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What Are Pilot Certificates and Why Do They Matter?

by John M. White |

When the Wright Brothers introduced the world to manned powered flight the race to build better and better aircraft ensued. Soon many individuals were building their own aircraft, and improvements in aviation technology rapidly increased. At first there were no regulations, no licensing requirements and no restrictions for building, flying and maintaining an aircraft.

The Aero Club Of America

By mid-year 1905 a number of the members of the Automobile Club of America decided to form the Aero Club of America to promote the advance of aviation. In an effort to bring structure to flying airplanes the Aero Club began issuing pilot certificates. The pilot certificates were not mandatory, and were issued upon a pilot demonstrating some minimum requirements which included climbing to a predetermined altitude completing a figure 8 flight while holding a steady altitude. If you are interested in learning how to fly, and to get your own Private Pilot license, but don't know where to start, let me suggest you get the Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual or the Gleim Private Pilot Manual. These fine books can help you understand what is involved, how to start and how to prepare for the Private Pilot Certificate.

The First Five Pilots

The Aero Club decided to award the first pilot certificates to men who had already built their own aircraft and had flown them, thus these certificates were honorary. The men were:
  1. Glenn Curtiss
  2. Frank Purdy Lahm
  3. Louis Paulhan
  4. Oriville Wright
  5. Wilbur Wright
You might wonder how they decided the order to issue these pilot certificates, and it was by alphabetical order of their last names. Later on pilot licenses issued by the Aero Club were signed by Orville Wright who had become the chairman of the Contest Committee formed by the Aero Club.

The Air Commerce Act Of 1926

In May of 1926 the Air Commerce Act was passed which authorized the Secretary of Commerce to issue rules regarding air traffic, the certification of aircraft, the licensing of pilots and the establishment of airways and navigation aids. The Commerce Department begin issuing safety regulations and certifying pilots while building a system of lighted airways followed by airways based upon radio beacons.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Currently, pilot certification is conducted by the FAA either directly or through the use of designated examiners who have been certified by the FAA to conduct practical oral and flight tests and then issue a pilot certificate. These examiners are typically persons who have demonstrated to the FAA over time their competency as certified flight instructors and safety as pilots. Today many commercial airline, corporate and helicopter pilots receive their type ratings for aircraft through test administered in flight simulators without ever flying the actual aircraft itself!

Pilot Certificates

Today there are 7 different certifications a pilot can hold:
  1. Student Pilot Certificate
  2. Sport Pilot Certificate
  3. Recreational Pilot Certificate
  4. Private Pilot Certificate
  5. Commercial Pilot Certificate
  6. Certified Flight Instructor Certificate
  7. Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
The privileges for each pilot certificate will be restricted to the category and class of aircraft to be flown, and in some cases the specific type of aircraft to be flown. In addition, a Private, Commercial or Certified Flight Instructor can also add an Instrument Rating to their certificate allowing them to operate an aircraft solely by reference to instruments within the aircraft.

Pilot Privileges By Category, Class And Type

Some of the aircraft category ratings are:
  • Airplane
  • Rotorcraft
  • Glider
  • Lighter than Air
Some of the aircraft class ratings are:
  • Single engine aircraft
  • Multi-engine aircraft
  • Land aircraft
  • Water aircraft
  • Helicopters
  • Airships
An example of a type rating would be:
  • Douglas DC-3
  • Cessna CitationJet
  • Airbus 380
  • Boeing 777

Medical Certificates

Each pilot must also pass a flight physical by a medical doctor designated by the FAA as a medical examiner. Currently there are three basic levels of medical certificates:
  • Third Class
  • Second Class
  • First Class
The class of medical certificate required has to do with the pilot certificate a pilot holds. For example, a Private Pilot can hold a Third Class Medical Certificate, a Commercial Pilot a Second Class Medical Certificate and an Airline Transport Pilot a First Class Medical Certificate. Each medical certificate lasts for a specified period; i.e. Third Class 2 years, Second Class 1 year and First Class 6 months.

Pilot Certificates

A pilot certificate today looks much like a fancy credit card which the pilot must carry with them at all times while operating an aircraft, in addition to their current and valid medical certificate. To learn more you should get Flying Airplanes: For Fun and Money! (A Practical Guide to Becoming a Professional Pilot) which is a great read! In future posts I will discuss the various pilot certificates. Until next time keep your wings straight and level Hersch! JetAviator7 ps: Don't forget to sign up for our newsletter "All Things Aviation" here!

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