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Learning To FlyWhich Pilot License Is Right For You?
By Russell Frame
The dream of flight captures many but only a few have the will to push forward and begin their training to become licensed pilots. With the aviation field being only about 100 years old, it's still not unusual to talk to pilots who learned to fly on a grass runway in a simple Piper Cub with no electrical system. Today, a few students might be able to follow a similar path to the sky, but more likely they'll be dealing with aircraft that use advanced navigation systems, controlled airspace, and radio communication. In addition to learning piloting skills, aircraft systems, and a large amount of general aeronautical knowledge, student pilots today have to make decisions about the initial pilot certificate they will pursue.
Twenty years ago most civilians who wanted to become a pilot started by pursuing the Private Pilot certificate. This is still, by far, the most popular choice as it allows the holder to pilot a wide range of aircraft in all open airspace and permits one to complete advanced training for high performance aircraft, instrument ratings, etc. Of the initial pilot certificates one may pursue, the Private certificate provides the most flexibility and also requires the most time, knowledge, and skill to pass.
In the late 1980's the FAA recognized a need to lower the barrier to flight, especially for the evening and weekend recreational pilot who wants to enjoy simple local flights. They introduced the Recreational Pilot certificate which limits the holder to carrying a single passenger and flying aircraft with a maximum of four seats and a maximum of 180HP engine. The pilot is also restricted to daytime flights within 50 nautical miles, at non-tower controlled airports. In exchange for these restrictions, the training requirements were lowered to only 30 hours of flight training while eliminating basic instrument flight, cross-country, and night flight training. The "written" knowledge test is also a little bit simpler.
Despite the cost savings, the Recreational Pilot license still had one major hurdle: the FAA Medical Exam. To obtain either a Private Pilot or Recreation Pilot certificate, the student must pass at least an FAA third-class medical exam. The exam checks for basic health, vision, and medical history. For those who have current or past medical issues it can be difficult or impossible to pass the medical exam.
In 2005 the FAA introduced the Sport Pilot certificate which permits the pilot to self-certify that they are healthy enough to act as pilot-in-command, provided they can at least obtain a driver's license. This certificate has additional restrictions and only permits the pilot to operate the newly classified LSA (Light Sport Aircraft) which have low stalling speeds, light weight, and a maximum of two seats. This certificate has been a mixed blessing. While it opened the door to flight for some who had medical hurdles previously, the restrictions on aircraft type can make it difficult for some to find a qualifying aircraft to use in their local area.
So, with all of these options, how can a new student pilot make a decision about the initial pilot certificate they should pursue? The following series of questions should provide a starting point.
1. Do you have any current or past medical issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiac disease, etc that may keep you from passing an FAA medical exam? Or, do you already have access to an LSA aircraft and would you be satisfied with local fun flights with a single passenger?
The Sport Pilot certificate may be your best option. This certificate allows you to enjoy basic daytime flight in qualifying light aircraft and you can take a friend along for a ride. It requires the least amount of training and flight experience and does not require passing an FAA medical exam, but does have the most restrictions about the type of aircraft you can fly and where you can fly them.
You may have to do some searching and have some luck on your side to find an LSA aircraft to rent in your local area. If there are no LSA aircraft available for your use and you think this is the right option for you, you might consider taking a few flying lessons in a regular airplane to be sure it is something you enjoy and then plan on purchasing a qualifying Light Sport Aircraft yourself to complete your training and for your own personal use. Options range from some older classics like Cub's and Champs, to an array of brand new LSA's being offered just to fit this new market. LSA aircraft prices will range from $15,000-100,000 or more.
If you are not sure about your ability to pass an FAA medical you might contact the AOPA (Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association) as they offer an FAA Medical assistance program which can review your medical history and make recommendations about how to proceed.
2. If you can pass the FAA medical exam, do you have limited budget and/or time to complete your initial pilot training?
The Recreational Pilot certificate provides more freedom than the Sport Pilot certificate but does require passing at least the third-class FAA medical exam. This certificate allows you to fly most light aircraft as long as they have no more than four seats and no more than a 180HP engine, though you will always be limited to a single passenger. Your initial certificate will also limit you to local flights at non-tower controlled airports during day-time hours.
The advantage of a Recreational Certificate is the reduced training requirements, meaning you'll be able to get your initial pilots license with less time and money invested. This can be important for students who might only be able to budget for a 1-2 lessons per week. While the Private license might take over 6 months to obtain in that scenario, the Recreational license might be possible in 3-4 months, at a considerably lower price tag.
Most of the initial limitations of the Recreation Certificate can be removed through additional training with a flight instructor who can issue endorsements to remove the restrictions against cross-country flight, controlled airspace, and night flying. The limitations that will remain are the a single passenger, no more than four seats, and a maximum of 180 horsepower aircraft.
The flight experience gained while flying as a Recreational Pilot can also be used to qualify for the full Private Pilot certificate at a later date, providing a great path for those who want to step into more advanced piloting options over time.
3. If you have good health, several hours per week for flight training, and cost is not a major obstacle, you may consider pursuing your Private Pilot certificate right away.
This certificate has the fewest restrictions as you can carry multiple passengers, are allowed to fly in any open airspace day or night, and gain endorsements for high-performance aircraft. You can pursue an instrument rating and with additional experience move on to a Commercial Pilot certificate if desired. In addition to the basic aircraft control that is learned with the other certificates, you will receive cross-country flight training, night flight training, some fundamental simulated instrument flight training, and exposure to controlled airspace and tower communications. Typical Private pilot students take 50-60 hours of training before being ready for their exam, sometimes more, so be prepared to invest plenty of time and money in your training before you will be licensed to carry any passengers or fly without instructor supervision.
This article was written by Russell Frame, owner of High Country AeroWorks, provider of aircraft rental and flight instruction in Coeur d'Alene Idaho