How do I become a pilot?


Types of certificates

There are two primary certificates, commonly called licenses, that you can earn in order to enjoy the privileges, challenges, and beauty of flying. They are the recreational pilot certificate and the private pilot certificate. To be eligible to receive either certificate in a single-engine airplane, there are a few minimum requirements.

You must:

  • Be 16 years old to solo.
  • Be 17 years old to receive your pilot certificate.
  • Read, speak, and understand English.
  • Hold at least a third-class medical certificate.

A table is provided at the end of this section to help you compare the two types of certificates. Which certificate you choose to earn depends on why you want to fly. The recreational certificate is a good choice if you fly in rural areas and don't foresee traveling large distances by airplane. If you plan an aviation career or want to fly long distances for business or pleasure, the private pilot certificate is the better choice. You can start with a recreational certificate and later receive the additional training for a private certificate.

The recreational pilot certificate

The recreational pilot certificate requires fewer training hours than the private certificate and can be earned in as few as 30 hours as compared to the 40 hours needed for the private. The reasoning behind this is that as a recreational pilot you receive fewer hours of cross-country navigation training because you must remain within 50 nautical miles of your home base. You also won't have to learn to fly in airspace requiring communications with air traffic control. And night operations and flight by reference to instruments, which are part of the private pilot training, are eliminated from the recreational pilot's curriculum.

Because of the reduced training requirements, recreational certificate holders are subject to certain limitations and restrictions. As a recreational pilot, you can carry only one passenger in single-engine aircraft of 180 horsepower or less with up to four seats. That means you'll just be taking one friend or family member at a time when you go for a joy ride. It won't be a problem finding aircraft that meet the aircraft type requirements. Most general aviation aircraft that are inexpensive to rent or purchase fall into the above-mentioned categories.

As a recreational pilot, your flying must be during daylight hours in good weather. These weather conditions are defined under the FAA's visual flight rules (VFR). Is there anyone who doesn't like blue sky and sun? You can fly no higher than 10,000 feet above sea level unless you happen to be flying over terrain, such as a mountain, that is higher than 10,000 feet. In that case, you can go over the 10,000-foot limit as long as you stay within 2,000 feet of the ground. Speaking from experience, when you go up really, really high, you can't see much of interest anyway; flying at high altitude doesn't fit with the point of recreational flying.

One limitation that may be a problem for some is that, without additional training and an endorsement (written authorization) from an instructor, a recreational pilot is restricted to flights within 50 nautical miles from the departure airport. In addition, you cannot fly in airspace that requires radio communication with air traffic control. Again, this limitation can be withdrawn if you get additional training and endorsements in your logbook from your flight instructor.

An endorsement might look like this:

Endorsement for a recreational pilot to conduct solo flights for the purpose of obtaining an additional certificate or rating while under the supervision of an authorized flight instructor: FAR § 61.101(h)(i).

I certify that I have given Mr./Ms. ______________________ the ground and flight instruction required by FAR § 61.87 in a __________________.

I find that he/she meets the aeronautical knowledge and flight training requirements of FAR § 61.87 and is competent to conduct a solo flight on __________ under the following conditions:

One way to discover if either the 50 mile limitation or airspace restriction will really bother you is to take a trip to your local airport and ask a flight instructor, pilot, or student pilot to open up an aviation sectional chart (map) of the area and point out the 50 mile region. Take a close look, with their help, at what areas you'll be able to fly over, around, and through. They should also be able to point out the airports without control towers that are within 50 nautical miles. These will be the airports that you will have access to while flying as a recreational pilot unless you get additional training and endorsements. As an AOPA member, you have access to AOPA's Airport Directory where you can find useful information on our country's airports. The directory is available on AOPA's Web site.

Flying, like any skill, needs to be practiced. To encourage frequent practice so you won't become rusty, the holder of a recreational pilot certificate with fewer than 400 hours of logged flight time must make three takeoffs and three landings every 90 days in order to be able to carry passengers. Although private pilots have the same requirements, there are some differences. Unlike a private pilot, if you go more than 180 days without logging any flight time, you'll need to take an instructor with you to establish your currency. He or she will need to endorse your logbook, certifying that you are proficient. Even for a private pilot, six months is a long time to go without flying, but it can happen to any of us with busy schedules and bad weather. It's always a great opportunity to spend time with an instructor who can help you improve your skills.

