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Pilot certification in the United States

Pilot certification in the United States is under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Airman Certificate is the proper term, although the term pilot's license is commonly used, even by the FAA. Certification is regulated under parts 61 and 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations or "FARs", found in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Legally, Certificates bear a different status than Licenses. For example, Certificates can be revoked by administrative action; whereas Licenses require the Judiciary System's involvement.

General structure of certification

Pilots are qualified to fly at a specific privilege level, and in one or more specific categories of aircraft. Examples of privilege level are:

  • Student: a pilot who is being trained by an instructor for their first full certificate, and is permitted to fly alone (solo) under specific, limited circumstances.
  • Sport pilot: used for Light-sport Aircraft, a category that was created in 2004. These aircraft are larger and faster than ultralights, carry more fuel, and often two occupants.
  • Recreational: a pilot who is restricted to flying short distances.
  • Private: a pilot who flies for pleasure or personal business without accepting compensation for flying except in some very limited, specific circumstances.
  • Commercial: a pilot that can, with some restrictions, fly for compensation/hire.
  • Airline Transport: a pilot that can be pilot in command for a scheduled airline.

Pilots are certified to fly aircraft of a specific category and class. Certain kinds of aircraft also require a type rating.

The category on a pilot certificate refers to the broad classification of aircraft that the pilot is certified to fly. Categories of aircraft include airplane, rotorcraft, glider, lighter-than-air, powered-lift, powered parachute, and weight-shift-control aircraft. Some categories are further broken down into more specific classes of aircraft.

  • Airplane class ratings include single-engine land, multi-engine land, single-engine sea, and multi-engine sea.
  • Rotorcraft class ratings include helicopter and gyroplane.
  • Lighter-than-air class ratings include airship, gas balloon, and balloon with airborne heater (hot air balloon).
  • Weight-shift-control aircraft class ratings are broken down into land and sea.
  • Powered parachute class ratings are also broken down into land and sea.

Type ratings are required in a specific make and model of airplane if the airplane is "large" (greater than gross takeoff weight) or powered by one or more jet engines. Boeing 747, DC-10, and Dash-8 are examples of type ratings.

  • ultralight category of aircraft in the US requires no specific training and no certification.

The pilot can separately add certain ratings, such as the instrument rating.

As an example, the captain of a 747 flying for a scheduled airline would have to have an Airline Transport Pilot certificate with an airplane category rating, a multi-engine land class rating, instrument rating and a 747 type rating.

To obtain a certificate or add a rating, a pilot usually has to undergo a course of training with a certificated instructor, accumulate and log specific aeronautical experience, and pass a three-part examination: a knowledge test (a computerized multiple-choice test, typically called the "written test"), and a combined oral and practical test carried out by either an FAA inspector or a designated examiner.

Another form of authorization is an endorsement from a flight instructor that establishes that the certificate holder has received training in specific skill areas that do not warrant a full test, such as the ability to fly a tailwheel-equipped, high-performance, complex, or pressurized airplane.

Airman certificates other than student pilot certificates do not expire, although they may be suspended or revoked by the FAA. However, a pilot must maintain currency — recent flight experience that is relevant to the flight being undertaken. To remain active, every pilot has to undergo a flight review with an instructor every 24 calendar months (unless he gains a new pilot certificate or rating in that time), and, for most types of certificate, undergo a medical examination at intervals ranging from six months to five years, depending on the pilot's age and desired flight privileges. Other currency requirements apply to the carriage of passengers or to flight under instrument flight rules (IFR).

A medical certificate is not necessary to fly a glider or balloon, or to fly with a sport pilot certificate. An ultralight aircraft can be piloted without a pilot certificate or a medical certificate.

Besides pilot certificates, the FAA issues separate airman certificates for Flight Engineers, Flight Instructors, Ground Instructors, Aircraft Dispatchers, Mechanics, Repairmen, Parachute Riggers, Control Tower Operators, Flight Navigators and Flight Attendants.

Pilot training

Most pilots in the U.S. undergo flight training as private individuals with a flight instructor, who may be employed by a flight school. Those who have decided on aviation as a career often begin with an undergraduate aviation-based education. Some pilots are trained in the armed forces, and are issued with civilian certificates based on their military record. Others are trained directly by airlines. The pilot may choose to be trained under Part 61 or Part 141 of the FARs. Part 141 requires that a certified flight school provide an approved, structured course of training, which includes a specified number of hours of ground training (for example, 35 hours for Private Pilot in an airplane). Part 61 sets out a list of knowledge and experience requirements, and is more suitable for students who cannot commit to a structured plan, or for training from freelance instructors.

