Pilot licensing and certification

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Pilot licensing or certification refers to permits for operating aircraft. They are issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in each country, establishing that the holder has met a specific set of knowledge and experience requirements. This includes taking a flying test. The certified pilot can then exercise a specific set of privileges in that nation's airspace. Despite attempts to harmonize the requirements between nations, the differences in certification practices and standards from place to place serve to limit full international validity of the national qualifications. In addition, U.S. pilots are certified, not licensed, although the word license is still commonly used informally.[1] Legally, pilot certificates can be revoked by administrative action, whereas licensing (e.g., a driver's license) requires intervention by the judiciary system.

Regulation by country[edit]

In the United States, pilot certification is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a branch of the Department of Transportation (DOT). A pilot is certified under the authority of Parts 61 and 141 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, also known as the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs).[2]

In Canada, licensing is issued by Transport Canada.

In most European countries, including France, Switzerland, Greece, and many others, licenses, where required, are issued by the national aviation authority according to a set of common rules established by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) – Flight Crew Licensing (EASA-FCL).

In the United Kingdom, aviation is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. The United Kingdom left the EASA system on 31 December 2020.


Balloon pilot's licence issued by the Aéro-Club de France to Mr. Tissandier.

Pilot licensing began soon after the invention of powered aircraft in 1903.

The Aéro-Club de France was founded in 1898 'to encourage aerial locomotion'. The Royal Aero Club followed in 1901 and the Aero Club of America was established in 1905. All three organizations, as well as representatives from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland founded the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) in 1905 as an international governing body for aeronautics. However, certificates or ratings from them were not initially mandatory.[3]

The Aéro-Club de France began issuing certificates in 1910, although these were awarded retroactively to 7 January 1909. The first certificates were to established pioneers, among them Frenchman Louis Bleriot, Henry and Maurice Farman (UK) and the Wright Brothers (US).[4]

The Royal Aero Club in the UK also began the issue of its first certificates in 1910. Among the earliest recipients of the first aviation certificates were: J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon, who conducted the first flight by a British pilot in Britain; Charles Stewart Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce; Claude Grahame-White, who flew the first night flight; and Samuel Cody, pioneer of large kite flying.[5]

British and French certificates were recognized internationally by the FAI.

The Aero Club of America began issuing licenses in 1911, although these were not mandatory, and were more for prestige and show. The first recipients were Glenn Curtiss, Frank Purdy Lahm, Louis Paulhan and the Wright brothers.[6] The requirement for an Aero Club ticket was to ascend in the machine and fly a course of a figure-eight at a given height. Individual states sometimes posed a mandate for a license[7] but it wasn't a Federal cause until 1917.[citation needed]

General structure of certification[edit]

Pilots are certified to fly aircraft at one or more named privilege levels and, at each privilege level, are rated to fly aircraft of specific categories. In the US, privilege levels of pilot certificates are (in order of increasing privilege):[1][8]

  • Student: Cannot fly solo without proper endorsement from a certificated flight instructor (CFI). Passenger carrying is prohibited.
  • Sport: Cannot carry more than one passenger, authorized to fly only light-sport aircraft and are limited to daytime flying only. If an individual elects to receive additional instruction, some of the limitations may be removed.
  • Recreational: May fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower (130 kW) and 4 seats in the daytime for pleasure only.
  • Private: May fly for pleasure or personal business. Private pilots cannot be paid, compensated to fly, or hired by any operator.
  • Commercial: Can be paid, compensated to fly, or hired by operators and are required to have higher training standards than private or sport pilots.
  • Flight instructor: Flight instructors are commercial pilots who have been trained and can demonstrate various teaching techniques, skills and knowledge related to safely teaching people to fly.
  • Airline transport pilot: ATPs, as they are called, typically qualify to fly the major airliners of the US transit system. ATPs must qualify with a range of experience and training to be considered for this certificate.
  • Remote Pilot Certificate (Drone): Remote piloting of aircraft that are unmanned and minimal in size.[9]

Pilot privileges are further broken down into category, class, and type ratings.

A category is defined as "a broad classification of aircraft," which a pilot may be rated for:[8][10]

A class is defined as "a classification of aircraft within a category having similar operating characteristics":[8]

In addition, a type rating is required for particular aircraft over 12,500 pounds, or aircraft that are turbojet-powered.[8] Further logbook endorsements are required for high-performance (more than 200 horsepower), complex (retractable landing gear, flaps, and a controllable-pitch propeller), or tailwheel-equipped aircraft, as well as for high-altitude operations.