Who's the best candidate for the recreational pilot certificate? Let's imagine two people, Cliff and Jackie, and think about how each might benefit from a recreational pilot certificate. Cliff wants to learn to fly because it looks like fun, and he has always wanted to do it. Cliff is 45 years old, with an established career, a wife and a child. He and his wife don't have much spare time, but they do have some discretionary income.

Jackie is 15 years old. She is still in high school and hasn't decided what she would like to do yet. She thinks she will be going to college and is holding down a part-time job to help pay for her future education.

Both Cliff and Jackie are good candidates for the recreational pilot certificate. It may take one of them longer to earn the certificate than the other, but the total time and money it takes to acquire their recreational certificates should be less than to earn a private pilot certificate.

Because Cliff doesn't have much spare time in his schedule, he will appreciate getting the recreational certificate with fewer flight hours than it would take to get the private pilot certificate. After he receives his recreational license, he can easily build the additional experience needed to get the private pilot certificate later. Meanwhile, he is enjoying doing something he has always wanted to do.

Jackie needs to watch what she spends. She is thinking of a career in aviation, perhaps aeronautical engineering. The fewer training hours required for the recreational certificate should require less money, yet she will have a leg up on other students should she decide to pursue a professional career in aviation. No matter what career she finally chooses, adding a pilot's license to her resume will show that she has a high level of commitment and the ability to set and achieve goals. It's a terrific resume enhancer. Remember AOPA has information on flying careers as well as information on scholarships and loans.

For some, the limitations of a recreational pilot certificate may be a disadvantage. On the other hand, earning a recreational certificate can be the shortest route to much of the freedom and fun flying has to offer. It is also a stepping stone to help you build experience should you decide to get your private pilot certificate later. Depending on your point of view and what you plan to do with your flying, the restrictions may not seem limiting at all.

The private pilot certificate

A private pilot certificate is like a driver's license. It allows you to fly 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 any number of passengers, and you can share certain operating expenses with your passengers. There are fewer limitations for a private pilot then there are for a recreational pilot. Although, there are currency and medical requirements to make sure you stay proficient and healthy, only a few other factors affect when and where you can fly. Once you earn your license, you are free to wander around in the skies below 18,000 feet above sea level to your heart's content. You might take the family on a trip to see relatives in a distant state or use an airplane to shorten the time it takes to make business trips to another city.

Comparison Chart

Flight Experience
(Part 61)

Recreational Certificate
minimum hours

Private Certificate
minimum hours

 Total Hours 30 40
 Dual 15 20
 Cross Country 2 (within 25 nm) 3 (50 nm or more)
 Solo 3 10
 Cross Country 0 5
 Night Flight 0 3
 Instrument Flight 0 3
 Flight Test Prep 3 3

 AERONAUTICAL KNOWLEDGE

  Recreational Private
 Fed. Regulations * *
 NTSB Accident Reporting * *
 Navigation    
 Pilotage * *
 Dead Reckoning   *
 Radio Nav.   *
 Weather * *
 Airport Tower Operations *  
 Collision Avoidance * *
 ATC Communications   *
 Aerodynamics * *
 Aircraft    
 Systems * *
 Performance * *
 Stall/Spin Awareness * *

 LIMITATIONS

  Recreational Private
 Passengers 1 No Limit
 Aircraft    
 Engines 1 1*
 Seats 4 No Limit
 Horsepower 180 200*
 Retractable Gear - No*
 Altitude 10,000 18,000
 Airspace Class G&E only No Class A
 Night Flying - Yes
 Business Related - Yes
 Flight w/o Ref. To Ground - Yes
 Outside U.S. - Yes
 Charity - Yes
 Towing - Yes

*Indicates a limitation may be removed with additional training and/or endorsements.

One restriction to a private pilot's freedom of flight comes from Mother Nature — the weather. There are certain weather conditions you can fly in and other's you can't, at least without additional training. As a private pilot without an instrument rating, FAA regulations allow you to fly only in weather classified under visual flight rules (VFR). You can, of course, overcome this limitation by earning an instrument rating for flying under instrument flight rules (IFR). Simply put, if it's raining outside and you can't see the neighbor's house through the fog, you shouldn't be wandering around in the sky unless you've been trained in the fine art of flight in instrument meteorological conditions. The instrument rating is something you can add later. Aviation Services has an information package on obtaining an instrument rating. Call 800/USA-AOPA for this free informative package.

