I’m a stickler for accuracy when it comes to words in general, and especially for terms used in aviation. You won’t ever hear me talking about a pilot’s “license,” but I’ve mostly conceded that getting everyone to call it by its proper name — pilot certificate — is a losing battle. However, I am still fighting the good fight against the widespread tendency to use the terms “certificate” and “rating” as if they were synonyms. So here goes!
Certificate = Privilege Level
The document that the FAA issues is a certificate, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a document certifying that one has fulfilled the requirements of, and may practice in, a field.”
A pilot is certificated to fly aircraft at one or more privilege levels: Student, Sport, Recreational, Private, Commercial, and Airline Transport Pilot (ATP).
Although we naturally 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. However, a commercial or ATP-level pilot certificate is generally required for issuance and exercise of a flight instructor certificate.
Rating = Operating Privilege
A rating is “a statement that, as part of a certificate, sets forth special conditions, privileges, or limitations.” Ratings specify what, and/or how, the pilot is qualified to fly.
Except for pilots at the student and sport certification levels (more below), pilots at each certificate level are rated to fly aircraft in at least one specific category and, if applicable, class. A typical rating on a private pilot certificate is “airplane single engine land.” If you complete additional training and testing requirements for a multi-engine class rating, your private pilot certificate will then have ratings for “airplane single and multi-engine land.”
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.
Endorsement = Completion of Specified Training
An endorsement attests to 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 that specify not just aircraft category and class, but also 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, flight proficiency, aeronautical experience, and practical test preparation.
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 pounds maximum gross takeoff weight) and turbojet-powered aircraft. However, certain small and piston-powered aircraft have characteristics that require additional training for safe operation. Endorsements related to aircraft characteristics include those for complex, high performance, high altitude, tailwheel, and glider ground operations.
Does it matter? I won’t argue that it’s a safety matter. Still, using correct terms is part of the “right stuff” for being a professionally-minded pilot. So humor me, please, and say it right! (FAA Safety Briefing – MayJun 2015)