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Learning to Fly - Wings Over Kauai flight school

Pilot Certificates

In order to fly, you must have a pilot certificate issued by the FAA. Pilot certificates range from the beginner's Student Pilot certificate through the common Private Pilot certificate up to the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate the captain on your last large commercial jet flight probably holds. Since we're talking about initial training and leaning to fly, let's concentrate on the ones you're most likely to encounter.

Private Pilot Certificate

This is the goal most people who are not thinking of an aviation career have in mind when they think about learning to fly. A private pilot certificate allows you to fly an airplane most anywhere. You can carry passengers, although not for compensation or hire (you can share expenses, however).

Flight Instruction

Part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations ("FARs"), "Certification: Pilots and Flight Instructors" describes in detail the training you must receive for each certificate. For the private certificate, the FARs require a minimum 40 hours of flight time -- at least 20 hours with a flight instructor ("dual") and at least 10 hours without one ("solo"). Dual and solo time requirements are further broken down:

20 Hours Dual:
  • 3 hours cross-country (includes landing at an airport at least 50 NM away)
  • 3 hours night flight
  • 3 hours learning to fly solely by reference to instruments
  • 3 hours specifically designed to prepare for the flight test
10 Hours Solo:
  • 5 hours cross-country


Although the FARs only require 40 hours, unless you are willing to treat learning to fly as a full-time job, the average is in the neighborhood of 65 hours. Think about it -- when you learned how to drive, how many hours had you already spent watching other people driving-- Or even sitting on your dad's knee steering yourself? And even after all that, it wasn't easy! Now, how many hours have you spent watching someone fly an airplane? You get the picture!

Knowledge and Practical Tests

The private pilot certificate is issued by the FAA when you satisfactorily complete your training program and pass both a 'knowledge' test and a 'practical' test.

The Knowledge Test is administered by computer. It consists of 60 questions selected from the FAA Private Pilot Written Test bank, covering such subjects as principles of flight, aircraft systems, weather, navigation, flight planning, and the FARs. The full set of questions is available from the FAA and are reproduced, with answers and explanations, by aviation publishers including Jeppesen, Gleim, and ASA.

The Practical Test is usually administered by a skilled, very experienced flight instructor authorized by the FAA to give flight tests ("Designated Examiner" or "DE"). The practical test is a combination oral exam and flight test. The subjects and flight maneuvers ("tasks") on the practical test are not left to the whim of the DE. Rather, he or she follows a set of Practical Test Standards (or "PTS") published by the FAA. Like the test question bank, the PTS for each pilot certificate or rating are available on the Web or through aviation book publishers. If you look through the Private Pilot PTS, it may look daunting. Not to worry -- all good flight training syllabuses and all good flight instructors use it as a guide. When your instructor tells you you're ready, chances are you are ready!


Student Pilot Certificate

The first pilot certificate you will receive is the Student Pilot certificate. Yes, the student certificate has limitations imposed by both the FAA and your instructor, but it most certainly is a pilot certificate -- the first one in the goal of becoming a fully-licensed pilot.

Your student certificate is usually issued together with your first medical certificate. It is the pilot certificate you need in order for your instructor to permit you to fly solo. When you are ready to fly solo, your instructor will endorse the certificate and your logbook. Subject to any endorsements or limitations your instructor may choose, as a student pilot you may fly in most types of airspace, perform flight maneuvers, and go on cross-country trips, although you may not carry passengers, nor fly for business reasons. Like the private pilot certificate, FAR Part 61 sets out what you must be taught and what your instructor must do in order to permit you to solo.


Recreational Pilot Certificate

Although not in very great use, there is a certificate in between the student and private certificates. The recreational certificate is designed for those who whish to obtain a pilots license in a short period of time and plan to fly only short distances in airspace which is not heavily controlled.

For the recreational certificate, the FARs require a minimum of only 30 hours of flight time -- at least 15 hours dual instruction and 3 hours solo. Notably missing is a requirement for cross-country training.

Although some of these limitations can be partially removed by further training, a recreational pilot is limited to flights within 50 NM of the departure airport, is prohibited from flying in any airspace which requires communication with air traffic control, may carry only one passenger at a time, and is limited to lower-powered aircraft.

Despite these limitations, many see the recreational certificate as a worthwhile goal, if even as an intermediate goal to the private certificate.


Medical Certificate

One more certificate deserves mention in connection with learning to fly. As you might expect, the FAA doesn't want people whose health might create a risk to themselves and others flying around! So, flying with any pilot corticated require a currents medical certificate. There are three types, or "classes" of medical certificate: First, Second, and Third. You obtain each certificate via a fairly routine examination administered by FAA Medical Examiners, physicians designated by the FAA to give these exams.

At a minimum, you must have a Third Class medical certificate in order to fly. It is valid for two years if you are over 40 years old and three years if you are under 40, and expires on the last day of the month issued. The first time you get one it will be combined with your Student Pilot Certificate.

Anyone in fairly good health should be able to pass the medical exam easily. You don't need perfect uncorrected vision, and even if you have a physical impairment, medical certificates can be issued in most cases, although operating limitations may be imposed depending on the nature of the impairment.