According to the most recent statistics available from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, there are 651,551 U.S. pilots licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Depending on the type of pilot license they have, those individuals may fly aircraft ranging from a single-engine plane to a complex passenger jet. As a pilot learns to handle increasingly complex aircraft, the pilot license test requirements get progressively more demanding.
FAA Student Pilot Certificate
Most pilots initially learn to fly at a flight school with a certified instructor who accompanies them in the cockpit. Instructor-accompanied flights require no particular license or certificate, but before student pilots can fly solo, they need to get a student pilot certificate.
The student pilot license carries several restrictions. For example, student pilots can't carry passengers or fly internationally.
Student pilot license applicants must be at least 16 years old and able to read, speak and understand English. They must also meet the Federal Aviation Association requirements for a third-class medical certificate, which requires at least 20/40 vision with or without eyeglasses or contacts and blood pressure under 155/95. The medical certificate also ensures that a pilot does not have a condition, such as epilepsy or equilibrium disorders, that disqualifies him or her from flying. A student pilot license applicant can obtain both a medical certificate and the student pilot certificate from an FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner.
There are approximately 6,000 aviation medical examiners in the United States. The directory of aviation medical examiners is available at any FAA Flight Standards District Office, air traffic control facility or flight service station, as well as online through FAA (faa.gov/pilots/amelocator).
Additionally, a student pilot's instructor must certify that he or she is prepared for solo flight. While there is no formal student pilot license test, a certified flight instructor generally will determine that a student pilot has an adequate understanding of relevant topics such as preflight operations and airspace restrictions. This part of the process also ensures that a student pilot is comfortable enough with common procedures, such as take-offs and landings, in order to perform those procedures solo.
There is no fee for a student pilot certificate when it is issued by an FAA Flight Standards District Office. However, an FAA-designated pilot examiner can charge for issuing student pilot certificates. Also, an FAA-authorized aviation medical examiner can charge for the physical examination. Such fees vary, but student pilot license applicants generally expect to pay between $75 and $120.
FAA Private Pilot License
The private pilot certificate, the most common license among US pilots, allows people to fly recreationally, but not for compensation.
A student pilot must complete at least 40 hours of flight time – including at least 10 solo hours – prior to taking the private pilot license test, although most pilots far surpass that requirement to ensure that they are prepared before taking the test. The private pilot license prerequisites also include a cross-country training requirement of experience with long-distance flights of more than 50 nautical miles or 93 kilometers involving multiple airports. Student pilots must also be at least 17 years old before they can obtain a private pilot license.
Additionally, the student pilot must be able to present evidence of successful completion of a ground instruction program. That evidence may be a graduation certificate from an FAA-approved flight school or logbook entries from a certified flight instructor or any other certification of ground instruction.
The FAA requires student pilots to pass two private pilot license tests, written knowledge and practical, before they can receive a private pilot license. Tests are offered in seven different aircraft categories: airplane, helicopter, gyroplane, glider, hot air balloon, gas balloon and lighter-than-air gas ship.
The written knowledge portion of the private pilot’s test, which is actually taken on a computer, has 60 questions and two and a half hours are allotted for answering them. A list of sample questions is available on the FAA website.
The minimum passing score on the written knowledge portion of the private pilot test is 70 percent, and a passing score on the knowledge portion is valid for two years. A pilot who does not go on to take the practical portion of the test during that timeframe must re-take the knowledge portion.
Next, a student pilot will schedule the practical portion of the pilot license test, which is also known as a checkride, with an FAA-designated pilot examiner. The examiner will have a checklist of areas of operation with which the pilot should be familiar. Evaluation of this knowledge may take place through an oral exam in cases where the knowledge may not necessarily be used while in flight.
The examiner also assesses the student's capability to perform a number of tasks, including takeoffs, landings, navigation and emergency procedures, among others, while in flight. The practical exam differs for single-engine planes and multi-engine planes.
The fee for the knowledge test is $90. Student pilots should note that this does not include costs of flying instruction and aircraft rental, which push the actual cost of obtaining a private pilot license into the thousands of dollars. The examiner's fee for the practical exam is between $300 and $400, depending on the examiner.
Student pilots may opt for a recreational license instead of the private pilot license. This lower-level classification carries more restrictions with it, as recreational pilot license holders are limited in the permitted flight distance, but it also requires fewer hours of flight experience prior to testing, which cuts down on training costs. Similar in content to the private pilot license test, the written knowledge portion for the recreational license is shorter – just 50 questions and two hours long. The recreational license is only offered in three categories: airplane, helicopter and gyroplane, and recreational pilots who decide to obtain a full private pilot license can do so after taking a 30-question written test.
FAA Commercial Pilot License
Professional pilots fly aircraft ranging from corporate jets to traffic helicopters. In order to perform this work, professionals must meet the more demanding requirements of the commercial pilot license, which ensures that they have extensive experience and a high mastery of aviation procedures.
In order to qualify for a commercial license, pilots must be at least 18 years old. They must already hold a private pilot license, and meet the stricter requirements of the second-class medical certificate, which requires distant vision of 20/20 and intermediate vision of 20/40 either with or without corrective devices.
Commercial pilots participating in flight training programs certified under the FAA's strict Part 141 requirements must complete at least 190 hours of flight time, including 10 hours of solo time and a number of long-distance trips involving multiple airports. Pilots who train at Part 61 schools, which offer greater flexibility but are subjected to less FAA scrutiny, must have at least 250 hours of piloting time, in addition to the other time requirements.
Although similar to the private pilot license testing process, the commercial pilot testing is much more rigorous. The written knowledge portion contains 100 questions, with three hours allotted for its completion. As with the private pilot license test, the minimum passing score on the knowledge portion of the commercial exam is 70 percent.
Commercial pilots also must pass a practical exam, or checkride, with a designated flight examiner, and that exam is different for single-engine planes and multi-engine planes. The commercial pilot practical exam tests skills and competencies necessary for piloting the more complex aircraft that a professional pilot may encounter.
While an instrument rating course is not specifically required for the commercial pilot license test, it is recommended because most professional pilots must fly under instrument ratings at least periodically.
For the commercial pilot license test, the knowledge test fee is $100. The examiner's fee for the practical exam is generally around $400.
While a commercial license does allow a pilot to be compensated, many professional pilots, particularly those who work for airlines, hold a higher level Airline Transport Pilot certification. In addition to meeting the requirements for the commercial pilot license, an Airline Transport Pilot must be at least 23 years old, of good moral character, and hold an instrument rating. He or she must also qualify for the first-class medical certificate which requires an EKG to show normal heart function in addition to the requirements for the second-class certificate. An Airline Transport Pilot applicant must complete at least 1,500 hours of flight and must pass an 80-question written knowledge exam and a practical exam.
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