Becoming a professional pilot

In aviation, a pilot's level of income and experience are closely related. There are multiple ways to gain the experience to be hired by a scheduled air carrier. Air carriers generally require that the pilots they hire have hours of experience far in excess of the legal minimum. This experience is often gained using these common methods:

  • Military training
  • Independent training followed by becoming a part- or full-time instructor.
  • A college-level aviation program, in which a bachelor's degree (commonly in Aviation Science or a related field) is conferred upon the completion of both flight and classroom coursework. Frequently, upperclassmen are employed as flight instructors for other students.
  • Banner towing, traffic reporting, fire patrol, pipeline patrol, aerial photography, glider towing, or other "odd jobs" in aviation, most of which are fairly low-paying and require only the legal minimum experience.

Categories and classes of pilot certificates

Pilot certificates are issued with ratings in any of seven categories, which are further subdivided into classes:

A student pilot certificate does not have ratings (and thus is not specific to any category or class), but can be endorsed by a flight instructor to confer privileges in a specific make and model of aircraft.

Pilot certificates

The U.S. offers a progression of pilot certificates, each with its own set of privileges and limitations. All U.S. pilots must be at least 17 years old (16 for a student, or a glider or balloon pilot), and be able to read, write, speak, and understand English.

Student

A student pilot certificate is issued by an aviation medical examiner (AME) at the time of the student’s first medical examination; for operations not requiring a medical certificate, a student pilot certificate can be issued by an FAA inspector or an FAA-designated pilot examiner. The student pilot certificate is only required when exercising solo flight privileges. The student certificate is valid until the last day of the month, 24 months after it was issued. Once a student has accrued sufficient training and experience, a CFI can endorse the student's certificate to authorize limited solo flight in a specific type (make and model) of aircraft. A student pilot may not carry passengers, fly in furtherance of a business, or operate an aircraft outside of the various endorsements provided by the flight instructor.

There is no minimum aeronautical knowledge or experience requirement for the issuance of a student pilot certificate other than the medical requirements for the class of medical certificate (see below) the student certificate is based upon. There are, however, minimum aeronautical knowledge and experience requirements for student pilots to solo, including:

  • Hold at least a current third class medical certificate.
  • Be at least 16 years of age (14 for glider or balloon)
  • Read, speak, write, and understand the English language.
  • Demonstrate satisfactory aeronautical knowledge on a knowledge test, including knowledge of the following areas:
    • Airspace rules and procedures for the airport where the solo flight will be performed
    • Flight characteristics and operational limitations for the make and model of aircraft to be flown
  • Receive and log flight training for the maneuvers and procedures appropriate to the make and model of aircraft to be flown, including:
    • Preflight operations
    • Taxiing or surface operations, including run-ups
    • Takeoffs and landings, including normal and cross-wind
    • Straight and level flight, and turns in both directions
    • Climbs and climbing turns
    • Airport traffic patterns, including entry and departure procedures
    • Collision avoidance, wind shear avoidance, and wake turbulence avoidance
    • Descents, with and without turns, using high and low drag configurations
    • Flight at various airspeeds from cruise to slow flight
    • Stall entries from various flight attitudes and power combinations with recovery initiated at the first indication of a stall, and recovery from a full stall
    • Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions
    • Ground reference maneuvers
    • Approaches to a landing area with simulated engine malfunctions
    • Slips to a landing
    • Go-arounds

Sport pilot

The Sport Pilot certificate was created in September 2004 after years of work by the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA). The intent of the new rule was to lower the barriers of entry into aviation and make flying more affordable and accessible.

The new rule also created the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category of aircraft which are smaller, lower-powered aircraft. The sport pilot certificate offers limited privileges mainly for recreational use. It is the only powered aircraft certificate that does not require a medical certificate; a valid driver's license can be used as proof of medical competence PROVIDED the prospective pilot was not rejected for their last Airman Medical Certificate (see Sport Pilot Catch 22).

