This is where everyone starts. Student pilots learn to fly while working their way through the knowledge and flying skills needed to earn their sport, recreational, or private pilot certificate. A student pilot's flying privileges are very limited, but provide enough freedom to allow them to learn all of the basics, including standard airport-to-airport cross-country flying skills and interaction with air traffic control (ATC). In 2003, there were 87,296 student pilots.
When student pilots first start learning to fly, they complete all of their flights with a certificated flight instructor (CFI) on board. Once they've reached the age of 16, have a valid Class III medical, and have mastered the basic skills and educational topics of flight, they can solo (fly alone without an instructor or other certificated pilot at the controls). The destination and duration of each solo flight must be approved.
Student pilots are allowed to operate only at or near their "home-base" airports and — with a special sign-off by their instructors — travel to other local airports to practice their airport-to-airport cross-country flying skills. Student pilots learn how to fly in good weather during the day and night. They also learn basic instrument flying skills, which teach them how to fly by reading the instruments in the cockpit and without visual reference to the ground. They are not allowed to carry any passengers, or to fly for hire. They are not allowed to operate in the busiest airspace around our largest cities (Class B airspace) without special training and flight instructor approval.
Private pilots comprise the largest group of pilots and are among the most active flyers. In 2003, there were 241,045 private pilots. To become a private pilot, one must be at least 17 years old and have a minimum of 40 hours of flight time (the actual average is about 70 hours), including 20 hours of instruction and 10 hours of solo. Pilots trained according to accelerated curricula defined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations may be certified with a minimum of 35 hours of flight time.
A private pilot — with appropriate training, ratings, and endorsements (e.g., floatplane, taildragger, multiengine, helicopter, jet, retractable gear, pressurized, high-performance, complex, etc.) — may carry passengers in any aircraft, day or night, good or bad weather (see Instrument Rating below).
Private pilots may not fly for compensation or hire (no passenger or revenue services) but may share equally with their passengers the direct operating expenses of a flight — specifically fuel, oil, airport parking and landing fees, and aircraft rental charges.
Private pilots must have a current Class III medical, which they must renew every 24 or 36 months (depending upon age). They must revalidate their pilot certificates every 24 months by undertaking a flight review with a certificated flight instructor (CFI).
While technically not a pilot certificate, the instrument rating is the most common and logical step to take after gaining some experience while flying with a private pilot certificate. This add-on rating allows a pilot to fly in weather with reduced visibilities such as rain, low clouds, or heavy haze. When flying in these conditions, pilots follow instrument flight rules (IFR). The instrument rating provides the skills needed to complete flights without visual reference to the ground, except for the takeoff and landing phases. All pilots who fly above 18,000 feet mean sea level (msl) must have an instrument rating.
The instrument rating makes the use of aircraft more practical for routine transportation because most of the time, an "IFR-rated" pilot will be able to safely conduct their flight in spite of the weather conditions they may encounter.
The instrument 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 at least 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.
If not used on a regular and sufficient basis, pilots must revalidate their instrument rating every 12 months by undertaking an instrument proficiency check with a CFI.
As the name implies, commercial pilots can be paid to fly aircraft. Commercial pilots must be at least 18 years old and have a minimum of 250 hours of flight time (190 hours under the accelerated curriculum defined in Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations), including 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). They must hold an instrument rating, or be restricted to flying for hire only in daylight, under visual flight rules (VFR), within 50 miles of the originating airport. They may fly for hire in accordance with applicable parts of the Federal Aviation Regulations.
Certified Flight Instructor
A certificated flight instructor (CFI) is authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to give instruction to student pilots and pilots taking recurrent training or preparing for additional certificates or ratings. They also may give flight reviews and recommend their students for flight tests. CFIs must be at least 18 years old and must hold at least a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating. CFIs may earn a special instrument instructor rating, allowing them to teach instrument flying (operating an aircraft in the air solely by instrument indications without visual reference to the ground). An instructor with this rating is called a CFII.
In addition to undertaking their normal flight review every 24 months, CFIs must revalidate their instructor certification every 24 months. There were 87,816 flight instructors in 2003.
Airline Transport Pilot
This is the doctorate degree of piloting — and 143,504 pilots were in this distinguished category in 2003. Airline transport pilots (ATPs) 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. Most ATPs have many thousands of hours of flight time. ATPs also must have a commercial certificate and an instrument rating. ATPs may instruct other pilots in air transportation service in aircraft in which the ATP is rated. They may not instruct pilots outside of air transportation service unless they also have an appropriate fight instructor certificate.
ATPs must have a current and much more stringent Class I medical, which they are required to renew every six months. Like all pilots, they must revalidate their certificates every 24 months with a flight review. However, most active ATPs undergo a checkride in an aircraft or simulator every six months.
The preceding information was provided by AOPA