Interested in learning how to fly? You're not alone. Every year, thousands of people across the United States start the exciting journey to learn how to be a pilot, and you too can learn the skills necessary to join the ranks of aviators in the exhilerating world of aviation.
Pilots in the United States are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, after training in a variety of areas related to the safe operation of the aircraft in which they learn to fly. There are several classes of pilot certificates, and pilots who are just starting out will initially work toward either the Recreational Pilot Certificate or the Private Pilot Certificate.
The primary differences between a Private Pilot Certificate and a Recreational Pilot Certificate consist of the experience requirements necessary to be eligible to take the flight exam and the privileges associated with each grade of certificate. Specifically, recreational pilots are prohibited from flying aircraft between sunset and sunrise and must receive more extensive training to conduct flights outside of 50 nautical miles from their home airport or to operate in the vicinity of airports with operational control towers. Both recreational pilots and private pilots must pass a routine medical examination once every 3 years in order to exercise the privileges of their license. The minimum number of flight hours to be eligible for the Recreational Pilot Certificate is 30 hours, which is near enough to the 40 hours required of the less restrictive Private Pilot Certificate that recreational pilots make up a small portion of the overall pilot population; according to AOPA, the number of certified recreational pilots as of 2006 in the U.S. numbers only 242, compared to nearly a quarter million private pilots.
The FAA minimum number of flight hours in most cases for a candidate to take the Private Pilot Exam is 40 hours (certain specially certified schools, called "Part 141 Schools" are permitted to allow students to take the checkride with 35 hours). However, the national average tends to run higher, generally from about 65-75 flight hours. Many factors influence the number of hours a student will spend in training before being qualified to take the "final exam", including frequency of training flights, previous knowledge of material, consistency of home study, weather and geography, type and quality of aircraft, and the experience of the instructor. Most importantly, students must have developed a good sense of aviation judgement and experience to ensure that they can safely and confidently operate the aircraft as the Pilot-In-Command, or PIC.
A new alternative, the Sport Pilot Certificate, was introduced in 2004 after years of hard work from members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the Aircraft Owner's and Pilot's Association (AOPA) to create a more accessible and cost effective method for pilots to get themselves in the sky. With certain provisions, sport pilots are only required to have a valid driver's license in lieu of medical examinations in order to qualify and the minimum experience requirements begin at only 20 total flight hours (though it is likely that pilots will need somewhat more instruction to feel comfortable with their skills, as with private pilots). Sport pilots are trained and certified to fly on specific aircraft that meet Light-Sport Aircraft criteria (generally a maximum gross weight of 1,320 lbs and maximum speed of 120 knots). Though the Sport Pilot program has been more successful than the Recreational Pilot Certificate, the much smaller number of eligible aircraft makes the program impractical for pilots who want to fly larger aircraft (even the mighty Cessna 150 does not meet the eligibility requirements) down the road, but as manufacturers expand the scope of aircraft meeting the Light-Sport Aircraft criteria, the Sport Pilot Certificate will continue to grow into a larger part of the aviation community.
Pilots may then continue working toward other qualifications, such as the Instrument Rating, Commercial Pilot's Certificate, or additional ratings (seaplanes, gliders, or helicopters, or airplanes if you started in one of the other types of aircraft). An Instrument Rating will allow the pilot to develop more fine aircraft manipulation and control skills which will allow for operations in more adverse weather conditions that a pilot who is only capable of flying under "Visual Flight Rules." A Commercial Pilot may serve as a compensated pilot, under certain circumstances, such as an airline First Officer, a cargo pilot, or a pilot for a tour operator, among other options. Such pilots may also become Certified Flight Instructors ("CFIs") or, with greater experience levels, earn the Airline Transport Pilot Certificate ("ATP").
Jeremy Jankowski is a contract Certified Flight Instructor with a passion for education and aviation and has worked with dozens of students working toward all ranks of pilot certificate. Jeremy is certified to teach primary and commercial flight instruction, instrument flight instruction, and multi-engine instruction, and was named in May of 2002 as a "Master CFI" by the National Association of Flight Instructors. He has extensive experience with Cessna and Piper single-engine aircraft, Piper and Beechcraft twin-engine aircraft, and has written several articles about adverse weather operations, GPS navigation, and making the most of your training experience. Coupled with over six thousand hours of "real-world" flying experience throughout North America, Jeremy can provide you with the professional and well-rounded flight training that you will use to operate your aircraft safely and efficiently and give you the confidence to expand your own horizons as a pilot.