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What It Takes To Get A Pilot License

Learning to become a pilot is a major decision, requiring a great deal of time and money being invested. You’ll want to be sure you’re getting value for your money, so looking for the cheapest deal is not the best approach for choosing a flight instructor or flight school. You ll want to ensure that you complete your training in the most cost and time efficient way possible, and complete your training knowing that you’ve been trained to be a safe and competent pilot.

Taking The First Step…

The first step in the process is to know why you want to become a pilot so the flight school you choose can help you earn the appropriate license in the most time and cost effective way possible.

There are many reasons people want to be pilots. Some choose to become pilots as a career choice, while for others there’s the sheer enjoyment of flying high above it all. However, flying is also a practical choice for personal mobility. For example, in Australia owning and piloting your own private aircraft is a necessity simply because of the distances involved in getting from point A to point B in the outback. Even in major urban centres of the USA, UK and other industrialized countries, being able to fly a plane you own, lease or rent is advantageous. Time is money, and being able to fly at 140 miles per hour or faster, flying as the crow flys and avoiding congested roadways shaves hours off a day’s drive to the same destination. Even if the option were flying to your destination, being able to pilot a plane allows you to avoid the delays and inconveniences experienced by passengers boarding scheduled flights at air terminals. Being able to fly can also be a life saver in the event of natural disasters. Roads quickly become gridlocked during an evacuation, whereas the sky is almost always navigable.

Whatever your reason for becoming a pilot, there are steps you must go through to be certified to fly that includes education, training, qualifying and licensing.

Decide What Type Of Pilot You Want To Be…

The first step to becoming a pilot is deciding what type of flying you’ll be doing. It will dictate what type of pilot license you’ll need to earn, as well as what equipment it will have that you will need certification for.

There will be specific requirements for your pilot’s license or certificate depending upon the type of aircraft you’ll be flying. The choices range from various types and sizes of fixed wing aeroplanes to helicopters. Even if you plan to fly airships, you’ll be required to have a pilot license.

The type of flying you’re interested in doing is also a consideration that affects what training and certification be necessary. Pilot’s licenses come in several types, ranging from a student pilot all the way up to an airline pilot licensed to fly passenger jets.

There are 4 basic types of pilot’s licenses that are similar in most jurisdictions:

  1. Recreational Pilot: Usually permitting the pilot to fly with friends and family aboard, and only valid for flights within the country of issuance.
  2. Private Pilot’s License: Fly only with friends and family aboard, but valid all over the world.
  3. Commercial Pilot’s License: Permitted to fly as a job, and valid all over the world. A commercial pilot’s license allows the holder to fly large jet aircraft as well, but not as a captain.
  4. Airline Transport Pilot’s License: Permits the licensee to fly aircraft for a living anywhere in the world and includes the certification to fly jets as Captain.

Of the several levels of pilot’s licenses, the most basic is a recreational pilot license. These licenses permit the licensee to pilot an aircraft anywhere within the country of issuance. However, depending upon the jurisdiction, the pilot may or many not be permitted to carry passengers, and could be restricted to flying only when visibility permits, such as daylight hours and during clear weather. Night flying, or flying any time instruments are required usually requires different certification.

Most aviation authorities also limit recreational and private pilot licenses to single engine aircraft, with twin engines necessitating additional training and certification.

The type of aircraft a pilot is licensed to fly will usually include restrictions; For example, a private pilot license does not permit a pilot to fly helicopters or turbo-jet power planes. A pilot licensed to fly jet aircraft will also be permitted to fly single and twin engine aircraft, but likely not a helicopter. Likewise, helicopter pilots are most often certified to fly only helicopters unless they have additional certification and/or a license to fly fixed wing aircraft as well.

The additional ratings and endorsements required to fly aircraft with specific equipment or under different circumstances are:

  • Multi-Engine Rating: Permits the holder to fly an aeroplane with more than one engine.
  • Instrument Rating: Permits the holder to fly at night, in clouds, and poor weather.
  • Float Rating: Permits the holder to take off and land on water in an aeroplane equipped with floats.
  • Instructor Rating: Permits the holder to teach other people how to fly, provided the holder has a license above that of Private Pilot.

Education, training, and licensing to become a pilot…

What is required to become a pilot differs from country to country. To operate an aircraft in the United States you must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which since 9/11 is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In Canada, pilot licensing is administered by Transport Canada under the Aeronautics Act, and the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs). While in Australia, there are two licensing choices, the RA-Aus pilot certificate and a CASA issued Private Pilot’s License (PPL). In the UK pilot licensing is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), under the auspices of the Joint Aviation Authorities and European Aviation Safety Agency. Each member nation in the EU has responsibility for regulating their own pilot licensing. Likewise, virtually every other nation on the planet has similar administrative entities responsible for pilot licensing, each with their own certification process.

