Pilot Certificates (or licenses)

Private pilot certificate, private pilot license, PPL, CPL, commercial pilot ….? What are all these terms? This article will briefly discuss these and similar terms so you can better understand what all these things mean.

The following article is for basic understanding of the pilot certificates and licenses, and is not written for the professional educational purposes. Many advanced areas of knowledge have been omitted to keep this simple and easily understandable. Professional aviation knowledge articles are available in a different area of this site.

CERTIFICATE OR LICENSE:

First of all, let us clarify the issue of certificate or a license. In the United States, any individual who needs or wants to fly any aircraft, is required by the Federal Law to apply for and obtain a relevant pilot certificate. Pilot certificates once issued, are valid for the life time of the holder (certain exceptions are there, but for the sake of this discussion they are not relevant, and we will address them in a

different article). In other words, in the US, the pilot certificate is more like an educational credential. Like your high school diploma, or a college degree, and so forth. Once you achieve the requirements, and are issued the certificate, it is yours forever.

In some, or I would say, in most other countries, the same privilege, i.e. the credentials to fly an aircraft, are issued in the form of a license. This license, just like your car driver’s license, or a business license, has an expiration date. And, the holder needs to pay the fee to renew the license at the time of the expiration or upgrade etc. And of course, there is a frequent expiration date for the license.

US pilot certificate is issued free of charge, and never expires, whereas, a pilot license usually comes

with an application fee, issuance fee, renewal fee, upgrade fee, etc. I guess you got the point. A pilot license is a source of revenue for those governments. And of course, as it is a license, it can be revoked any time with or without any cause!

COMMON PILOT CERTIFICATES AND LICENSES:

STUDENT PILOT CERTIFICATE:

A student pilot certificate (or a license in most countries) a.k.a SPL, is required to fly SOLO in an aircraft. In simple words, when you are in the process of learning how to fly, at some point your flight instructor (known as CFI in the US) would let you go fly around on your own. To be able to do this, i.e. fly on your own (sole

occupant of the aircraft, thereby called SOLO), you need to have a student pilot certificate or an SPL. When you are with a flight instructor in an aircraft, you do not need to have any certificate or license. In the US, this is the only pilot certificate that has an expiration date on it. If the student pilot certificate is issued before the 40th birthday of the applicant, the expiration date is set at 3 years, otherwise it is 2 years. The certificate is issued free of charge, however, there is usually a fee involved for the medical certificate (upon completion of the medical examination by the approved Aviation Medical Examiner – AME).

PRIVATE PILOT CERTIFICATE:

A private pilot certificate (or a license in most countries) a.k.a. PPL, is the minimum required to fly around for pleasure or personal transportation (like your class c driver’s license) and take your family and friends with you without any restrictions (for the most part). There are certain restrictions on licenses, but as far as the US private pilot certificate is concerned, you are allowed to fly an aircraft that you own, or a rental, day or night time, and with the required additional credentials, even in the clouds (Instrument Rating). In simple words, you can fly as long as you are not flying as a professional pilot, i.e. getting paid to fly. For that, you would need a commercial pilot certificate (or a commercial pilot license – CPL).

COMMERCIAL PILOT CERTIFICATE:

A commercial pilot certificate (or a license in most countries) a.k.a. CPL, is the minimum required to fly professionally as a job. A holder of a commercial pilot certificate or a license is eligible to fly an aircraft as a professional pilot. Of course there are more additional qualifications, credentials, or ratings as we call them in aviation lingo or terminology, but the idea is that the commercial pilot is the bare minimum requirement for a job as a pilot.

OTHER PILOT CERTIFICATES:

In the US, there are a few other pilot certificates which are available for the public. There is a recreational pilot certificate, a sport pilot certificate, an airline transport pilot certificate, and then there are some additional ratings like instrument rating, type specific type ratings etc. We have discussed all these certificates and ratings in a different article in detail.