The First Pilot and Mechanic Licenses Issued




The First Pilot and Mechanic Licenses Issued
Pilot License  

The Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce began pilot certification with this license, issued on April 6, 1927. The recipient was the chief of the Branch, William P. MacCracken, Jr. Orville Wright, who was no longer an active flier, had declined the honor.) MacCracken's license was the first issued to a pilot by a civilian agency of the Federal government.

Some three months later, the Branch issued the first Federal aircraft mechanic license. The Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce began pilot certification with this license, issued on April 6, 1927. The recipient was the chief of the Branch, William P. MacCracken, Jr. Orville Wright, who was no longer an active flier, had declined the honor.) MacCracken's license was the first issued to a pilot by a civilian agency of the Federal government.

Some three months later, the Branch issued the first Federal aircraft mechanic license. Equally important for safety was the establishment of a system of certification for aircraft. On March 29, 1927, the Aeronautics Branch issued the first airworthiness type certificate to the Buhl Airster CA-3, a three-place open biplane. The Airster is shown below in a 1926 photograph.

Today's General Structure of Certification

A pilot is certificated to fly aircraft at one or more named privilege levels and, at each privilege level, rated to fly aircraft of specific categories. Privilege levels of pilot certificates are, in order of increasing privilege:

  • Student Pilot: an individual who is learning to fly under the tutelage of a flight instructor and who is permitted to fly alone under specific, limited circumstances

  • Sport Pilot: an individual who is authorized to fly only Light-sport Aircraft

  • Recreational Pilot: an individual who may fly aircraft of up to 180 horsepower and 4 seats in the daytime for pleasure only

  • Private Pilot: an individual who may fly for pleasure or personal business, generally without accepting compensation

  • Commercial Pilot: an individual who may, with some restrictions, fly for compensation or hire

  • Airline Transport Pilot (often called ATP): an individual authorized to act as pilot in command for a scheduled airline


Categories of aircraft for which a pilot may be rated are:

  • Airplane

  • Rotorcraft

  • Glider

  • Lighter than air

  • Powered lift

  • Powered parachute

  • Weight-shift-control

  Buhl Airster

Most aircraft categories are further broken down into classes. If a category is so divided, a pilot must hold a class rating to operate an aircraft in that class:

  • The Airplane category is divided into single-engine land, multi-engine land, single-engine sea and multi-engine sea classes

  • The Rotorcraft category is divided into helicopter and gyroplane classes

  • The Lighter-than-air category is divided into airship and balloon classes

  • The Powered parachute category is divided into powered parachute land and powered parachute sea

  • The Weight-shift-control category is divided into weight-shift-control land and weight-shift-control sea

A student pilot certificate does not list category or class ratings, but is instead endorsed by a flight instructor to confer privileges in specific makes and models of aircraft.

A type rating is required in a specific make and model of aircraft if the aircraft weighs more than 12,500 lb (5,700 kg) at takeoff or is powered by one or more turbojet engines. The Boeing 747, Beechcraft Super King Air 350, and the Hawker Hunter are examples of aircraft that require type ratings.

A pilot can separately add an instrument rating to a Private or Commercial certificate. An Airline Transport Pilot implicitly holds an instrument rating; one does not appear on an ATP certificate. Instrument ratings are issued discretely for Airplane and Powered Lift categories and the Helicopter class. Glider and airship pilots may operate under Instrument Flight Rules under certain circumstances as well. An individual may hold only one pilot certificate at one time; that certificate may authorize multiple privilege levels distinguished by aircraft category, class or type. For example, an Airline Transport Pilot certificate holder may be permitted to exercise ATP privileges when flying multi-engine land airplanes, but only Commercial Pilot privileges when flying single-engine land airplanes and gliders.

FAA may impose limitations on an pilot certificate if, during training or the practical test, the pilot does not demonstrate all skills necessary to exercise all privileges of a privilege level, category, class or type rating. For example, a holder of a DC-3 type rating who does not demonstrate instrument flying skills during the practical test would be assigned a limitation reading, "DC-3 (VFR Only)".

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"), an oral test and a practical test carried out by either an FAA inspector or a Designated Pilot 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.

Pilot 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 ó recent flight experience that is relevant to the flight being undertaken. To remain current, 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 or satisfies the flight review requirement using an alternate approved means), 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 a Light-sport Aircraft. An ultra light aircraft can be piloted without a pilot certificate or a medical certificate.

In addition to 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.

Knowledge tests

Most pilot certificates and ratings require the applicant to pass a knowledge test, also called the "written test". The knowledge test results are valid for a period of 2 years, and are usually a prerequisite for practical tests. Resources available to prepare for the knowledge test may be obtained from pilot supply stores or vendors. The exceptions where a knowledge exam is not required for a practical test are for some add-on ratings after the initial license, such as a powered aircraft pilot adding an additional category rating at the same license level.

In order to take knowledge tests for all pilot certificates and ratings, the applicant must have a sign-off from a ground or flight instructor. These are usually given by an instructor who has taught a ground school course, provided ground instruction or reviewed the applicant's self-study preparations.

Practical tests

All pilot certificates and ratings require a practical test, usually called a "check ride". For each practical test, the FAA has published a Practical Test Standards document which is expected to be used by the applicant to prepare, by the flight instructor to teach and evaluate readiness for the exam, and by the examiner to conduct the exam. A practical test is administered by an FAA Inspector or an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner. The check-ride is divided into two parts: the oral exam followed by a flight test in the aircraft. Upon successful completion of the practical test, the examiner will issue a temporary airman certificate with the new license or rating.

In order to take practical tests for all pilot certificates and ratings (except Airline Transport Pilot), the applicant must have proper logbook endorsements from their flight instructor.

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, sky diver pilot, 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.

Pilot certificates

The FAA offers a progression of pilot certificates, each with its own set of privileges and limitations. All 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.


A student pilot certificate is issued by an aviation medical examiner (AME) at the time of the studentís 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 vehicle driver's license can be used as proof of medical competence PROVIDED the prospective pilot was not rejected for their last Airman Medical Certificate

Before a trainee can start the solo phase of flight training, a Student Sport Pilot Certificate must be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These may be obtained from an FAA Flight Standards District Office or FAA Designated Pilot Examiner.

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

  • Be at least 17 years of age

  • 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 flight 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 25 nautical miles (46 km).

  • 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 10,000 feet (3,000 m) MSL or 2,000 feet (610 m) AGL, whichever is higher

  • 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.


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 sport 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 and flights for organizations such as Pilots-n-Paws, CAP (Civil Air Patrol), and ARF (animal rescue flights).

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 100 nautical miles (190 km) 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)


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 50 nautical miles (93 km) 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 pilotís 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, a rigorous written examination, and being of good moral character.

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 troublesom are glider, balloon, and sport pilots, these pilots do not require a medical certificate).

Other certificates and ratings

  • A flight instructor certificate authorizes the holder to give training and endorsement for a certificate, and perform a flight review.

  • An instrument rating is required to fly under instrument flight rules. 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 instrument instructor rating authorizes a certified flight instructor to give training and endorsement for an instrument rating.

  • A multi-engine rating is required to fly an airplane with more than one engine. It is the most common example of a class rating.

  • A multi-engine instructor rating authorizes a certified flight instructor to give training and endorsement for a multi-engine rating.

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.

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