Most private pilot certificates are issued as "private pilot: airplane single-engine land," which means the pilot may fly any single-engine, land-based airplane they are qualified in. A pilot is only qualified in the category and class of aircraft in which they successfully complete their checkride (for example, a pilot who takes a commercial pilot checkride in a multi-engine, land-based aircraft and passes, may only exercise the privileges of a commercial pilot in multi-engine, land-based aircraft; the pilot may not exercise the privileges of a commercial pilot in single-engine or sea-based aircraft without passing the appropriate parts of a checkride in those particular categories of aircraft).

Pilots of powered aircraft typically attain ratings in this order (with minimum time required in parentheses):

  • Private pilot (35–45 hours of flight time, 40 in the U.S.)
  • Instrument rating (40–50 hours of instrument time, 40 in the U.S.)
  • Commercial pilot (200–250 hours of flight time, 250 in the U.S.)
  • Commercial pilot who is a co-pilot in an airliner (250 hours of flight time + multicrew rating, not allowed in the U.S.)
  • Airline transport pilot (ATP) (1200–1500 hours of flight time, 1500 in the U.S.)

Note: Hours can often be earned concurrently and are cumulative. For example, after acquiring a private certificate, a pilot can get an instrument rating with an additional 30–40 hours of training (if, e.g., 10 hours of instrument time was logged during private training, which would count towards total aeronautical experience gained). In the course of the commercial pilot training, most pilots also receive their high-performance and complex logbook endorsements, as well as get a multiengine rating before applying for the airline transport pilot licence.

Private pilot[edit]

The majority of pilots hold a private pilot license. To obtain a private pilot license, one must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 35–45 hours of flight time, including at least 20 hours of dual instruction and 10 hours of solo flight. (Age requirements for gliders and balloons are slightly lower.) Pilots trained according to accelerated curricula outlined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations may be certified with a minimum of 35 hours of flight time.[2] Private pilots may not fly for compensation or hire. However, they may carry passengers as long as the pilot has the appropriate training, ratings, and endorsements. Private pilots must have a current Class III medical exam, which must be renewed every 24 or 60 months (depending on age). In addition, like all licensed pilots they must re-validate their pilot certificates with a logbook endorsement every 24 months by successfully completing a flight review with a certificated flight instructor (CFI).[13]

Instrument rating[edit]

An instrument rating is technically not a pilot certificate, but an add-on rating that allows an airplane or helicopter pilot to fly in weather with reduced visibility such as rain, low clouds, or heavy haze. When flying in these conditions, pilots follow instrument flight rules (IFR). The training provides the skills needed to complete flights with less than the required VFR minimums. In the US, all pilots who fly above 18,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL) (a lower limit of Class A airspace) must have an instrument rating,[2] and must be on an IFR flight plan.

This rating requires highly specialized training by a certificated flight instructor (CFI) with a special instrument instruction rating (CFII), and completion of an additional written exam, oral exam, and flight test. Pilots applying for an instrument rating must hold a current private pilot certificate and medical, have logged at least 50 hours of cross-country flight time as pilot-in-command, and have at least 40 hours of actual or simulated instrument time including at least 15 hours of instrument flight training and instrument training on cross-country flight procedures.[13]

Commercial pilot[edit]

Commercial pilots can be paid to fly an aircraft. To obtain a commercial pilot license, one must be at least 18 years old and have a minimum of 250 hours of total flight time (190 hours under the accelerated curriculum defined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations). (Age requirements for gliders and balloons are slightly lower.) This includes 100 hours in powered aircraft, 50 hours in airplanes, and 100 hours as pilot-in-command (of which 50 hours must be cross-country flight time). In addition, commercial pilots must hold an instrument rating, or otherwise they would be restricted to flying for hire only in daylight, under visual flight rules (VFR), and within 50 miles of the originating airport.[2][13]

Airline transport pilot[edit]

Airline transport pilots (ATP) must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time, including 500 hours of cross-country flight time, 100 hours of night flying, and 75 hours in actual or simulated instrument flight conditions. ATPs must also have a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. ATPs may instruct other pilots in air transportation service in aircraft in which they are rated. ATPs must have a current Class I medical exam (which is more stringent than Class II or Class III), which must be renewed every six months or one year (depending on age). Like all pilots, they must re-validate their certificates every 24 months with a flight review but U.S. airlines require training at least once every 12 months, at which time a test is conducted that satisfies this bi-annual flight review. After the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, Congress passed legislation, subsequently signed into law, requiring any pilot flying for a Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 121 airline (all United States major airlines and their regional affiliates), that requires three or more pilots to include new-hire first officers, must have had at least an "ATP certificate with restricted privileges" license[14][15] except if you were licensed after July 31, 2013, then you must have an ATP certificate.[16]

Multi-crew pilot license[edit]