To qualify for the Sport pilot certificate, an applicant must:

  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English
  • Log at least 20 hours of flight time of which at least
    • 15 hours must be dual instruction with a qualified flight instructor
      • 2 hours must be cross-country dual instruction
    • 5 hours must be solo flight
  • Fly one solo cross-country over a total distance of 75 or more nautical miles to two different destinations to a full-stop landing. At least one leg of this cross-country must be over a total distance of at least .
  • Have received 3 hours of dual instruction in the preceding 60 days
  • Pass a written test
  • Pass a practical test
  • Have a valid US State drivers license AND not been rejected for your last Airman Medical Certificate
  • ...or have a current 3rd class or higher Airman Medical Certificate

The above requirements are for heavier-than-air powered aircraft (airplanes). The requirements for gliders, balloons, helicopters, and dirigibles vary slightly.

Sport Pilots are only eligible to fly aircraft that are either certified specifically as light-sport aircraft (LSA) or were certified prior to the LSA regulations and are within the maximum weight and performance limitations of light-sport aircraft.

The restrictions placed on a Pilot exercising the privileges of a Sport pilot certificate are:

  • No more than one passenger
  • Daytime flight only (civil twilight is used to define day/night)
  • No flight above MSL
  • No flight in any of the airspace classes that require radio communication (classes A, B, C, or D) without first obtaining additional instruction and instructor endorsement

The Sport pilot certificate is also ineligible for additional ratings (such as an Instrument rating), although time in light-sport aircraft can be used towards the experience requirement of other ratings on higher certificate types.

Recreational

The recreational pilot certificate requires less training and offers fewer privileges than the private certificate. It was originally created for flying small single-engine planes. Its main advantage has been that it permits cheaper training between the student and private pilot certificates.

Private pilot

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 non-commercial purpose, and gives almost unlimited authority to fly under visual flight rules (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. Private pilots may also operate charity flights, subject to certain restrictions, and may participate in similar activities, such as Angel Flight.

The requirements to obtain a private pilot certificate for "airplane, single-engine, land", or ASEL, (which is the most common certificate) are:

  • Be at least 17 years old
  • Be able to read, speak, and write the English language
  • Obtain at least a third class medical certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner
  • Pass a computerized aeronautical knowledge test
  • Accumulate and log a specified amount of training and experience, including the following:
    • If training under Part 61, experience requirements are specified in Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations section 61.109 including at least 40 hours of piloting time including 20 hours of flight with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including "cross-country", 10 hours of solo (i.e., by yourself) flight time in an airplane, including at least
      • Solo requirements:
        1. 5 hours of solo cross-country time
        2. One solo cross-country flight of at least 150 NM total distance, with full-stop landings at a minimum of three points and with one segment of the flight consisting of a straight-line distance of at least 50 NM between the takeoff and landing locations
        3. Three solo takeoffs and landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower.
      • Night requirements:
        1. 3 hours of night flight training
        2. One cross-country flight of over total distance
        3. 10 takeoffs and 10 landings to a full stop (with each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport
      • 3 hours of flight training on the control and maneuvering solely by reference to instruments
    • If training under Part 141, at least 35 hours of piloting time including 20 hours with an instructor and 5 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including cross-country and night flights
  • Pass an oral test and flight test administered by an FAA inspector, FAA-designated examiner, or authorized check instructor (Part 141 only)

Commercial

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 certificate itself does not allow a pilot to fly in instrument meteorological conditions. For aircraft categories where an instrument rating is available, commercial pilots without an instrument rating are restricted to daytime flight within 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.

The requirements are:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Hold a private pilot certificate
  • Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language
  • Accumulate and log a specified amount of training and experience; the following are part of the airplane single-engine land class rating requirements:
    • If training under Part 61, at least 250 hours of piloting time including 20 hours of training with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including several "cross-country" flights, i.e. more than 50 nautical miles (93 km) from the departure airport and both solo and instructor-accompanied night flights
    • If training under Part 141, at least 190 hours of training time including 55 hours with an instructor and 10 hours of solo flight, and other requirements including several cross-country, solo, and night flights
  • Pass a 100-question aeronautical knowledge test
  • Pass an oral test and flight test administered by an FAA inspector, FAA-designated examiner, or authorized check instructor (Part 141 only)

By itself, this certificate does not permit the pilot to set up an operation that carries members of the public for hire; such operations are governed by other regulations. Otherwise, a commercial pilot can be paid for certain types of operation, such as banner towing, agricultural applications, and photography, and can be paid for instructing if he holds a flight instructor certificate. To fly for hire, the pilot must hold a second class medical certificate, which is valid for one year.