With a private pilot license, you can fly at night as long as you have received the required night training. Training for night flying is almost always included as part of a private pilot training curriculum. Without a doubt, a crystal-clear, moonlit night is one of the most spectacular and beautiful times to fly.

Of the more than 600,000 pilots in the United States today, more than 247,000 hold private pilot certificates. The vast majority fly because of the fun, challenges, and opportunities that aviation offers. People of all ages and backgrounds fly. Mastery of a skill few others have is yet another reason. Some people have the mistaken belief that the younger you are, the better. Those of us who teach flying would argue that while it is true some young students may have quicker reflexes, what really counts in aviation is decision-making skills — skills that are acquired through experience, and older students have much more life experience to draw from.

Who's the best candidate for the private pilot certificate? Again, let's imagine two people. This time, their names are Susan and Dillon. Susan is 35 years old and working in a successful career. Dillon is 19 years old and working on his business degree.

Susan would like to do something challenging outside of her career. Recently, she went up with a friend for an airplane ride. At first, she was a little timid, but she soon began to enjoy herself as her friend explained what he was doing during the flight and let her fly the airplane. She loved the view and was surprised to discover that the actual flying was relatively easy. After they landed, her friend suggested she might want to consider flying lessons. Susan has enough money in savings, and her 8-to-5 job allows plenty of time after work and on weekends to take lessons.

Dillon has always wanted to be a pilot and would like to fly for a major airline. He knows that a college degree is necessary for most professional airline careers and is studying business at the university. He would like to begin working on his private pilot certificate and soon after that, the instrument and commercial ratings and the flight instructor certificate. Once he receives his flight instructor certificate, he plans on getting a part-time job teaching at the local airport while he finishes up his degree. As a flight instructor, he can get the experience needed to fly as charter pilot, eventually acquiring enough flight hours to apply to the airlines.

Dillon and Susan have different reasons for getting their private pilot certificates, but they are equally good candidates for a private pilot certificate.

"The moon is the first milestone on the road to the stars." — Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Steps to your pilot certificate

Learning to fly is a matter of acquiring aeronautical knowledge, flight proficiency, and experience. Think of the process of earning a recreational or private pilot certificate as a series of steps. Some steps, such as aeronautical knowledge, can be integrated throughout your training process. Others, like solo training, come when your instructor has provided the required training and he or she decides that you are ready. The process can be broken down into the following subjects:

Aeronautical knowledge and FAA knowledge test
Pre-solo training
Solo training
Cross-county training (for private pilots)
Solo cross-county training (for private pilots)
Practical Test preparation
Practical Test

Requirements

What skills and requirements are needed to learn to fly? A large dash of common sense and the willingness to defy gravity in a heavier than air flying machine is a good start. From there we can follow the FAA's established grocery list of certification requirements.

The certification requirements for both the recreational and private pilot certificates are found in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) available through most flight schools, pilot shops, pilot supply catalogs and available to members on the AOPA Web site. Within this hefty book, certification has a section all its own with the charming title Part 61 — Certification: Pilots, Flight Instructors, and Ground Instructors. Part 61 also includes the privileges and limitations of each certificate or rating.

We all start out as student pilots. Before flying solo in the aircraft, you'll need to have in your possession a student pilot certificate.

To get a student pilot certificate you must:

  1. Be at least 16 years old (14 years old for operating a glider or balloon).
  2. Hold at least a third class medical certificate.
  3. Be able to read, speak, write, and understand the English language.

If you can't meet the medical requirements, perhaps because of deafness or injury, the Administrator may place operating limitations on your pilot certificate that will ensure the safe operation of the aircraft. (The term "Administrator" is used throughout the FARs. It's a term that conjures up a picture of the Great Oz from the Wizard of Oz. In reality, it means the Federal Aviation Administrator or any person to whom she or he has delegated her or his authority in the matter concerned.) AOPA's Medical Certification specialists are available to assist members in getting their medicals or obtaining waivers. Call us at 800/USA-AOPA for assistance.

