At some early stage of your aviation training, your instructor introduced the concepts of “category” and “class.” You learned (sort of ) that category and class mean one thing for certification of aircraft, but they mean something different for certification of pilots. If your experience was anything like mine, you didn’t get much (if any) information about what those words meant, much less why they are applied differently to planes and pilots. So you dutifully found a way to memorize the words associated with category and class for each. You remembered it just long enough to get through the knowledge test, and after that you never thought about it again. Sound familiar?
Once I passed my private pilot knowledge test, I personally put notions of category and class completely out of mind until I started working toward my ground and flight instructor qualifications. At that stage, it wasn’t enough to parrot the textbook definitions. I had to actually understand these heretofore confusing concepts in order to explain them, first to the FAA inspector who administered the practical test and then to my students. As the saying goes, words matter — and these particular words are helpful in terms of understanding certification requirements for performance (planes) and privileges (people).
Aircraft Category = What Can It Do?
As used with the certification of aircraft, the term “category” refers to aircraft grouping according to intended use and operating limitations. The aircraft categories can further be grouped according to whether they qualify for a standard airworthiness certificate or a special airworthiness certificate.
This chart provides a broad summary of the main aircraft categories. The chart is by no means exhaustive, either in scope or in detail. For that, you need to refer to the appropriate section(s) of 14 CFR. It is also important to understand that the references shown in the chart address airworthiness and certification standards, which are only part of the story. For operating rules and limitations applicable to a particular aircraft category and/or class, you’ll need to check the appropriate sections of 14 CFR part 91.
The bottom line is that understanding at least the basic certification requirements for each aircraft category gives you important information on what the aircraft can and cannot do for you.
Aircraft Class = How Does It Fly?
For aircraft certification purposes, “class” simply refers to a broad grouping of aircraft having similar characteristics in terms of propulsion, flight, or landing. The major class distinctions for aircraft certification are: airplane; rotorcraft; glider; balloon; landplane; and seaplane.
To put aircraft category and class into more familiar terms, here are a few examples based on the aircraft GA pilots are most likely to fly:
- Normal (category) airplane (class)
- Utility (category) airplane (class)
- Acrobatic (category) airplane (class)
Pilot Certificates & Ratings
Before we turn to category and class for airmen, take a look at this issue’s “Checklist” department for a clarification of the very frequently garbled terminology on pilot certificates and ratings. A surprising number of pilots — and an even more surprising number of instructors — tend to use the terms interchangeably, or to say “rating” when it should be “certificate.” In a nutshell:
A pilot is certificated to fly aircraft at one or more named privilege levels, which include student, sport, recreational, private, commercial, and airline transport pilot (ATP). When you talk about your pilot certificate, you are referring to the privilege level (e.g., private pilot). The type of certificate you hold determines your basic privilege level, and each level inherently includes certain privileges and limitations (e.g., to fly — or not — for compensation).
Except for pilots at the student and sport certification levels pilots at each certificate level are rated to fly aircraft in at least one specific category and (if applicable) class. Now let’s look at what that means.
Airman Category = What Sort of Aircraft Can You Fly?
For purposes of ratings on a pilot certificate, there are seven aircraft categories:
- Lighter than air
- Powered lift
- Powered parachute
Once you are beyond the student pilot certification level, your pilot certificate will list at least one rating that includes at least one of the seven aircraft categories stated above.
Airman Class = What “Flavor” Can You Fly?
In addition to stating a category level, the pilot certificate must include at least one class rating if the aircraft category is divided into classes. (Note: A type rating is “above and beyond” a class rating; see “Checklist” for details.)
Here are the major class divisions:
- Airplane category is divided into single-engine land (ASEL), multi-engine land (AMEL), single-engine sea (ASES), and multi-engine sea (AMES) classes
- Rotorcraft category is divided into helicopter and gyroplane classes
- Lighter-than-air category is divided into airship and balloon classes
- Powered parachute category is divided into powered parachute land and powered parachute sea
- Weight-shift-control category is divided into weight-shift-control land and weight-shift-control sea
Note that the powered lift and glider categories are not divided into classes, so a rating in either of these aircraft categories will stand by itself. In other cases, though, your pilot certificate will include both. For example, the most common initial aircraft category and class rating on a newly-issued private pilot certificate is airplane single engine land.
Head of the Class
There’s a lot to learn in aviation, and it’s understandable if you, like me, initially let the concepts of category and class bounce off an already overtaxed brain. Because of what these terms convey about aircraft performance and airman privilege, though, I hope you’ll step to the head of the class by taking a second look. (FAA Safety Briefing – MayJun 2015)