Often, the commercial certificate will reduce the pilot’s insurance premiums, as it is evidence of training to a higher safety standard.

Airline transport pilot

An airline transport pilot (commonly called an "ATP" or "ATPL") is tested to the highest level of piloting ability. The certificate is a prerequisite for acting as a pilot-in-command in scheduled airline operations.

The minimum pilot experience is 1500 hours of flight time and 500 hours of cross-country flight time. Other requirements include being 23 years of age, instrument rating, being able to read, write, speak, and understand the English language, and being of good moral character.

Commercial astronaut

With the advent of private commercial space flight ventures such as Scaled Composites' Tier One program, the FAA has been faced with the task of developing a certification process for the pilots of commercial spacecraft. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 required companies to obtain a launch license for vehicles, but at the time manned commercial flight - and the licensing of crewmembers - was not considered. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act has led to the issuance of draft guidelines by the FAA in February 2005 for the administration of vehicle and crew certifications. Currently, the FAA has not issued formal regulatory guidance for the issuance of a Commercial Astronaut Certificate. The FAA has established the practice of awarding "Commercial Astronaut Wings" to commercial pilots who have completed a spaceflight; currently, two awards have been made, to SpaceShipOne pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.

It should be noted that the Scaled Composites' SpaceShip One is formally registered as a glider, reflecting the fact that most of its independent flight is unpowered (notably return). As a result, SpaceShip One's Test Pilots are required to be certified as commercial glider pilots.

Number of active pilots

As of the end of 2006, there were 597,109 active certificated pilots, according to the AOPA Jan. 12, 07 newsletter which cites the FAA's estimates. This number has been declining slowly over the long term, down from a high of over 827,000 pilots in 1980. The numbers include:

  • 84,866 student pilots
  • 242 recreational pilots
  • 939 sport pilots
  • 236,148 private pilots
  • 130,234 commercial pilots
  • 144,681 airline transport pilots

Within those groups, there were:

  • 37,837 glider pilots
  • 10,511 balloon pilots
  • 41,306 rotor (helicopter) pilots

An active pilot is defined as one who holds both a pilot certificate and a valid medical certificate, so this value omits pilots who do not have a medical certificate (particularly glider, balloon, and sport pilots).

Other certificates and ratings

  • A flight instructor certificate or CFI authorizes the holder to instruct another person who is training for a certificate, rating, endorsement or flight review.
  • An instrument rating is required to fly under instrument flight rules IFR. This allows the pilot to fly in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC): in (or near) clouds and low visibility. Flying under IFR almost invariably means flying under the direction of air traffic control (ATC). To get an instrument rating, the pilot must learn how to control the aircraft using only instruments and how to operate within the national airspace system (NAS), and gain a better understanding of weather and its effects on the aircraft and its systems. Instrument ratings are issued for a specific category of aircraft; a pilot certified to fly an airplane under IFR has an Instrument Airplane rating.
  • A flight instructor instrument certificate rating or CFII.
  • A multiengine rating is the most common example of a class rating; it is required to fly an airplane with more than one engine. Both single- and multi-engine class ratings are further divided into land and sea depending on whether the training was in a conventional land airplane or a seaplane. Airplane Single-Engine Land is by far the most common primary rating.
  • A flight instructor multiengine certificate rating MEI.

United States military pilots are issued an Aviator Badge upon completion of flight training and issuance of a pilot's certificate. Badges for crew or ground positions are also issued to qualified applicants.

Medical certification and requirements

All certified pilots, with the exception of those with a sport pilot certificate or when in command of balloons or gliders, are required to maintain a medical certification commensurate with the privileges they intend to exercise as pilot-in-command of an aircraft.

To obtain a medical certification, pilots are required to undergo a medical examination from an Aviation Medical Examiner, or AME. The Aviation Medical Examiner performs an examination based upon the class of certification desired.

Medical certifications are divided into three classes:

Third class

Third class certifications require the least involved examinations of all medical certifications. They are required for those intending to be pilot-in-command of an aircraft under the Private or Recreational pilot certificates or while exercising solo privileges as a student pilot.

