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 official documents.
Certificate = Privilege Level
The authorizing document that the FAA issues is an airman certificate, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a document certifying that one has fulfilled the requirements of, and may practice in, a field.”
A pilot can be certificated to fly aircraft at one or more of the following privilege levels: Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Student, Sport, Recreational, Private, Commercial, and Airline Transport Pilot (ATP).
Although we naturally think of flight instructors as pilots, those airman certificates are issued separately and called instructor certificates, not pilot certificates. However, a Commercial or ATP-level pilot certificate is a prerequisite for the issuance and exercise of a flight instructor certificate.
Rating = Operating Privilege
A rating is “an authorization 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 act as pilot-in-command of any aircraft that is more than 12,500 pounds maximum gross takeoff weight or turbojet powered, an aircraft-specific “type” rating is required, in addition to the appropriate aircraft category and class rating.
Ratings can be added to a certificate when the pilot qualifies for a certain operating privilege, such as an instrument rating, applicable to a specific aircraft category and class. Some examples of category and class include airplane single-engine land, glider, rotorcraft-helicopter, etc.
Endorsement = Completion of Specified Training
An endorsement attests to the successful completion of ground and/or flight training required for specific operating privileges, or for airman testing and certification. Endorsements and recommendations are normally provided in the pilot’s logbook. The endorsements required by Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) for part 61 and 141 affect many airman certificates and privileges:
Student Pilots: Because student pilot certificates do not include aircraft category and class ratings, operating privileges and limitations for solo flight are provided exclusively through instructor endorsements that specify the make and model. Student pilot endorsements often include certain weather requirements and other operating 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 or practical test for most pilot certificates and ratings, the applicant must have endorsements attesting to knowledge, flight proficiency, aeronautical experience, and practical test preparation.
Recurrent Training: To maintain the operating privileges for a pilot certificate or instrument rating, the pilot must have an endorsement verifying satisfactory completion of the required recurrent training or checks (e.g., flight review).
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 and specific endorsements. These endorsements include those for complex airplanes, 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 – NovDec 2016)