Requirements for pilots vary depending on the type of flying they will be doing. Generally you must have excellent command of written and spoken English, the language universally used the world over by airport controllers and support staff. In some jurisdiction though, a recreational pilot licensee may only need spoken and written command of one or more of the official, local languages. In all countries, graduation from a certified pilot training school is required.

Obviously the principle step to becoming a pilot is learning to fly an aeroplane. A potential pilot must complete ground school, which is basically classroom education, followed by flight training to earn any level of pilot’s license.

If you wish to make flying a career and have your private pilot’s license, you’ll have to accumulated enough flight hours to obtain a commercial pilot’s license. As a commercial licensed pilot you are able to offer your service as a pilot in exchange for a flat fee or salary.

Because it is necessary accumulate flight hours before you can acquire the license needed to fly larger aircraft used commercially, many pilots begin their careers working as flight instructors or flying sightseers in small planes. These types of positions allow them to accumulate flight experience without having to pay for the fly time themselves.

If your goal is to fly commercial, passenger aircraft, you’ll need to have your Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) license. Major airlines typically require at least 3,000 hours total flight time, including at least 1,500 hours flying multi engine aircraft. At least 1000 hours of your flying time will have to have been as pilot in command (PIC) of jet turbine powered aircraft, preferably in scheduled airline flying. The flying time will vary depending on the airline, and may also be regulated nationally.

Medical Certificate Requirements…

You need a medical certificate before flying solo in any type of aeroplane, helicopter, or airship. It is recommended you get your medical certificate before beginning flight training. This will alert you to any condition that could prevent you from becoming a pilot before you pay for lessons.

If you are going to pilot a hot air balloon or glider, most countries do not insist on medical examinations. All you need to do is write a statement certifying that you have no medical defect that would make you unable to pilot a balloon or glider., or sign a preprinted document stating the same thing.

Most government agencies responsible for pilot licensing in their respective countries publish a directory that lists approved aviation medical examiners. Copies of the directory are usually available from air traffic control facility, flight service stations, the local pilot licensing administration and most flight training schools. Airport managers and aviation businesses may also be able to supply a list of aviation medical examiners.

Medical certificates are designated as first-class, second-class, or third-class. Generally, first class is required for airline transport pilots, second class for commercial pilots, and third class for the student, recreational and private pilots.

Medical certificates can be issued in cases where physical disabilities are involved, but depending on the nature of the disability there may be operating limitations.

It is required that all licensed pilots carry their medical certificate whenever flying.

Age Limitations…

There are usually minimum age limitations placed on anyone wanting to learn how to fly any type of aircraft no matter where you are applying for any type of pilot license. The minimum age can differ from country to country, as is the case with licenses to drive motor vehicles. It is usually 15 or 16 years of age for ground school, while the minimum age for flight training or to fly solo is 16 or 17. The minimum age to qualify for a Private Pilot License is age 17, sometimes 18.

There is no maximum age to learn how to become a pilot. However, it is required that all pilot license applicants meet the medical requirements to learn to fly in their country.

Student Pilot Training and Limits…

The rules limiting student pilots differ from country to country, but only slightly. For example, before flying solo you must be familiar with the local aviation administration rules, as well as the flight characteristics and operational limitations of the make and model of the aircraft you will fly. Your flight instructor will give you the materials you need to study, and then test your knowledge. If you pass, your instructor will endorse your student pilot’s certificate for solo flight, meaning your instructor thinks you’re competent to make solo flights.

As a student pilot, your instructor must review your pre-flight planning and preparation for solo cross-country flight and determine that the flight can be made safely under known circumstances and conditions. The instructor must also endorse your logbook before your cross country flight, stating you are considered competent to make the particular flight.

As a student pilot, you will not be permitted to carry passengers until you receive your recreational or private pilot’s license or certificate.

Even after you graduate from student to recreational pilot, you will likely be restricted to fly within a specified number of nautical miles of the airport where you learned to fly. The distance differs depending upon the rules relevant to the licensing administration, but is usually between 50 and 100 nautical miles from the airport.

As student pilot, and usually even as a recreational pilot, you’ll have to fly during the day, and you you’ll probably not be permitted to fly through airspace where communications with air traffic control is required. Once you earn your private pilot license you will not have these limitations.


Learning how to become a pilot is both time consuming and somewhat expensive, but the rewards are great. Before you commit to becoming a pilot, it is advisable to get a medical examination to make sure you get medical certification to take flying lessons. If you are medically fix to fly, you’ll then need to decide what type of flying you will do before starting lessons as well. You also need to be sure you’ll be able to make the time to learn to fly before paying for lessons. Lastly, you’ll want to research flight instructors and/or flying schools to find one able to help you attain the level of pilot license you are going to need for the type of flying you will be doing.

This article suggests the steps and discusses the challenges you face learning how to become a pilot, but does so in general terms. As mentioned, different countries have different authorities that are responsible for licensing pilots, and each may have unique requirements, regulations, limitations, or additional certifications applicable to the various types of pilot licenses. It is recommended you research the process and requirements of your country regulating how someone becomes a pilot.

By Len Bowcott