The MPL is not allowed in the United States, Canada, and several other countries, and is only applicable in EASA (European) countries and those under EASA flight rules. MPL pilots must be at least 18 years old, have a minimum of 240 hours of flying training, the majority of which may be in a full-motion flight simulator with 40 hours and 12 takeoffs and landings total required in an actual airplane before flying passengers (per JAR-FCL 1.120 and 1.125(b)), and 750 hours of classroom theoretical knowledge instruction, typically accomplished in approximately 16-18 months total time from no flight experience to flying for an airline. Developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), requirements for the multi-crew pilot license (aeroplane) (MPL(A)) were included in the 10th edition of Annex 1 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Personnel Licensing), which superseded all previous editions of the Annex on 23 November 2006.[17] MPL is a significant development as it is based on competency-based approach to training professional pilots.[18] It represents the first time in 30 years that ICAO had significantly reviewed the standards for the training of flight crew.[citation needed]

Other licenses, ratings, and endorsements[edit]

Drone licence within the European Union (CAT A 1 and A2 (issued by Germany)

Other licenses include:

  • Sport pilot certificate (United States only), used for light-sport aircraft, a category that was designated in 2004. These aircraft are larger and faster than US ultralights, and carry more fuel and often one passenger in addition to the pilot. The ultralight category of aircraft in the US requires no specific training and no certification.[2] Unlike all other pilot categories, special medical certification is not required for a sport pilot.
  • Night rating, enables the private pilot to fly at night. A total of 5 hours' night flying (including at least 3 hours of dual instruction), 1 hour cross-country navigation, 5 solo flights and 5 full-stop landings are required to gain this rating in some countries. In the US, there is no night rating; pilots must have received instruction in night flying before they can take the practical test for the private rating.
  • The pilots can add other various ratings when they qualify for them, i.e. either satisfy training requirements or pass appropriate tests.
  • Unmanned Aircraft System (Drone) pilots are required to obtain a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating when operating commercially (US).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Certification Certificates and ratings, rather than a "license".
  2. ^ a b c d e FAA Regulations FAA Regulations and Parts
  3. ^ "The Postal History of ICAO". icao.int.
  4. ^ "Liste Alphabétique de Pilotes-Aviateurs" [Alphabetical List of Pilot-Aviators]. L'Aérophile (in French). Paris. January 1, 1911. p. 36. Retrieved December 7, 2013.
  5. ^ "Progress: A Pictorial Review in "Flight" Photographs" (PDF). Flight. Vol. XXII no. 1. London: Reed Business Information. January 3, 1930. pp. 34–37. Retrieved May 31, 2010.
  6. ^ America, Aero Club of (June 1, 2018). "Aero Club of America". Douglas Taylor & Company – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Licenses For Aviators; Foss Signs Bay State Law Forbidding Flights Without Permits, The New York Times, 18 May 1913
  8. ^ a b c d "14 CFR Part 61 "Certification," Subpart A—General, Section 61.5 "Certificates and ratings issued under this part"". US Code of Federal Regulations, Federal Aviation Regulations. Archived from the original on April 17, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2009.
  9. ^ "Become a Drone Pilot". Federal Aviation Administration. August 20, 2019. Retrieved November 17, 2019.
  10. ^ ultralight category of aircraft in the US requires no specific training and no certification. Examples include powered parachute, and weight-shift-control aircraft. However, sporting groups give extensive training and certification for these aircraft.
  11. ^ "Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)". Federal Aviation Administration. November 13, 2019. Retrieved November 17, 2019.
  12. ^ "King Schools". King Schools. Retrieved July 11, 2020.
  13. ^ a b c "Training & Safety: Your tools to being a safer pilot". flighttraining.aopa.org. March 29, 2016.
  14. ^ "Sec. 121.437 — Pilot qualification: Certificates required". risingup.com. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  15. ^ Dorr, Les; Duquette, Alison (July 10, 2013). "Press Release – FAA Boosts Aviation Safety with New Pilot Qualification Standards". Federal Aviation Regulations. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  16. ^ "Part 121-Operating Requirements: Domestic, Flag, and Supplemental Operations - §121.436 Pilot Qualification: Certificates and experience requirements". Federal Aviation Administration. October 15, 2019. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
  17. ^ "Section K – Multi-crew pilot licence" (PDF). www.caa.co.uk. UK Civil Aviation Authority. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 13, 2010. Retrieved June 1, 2018.
  18. ^ Kearns, Suzanne; Mavin, Timothy; Hodge, Steven (2015). Competency-Based Education in Aviation: Exploring Alternate Training Pathways. Ashgate Publishing Limited. ISBN 978-1-4724-3856-0.

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