To qualify for a third class medical certificate, pilots must meet the following requirements:

  • Distant vision: 20/40 or better in each eye separately, with or without correction
  • Near vision: 20/40 or better in each eye separately, with or without correction, as measured at a distance of
  • Color vision: Demonstrate the ability to perceive the colors necessary for the safe performance of airman duties
  • Hearing: Demonstrate the ability to hear an average conversational voice in a quiet room, using both ears, at a distance of six feet, with their back turned to the examiner, or pass an approved audiometric test
  • Ear, Nose, and Throat: Exhibit no ear disease or condition manifested by, or that may reasonably be expected to be manifested by, vertigo or a disturbance of speech or equilibrium
  • Blood Pressure: Under 155/95
  • Mental Status: No diagnosis of psychosis, bipolar disorder, or severe personality disorders
  • Substance Dependence: No dependence on alcohol or any pharmacological substance in the previous two years

For pilots under 40 years of age, third class medical certificates expire on the last day of the month they were issued, five years from the date of issue. The FAA changed this rule from three to five years on July 24, 2008. For all others, they expire on the last day of the month they were issued, two years from the date of issue.

Second class

Second class certifications are required for those intending to exercise the privileges of the commercial pilot certificate.

To qualify for a second class medical certificate, pilots must meet the requirements for the third class certificate plus:

  • Distant vision: 20/20 or better in each eye separately, with or without correction
  • Intermediate vision: 20/40 or better in each eye separately, with or without correction, at age 50 and over, as measured at 32 inches

Second class certificates are valid until the last day of the month, twelve months after they were issued. The certificate holder may then only exercise the privileges of a third class medical certificate.

First class

First class certificates are required for those intending to be pilot-in-command in an air carrier operation requiring an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. Other operations, including those under Part 91, may require a first class medical for insurance purposes, although it is not a federal requirement in such cases.

To qualify for the first class medical certificate, pilots must meet the requirements for the third and second class certificates plus:

  • Heart Function: Electrocardiogram must show normal heart function once at age 35 and annually for those age 40 and over

For pilots under 40 years of age, first class medical certificates expire on the last day of the month they were issued, one year from the date of issue. The FAA introduced this rule on July 24, 2008. For all others, they are valid until the last day of the month, six months after they were issued. The certificate holder may then only exercise the privileges of a second class medical certificate.

Special issuance

Pilots who do not meet the above requirements may be issued a medical certificate under a "special issuance." A special issuance is essentially a waiver for a disqualifying condition and is evaluated on a case-by-case basis depending on the class of certificate requested. Minor problems can be overcome by a special issuance from an Aviation Medical Examiner, while others require a special issuance from the FAA directly.

Restrictions

Restrictions may be placed upon a medical certificate to mitigate any concern for safety. For instance, color-blind pilots are typically issued a restriction reading, "NOT VALID FOR NIGHT FLIGHT OR BY COLOR SIGNAL CONTROL." This mitigates the concern that color-blind pilots may not be able to identify those colors required for the performance of safe airman duties by preventing situations that are considered potentially unsafe.

In many cases, these restrictions can be removed through a "Statement of Demonstrated Ability" (SODA), or a "Letter of Evidence" from the FAA indicating that the pilot's deficiency is of no concern.

Non-pilot certifications

In addition to pilot licenses the FAA also issues other airmen certificates.

  • Flight Instructor certification is separate from pilot certification. For every rating on a flight instructor certificate, there must already be a corresponding rating on the individual's commercial pilot certificate. The applicant must also pass written and flight skills tests.
  • Flight Engineer Certifications applicable to large transportation aircraft (more than 80,000lb). Flight Engineer Certificates are further Rated by type of engine they are trained and tested on: Turbojet Powered, Turbopropeller Powered, Reciprocating Engine Powered. Flight Engineers are becoming less common as modern jets move towards two person flight crews.
  • Flight Navigators certificates are still available, but modern technology and the high speed of jets has made the rating obsolete.
  • Ground Instructor, Parachute rigger, Aircraft Maintenance Technician, Repairman and Air Traffic Controller are also federally certified aviation-related positions. Most of these also have their rating systems. For example, an A&P is a certified mechanic with both airframe and powerplant ratings, and a Ground Instructor may be rated to give Basic, Advanced, and/or Instrument training.
  • A Flight Dispatcher Certificate is required for people involved in operational control/dispatch under 14 CFR Part 121 commercial operations. Qualification requirements can be found in 14 CFR Part 121.463

Pilots do not need FCC licenses to use the radio within the United States; however, other countries may require that a pilot have an FCC Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit (RP), and the aircraft radio station be licensed.

References

External links

See also

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