The FAA medical

Medical certificates, or medicals for short, are required for anyone acting as pilot in command. A medical must be in your personal possession or readily accessible in the aircraft. There are three kinds of medicals: first, second, and third class, each with its own requirements, duration, and privileges. Generally, the greater your responsibility and the more passengers you carry, the higher the class of medical you need. An airline captain, for example, needs a first class medical certificate, which is valid for just six calendar months, whereas a private pilot needs only a third class medical. It is valid for 36 calendar months if you are under age 40, or 24 months if you are age 40 or older. Visit AOPA's Medical Certification Center for more information.

Usually the medical certificate and student pilot certificate are one and the same and are issued by a doctor, called an aviation medical examiner, who has been approved by the FAA to administer the medical exam.

The alternative to the combination medical certificate/student pilot certificate is carrying separate student pilot and medical certificates. The student pilot certificate can be obtained from an FAA flight standards district office (FSDO) or a designated pilot examiner. You still will need to go to an aviation medical examiner for your medical certificate. Save yourself the extra step by being sure to request a combination medical and student pilot certificate when you visit the medical examiner.

The combination medical/student pilot certificate is easy to carry in your logbook, wallet, or purse and required to be in your possession when you fly solo. The difference between the regular medical certificate and the combination medical and student pilot certificate is that, on the back of the medical/student pilot certificate, there is space for the flight instructor's signature before you fly solo.

"Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty." — Jacob Bronowski, English mathematician

Aeronautical knowledge

Aeronautical knowledge includes diverse and interesting subjects like aerodynamics, how the systems of the airplane you are flying work, what weather to avoid, FAA regulations, principles of navigation, aeromedical factors, stall/spin awareness, and National Transportation and Safety Board incident/accident reporting requirements. The FAA requires that you pass a knowledge test covering these subject areas with a grade of 70 percent or better.

Because the ability to "mind meld" isn't within our human capabilities yet, you'll need to study either on your own, through a ground school, or both. The good news is that the flight training industry has developed excellent books, tapes, videos, and computer training programs such as Sporty's Academy and King Schools to help you conduct your own ground school training. These courses all but guarantee you will understand and pass the knowledge test. Keep in mind that you do not need to be an aeronautical engineer or math whiz, just diligent. And with home study programs, you can work at your own pace.

Many flight schools also offer scheduled ground school courses. At others, the instructors provide the ground school in conjunction with the flight briefing and in-flight training time you receive. There are ground schools offered at community colleges and high schools, and there are intensive weekend ground schools. Our Aviation Specialists will help you with any training questions.

What is the best way to prepare for the knowledge test? Again, this depends on the individual. If you are not motivated to study on your own, you will probably do better going to a scheduled ground school class twice a week. On the other hand, if you are self-motivated, you'll have no problem with a home-study course, along with some guidance from an instructor. What about the intensive two-day, weekend ground schools that are offered? Personally, I think that if you are planning on spending the $150 to $200 for such a course, you should already have reviewed the material ahead of time. The sole purpose of these intensive courses is to prepare you to answer the FAA test questions. There is a big difference between knowing and understanding, or as Charles Kettering, the inventor of the electric starter, said, "You can know a lot about something and not really understand it."

No matter how you decide to prepare, the best thing you can do to ensure that you understand the material is to use a variety of resources. Read aviation magazines and try different books, tapes, and videos about flying — just because a book comes in a kit from your flight school doesn't mean it's the only one you should read. Perhaps a difficult subject area can be better explained by another author. Most of all, remember that flying lessons and aeronautical study areas are related. Go prepared for each flight lesson by reading ahead so you can get the most out of your investment.

When you're ready to take the knowledge test, you will need to go to a designated testing facility where you will take the test on a computer. The flight school you attend may be set up to administer the test, or you can go to a private FAA-designated test site. CATS FAA Testing Centers offers discounts to AOPA members. The charge for taking the test is normally about $60. Your test results will be given to you immediately, and you'll want to hold on to them because you'll need to give them to the FAA examiner when you take your practical test. Once you have taken the knowledge test, you have 24 months to complete your practical test, or you'll need to take the knowledge test again.

Endorsement for aeronautical knowledge: §§61-35(a)(1) and 61.105(b)

I certify that I have given (First name, MI, last name) the ground training required by §61.105(b), and that he /she is prepared for the required knowledge test. S/S [date]J.J.Jones 987654321CFI Exp. 12-31-99


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