One of the most common sayings in aviation is that your pilot certificate is a license to learn, and your non-flying friends and family members will always think of that precious bit of plastic as your “pilot’s license.” You might have noticed, though, that the term “license” doesn’t appear in the regulations, advisory circulars, or other official documents. Instead, the FAA calls it a pilot “certificate.”
Does it matter? You can certainly argue, as Shakespeare did in Romeo and Juliet, that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and that your privileges as a pilot would be the same regardless of the term you apply to the document. That’s true enough. In aviation, though, precise (and correct) terminology is important. The FAA publishes an entire Pilot/Controller Glossary of terms to ensure that the meaning is identical on both ends of the microphone. Also, one of the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s most popular seminars – Say It Right – emphasizes the importance of correct radio terminology.
No one would suggest that the license-or-certificate question is a safety matter. Still, using, or at least knowing, the correct terms is part of the “right stuff” for being a professionally-minded pilot. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the terms and definitions associated with the authorization of pilot privileges.
Pilot Certificates. The basic document that the FAA issues to a pilot is a certificate. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a certificate as “a document certifying that one has fulfilled the requirements of, and may practice in, a field.” Since an individual must fulfill certain requirements to practice in the field of aviation, the term fits.
There are several different levels of pilot certification, depending on the extent of training and testing required. The first, of course, is the student pilot certificate, which is usually issued in connection with the individual’s first aviation medical certificate. Medical certification isn’t necessary for a student glider or balloon pilot. The newest pilot certificate level is the sport pilot certificate, which was added in 2004. Another basic level is the recreational pilot certificate. As the titles suggest, these pilot certificate levels are designed to facilitate flying for sport or recreation. Since they require less training than FAA and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards prescribe for a basic pilot certificate, the privileges conferred by the sport and recreational pilot certificates are more limited. For basic pilot privileges that do meet ICAO standards, the FAA issues a private pilot certificate, which has historically been the most common pilot certificate.
For those who wish to fly for pay, or “for compensation or hire” as the official documents put it, a higher level of certificate is required. The training and testing standards required for this privilege are understandably more rigorous. The commercial pilot certificate and the airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate certify that the holder has successfully completed those requirements, and is qualified to exercise the more extensive privileges associated with that certificate level.
Instructor Certificates. Although we naturally tend to think of flight instructors as pilots, the certificate issued to a flight instructor is considered to be an instructor certificate, and not a pilot certificate. Possession of a commercial or ATP-level pilot certificate is generally required for issuance of a flight instructor certificate and, naturally enough, the holder of a flight instructor certificate may exercise its privileges only when the instructor certificate is used in combination with the appropriate pilot certificate. In contrast, the holder of a ground instructor certificate is not required to hold a pilot certificate.
Ratings. Except for student and sport pilot certificates, which we will address later, all pilot and instructor certificates have associated ratings. According to its official definition, a rating is “a statement that, as part of a certificate, sets forth special conditions, privileges, or limitations.” In other words, ratings specify what, and/or how, the pilot is qualified to fly, and they come in several varieties. The most common form is the aircraft category and class rating. A typical rating on a private pilot certificate is “airplane single-engine land.” If you subsequently decide that you want to fly twin-engine airplanes, you need to complete the training and testing requirements for a multi-engine rating. Your private pilot certificate will then have ratings for “airplane single and multi-engine land.” There are obviously many possible combinations of certificates and ratings for aircraft category and class. For example, you might have a commercial pilot certificate with an airplane single-engine land rating. If you train and test in a multi-engine airplane to the private pilot certificate level rather than the commercial level, you will still have a commercial pilot certificate with an airplane single-engine land rating, but it will note that you have a multi-engine land rating with private pilot privileges. For a pilot to legally act as pilot-in-command of any aircraft that is more than 12,500 pounds maximum gross takeoff weight or of any turbojet, an aircraft-specific type rating (e.g., B737) is required, in addition to the appropriate aircraft category and class rating. Ratings are also added to a certificate when the pilot qualifies for a certain operating privilege, such as an instrument rating, in a specific aircraft category and class. For instance, let’s assume that the pilot has a private pilot certificate. The aircraft category and class rating is airplane single-engine land, and the pilot also has an instrument rating. To add a multi-engine land rating, the pilot must complete the required instrument training and testing in the multi-engine airplane to have instrument privileges for the new aircraft category and class.
Endorsements. An endorsement attests to the completion of ground and/or flight training required for specific operating privileges or for airman certification testing. Except for certain endorsements made in pen and ink on a student pilot certificate, endorsements are generally made in the pilot’s logbook. The endorsements required by Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 61 fall into several broad categories:
Student Pilots: Because a student pilot certificate has no aircraft category and class ratings, operating privileges and limitations for solo flight are conveyed exclusively through instructor endorsements. Endorsements in this category are usually limited not just to aircraft category and class, but also to a specific make and model. Student pilot endorsements can also specify weather limitations.
Sport Pilots: Like a student pilot certificate, a sport pilot certificate is issued without aircraft category and class ratings. Logbook endorsements specify the category, class, make, and model of aircraft that the sport pilot is authorized to fly as pilot in command.
Testing for Certificate or Rating: To take a knowledge test or practical test for most pilot certificates and ratings, the applicant must have endorsements attesting to aeronautical knowledge and flight proficiency (including aeronautical experience and practical test preparation required in 14 CFR section 61.31(a)(6)). The flight instructor applicant endorsements for completing the fundamentals of instruction and spin training fall into this category as well.
Recurrent Training: To maintain the operating privileges conferred by a pilot certificate or instrument rating, the pilot must have an endorsement for satisfactory completion of required recurrent training (e.g., flight review or instrument proficiency check).
Aircraft Characteristics: The requirement for a type rating is limited to large (greater than 12,500 lbs maximum gross takeoff weight) and turbojet-powered aircraft. However, certain small and piston-powered aircraft have characteristics that require additional training for safe operation. For example, 14 CFR section 61.69 specifies training and experience required for towing a glider. Specific additional aircraft training requirements are outlined in 14 CFR section 61.31, and instructor endorsements that attest to the satisfactory completion of this training are the mechanism used to confer the necessary operating privilege. Endorsements related to aircraft characteristics include those for complex, high performance, high altitude, tailwheel, and glider ground operations. In addition, 14 CFR section 61.31(h) provides for “additional aircraft type-specific training” in cases where the FAA has determined that such training is required.
No matter the level of certificate or the number of ratings you hold, the beauty (and challenge) of aviation is that there is always some new combination to earn, which means something new and exciting to learn. The spring and summer season is a great time to embark on an aeronautical improvement project, so take advantage of the great weather and exercise your license to learn. (FAA Aviation News, May/June 2008)