, a certain certificate may have privileges and limitations under 14 CFR part 61 and part 91.

Pilot Certifications
Figure 1. Front side (top) and back side (bottom) of an airman certificate issued by the FAA
  • Privileges—define where and when the pilot may fly, with whom they may fly, the purpose of the flight, and the type of aircraft they are allowed to fly.
  • Limitations—the FAA may impose limitations on a pilot certificate if, during training or the practical test, the pilot does not demonstrate all skills necessary to exercise all privileges of a privilege level, category, class, or type rating.

Endorsements, a form of authorization, are written to establish that the certificate holder has received training in specific skill areas. Endorsements are written and signed by an authorized individual, usually a certificated flight instructor (CFI), and are based on aircraft classification. [Figure 2]
Pilot Certifications
Figure 2. Example endorsement for a recreational pilot to conduct solo flights for the purpose of determining an additional certificate or rating

Sport Pilot

To become a sport pilot, the student pilot is required to have flown, at a minimum, the following hours depending upon the aircraft:
  • Airplane: 20 hours
  • Powered Parachute: 12 hours
  • Weight-Shift Control (Trikes): 20 hours
  • Glider: 10 hours
  • Rotorcraft (gyroplane only): 20 hours
  • Lighter-Than-Air: 20 hours (airship) or 7 hours (balloon)
To earn a Sport Pilot Certificate, one must:
  • Be at least 16 years old to become a student sport pilot (14 years old for gliders or balloons)
  • Be at least 17 years old to test for a sport pilot certificate (16 years old for gliders or balloons)
  • Be able to read, write, and understand the English language
  • Hold a current and valid driver’s license as evidence of medical eligibility
When operating as a sport pilot, some of the following privileges and limitations may apply.


  • Operate as pilot in command (PIC) of a light-sport aircraft
  • Carry a passenger and share expenses (fuel, oil, airport expenses, and aircraft rental)
  • Fly during the daytime using VFR, a minimum of 3 statute miles visibility and visual contact with the ground are required


  • Prohibited from flying in Class A airspace
  • Prohibited from flying in Class B, C, or D airspace until you receive training and a logbook endorsement from an instructor
  • No flights outside the United States without prior permission from the foreign aviation authority
  • May not tow any object
  • No flights while carrying a passenger or property for compensation or hire
  • Prohibited from flying in furtherance of a business
The sport pilot certificate does not list aircraft category and class ratings. After successfully passing the practical test for a sport pilot certificate, regardless of the light-sport aircraft privileges you seek, the FAA will issue you a sport pilot certificate without any category and class ratings. The Instructor will provide you with the appropriate logbook endorsement for the category and class of aircraft in which you are authorized to act as pilot in command.

Recreational Pilot

To become a recreational pilot, one must:
  • Be at least 17 years old
  • Be able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language
  • Pass the required knowledge test
  • Meet the aeronautical experience requirements in either a single-engine airplane, a helicopter, or a gyroplane.
  • Obtain a logbook endorsement from an instructor
  • Pass the required practical test
  • Obtain a third-class medical certificate issued under 14 CFR part 67
As a recreational pilot, cross-country flight is limited to a 50 NM range from the departure airport but is permitted with additional training per 14 CFR part 61, section 61.101(c). Additionally, recreational pilots are restricted from flying at night and flying in airspace where communications with ATC are required.
The minimum aeronautical experience requirements for a recreational pilot license involve:
30 hours of flight time including at least:
  • 15 hours of dual instruction
  • 2 hours of en route training
  • 3 hours in preparation for the practical test
  • 3 hours of solo flight
When operating as a recreational pilot, some of the following privileges and limitations may apply.


  • Carry no more than one passenger;
  • Not pay less than the pro rata share of the operating expenses of a flight with a passenger, provided the expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenses, or aircraft rental fees


  • A recreational pilot may not act as PIC of an aircraft that is certificated for more than four occupants or has more than one powerplant.

Private Pilot

A private pilot is one who flies for pleasure or personal business without accepting compensation for flying except in some very limited, specific circumstances. The Private Pilot Certificate is the certificate held by the majority of active pilots. It allows command of any aircraft (subject to appropriate ratings) for any noncommercial purpose and gives almost unlimited authority to fly under VFR. Passengers may be carried and flight in furtherance of a business is permitted; however, a private pilot may not be compensated in any way for services as a pilot, although passengers can pay a pro rata share of flight expenses, such as fuel or rental costs. If training under 14 CFR part 61, experience requirements include at least 40 hours of piloting time, including 20 hours of flight with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight. [Figure 3]
Pilot Certifications
Figure 3. A typical aircraft a private pilot might fly

Commercial Pilot

A commercial pilot may be compensated for flying. Training for the certificate focuses on a better understanding of aircraft systems and a higher standard of airmanship. The Commercial Pilot Certificate itself does not allow a pilot to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and commercial pilots without an instrument rating are restricted to daytime flight within 50 NM when flying for hire.
A commercial airplane pilot must be able to operate a complex airplane, as a specific number of hours of complex (or turbine-powered) aircraft time are among the prerequisites, and at least a portion of the practical examination is performed in a complex aircraft. A complex aircraft must have retractable landing gear, movable flaps, and a controllable-pitch propeller. See 14 CFR part 61, section 61.31(e) for additional information. [Figure 4]
Pilot Certifications
Figure 4. A complex aircraft

Airline Transport Pilot

The airline transport pilot (ATP) is tested to the highest level of piloting ability. The ATP certificate is a prerequisite for serving as a PIC and second in command (SIC) of scheduled airline operations. It is also a prerequisite for serving as a PIC in select charter and fractional operations. The minimum pilot experience is 1,500 hours of flight time. In addition, the pilot must be at least 23 years of age, be able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language, and be “of good moral standing.” A pilot may obtain an ATP certificate with restricted privileges enabling him/her to serve as an SIC in scheduled airline operations. The minimum pilot experience is reduced based upon specific academic and flight training experience. The minimum age to be eligible is 21 years. [Figure 5]
Pilot Certifications
Figure 5. Type of aircraft flown by an airline transport pilot