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What’s the right pilot certificate: Sport, Recreational or Private Pilot?

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When you start flying, you may be presented the choice of pursuing your Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot or Private Pilot certificate. Understanding the differences between them will help you to choose the path that is best for you.

Sport Pilot – The Sport Pilot certificate allows you to earn your pilot’s license in as little as 20 hours of training, and does not require a medical certificate (see above); however, a sport pilot must hold at least a current driver’s license. In practice, most students will require more than the minimum flight training experience. You are, however, limited to flying Light Sport Aircraft (LSAs), defined as a maximum of 1320 lbs. maximum weight and 120 knots maximum speed (a Cessna Skycatcher, for example). You’ll need to check on the availability of light sport aircraft at your local flight school as the aircraft are not as readily available as other category aircraft.

Recreational Pilot – Another great option for new pilots to get in the air quickly is the Recreational Pilot Certificate, which requires a minimum of 30 hours of flying. While 30 hours in the minimum, similar to Sport training, in practice, pilot will typically take closer to 40 hours of training to obtain the required level of safety and proficiency.

The Recreational certificate allows you to carry a passenger during the day in good weather, and in aircraft with up to four seats and up to a 180 horsepower engine (a Cessna Skyhawk or Piper Cherokee, for example). This is perfect for local flights with family or friends, and will get you into the air quickly. You can also add additional privileges or transition to the Private Pilot certificate when you’re ready–you’ll just do some additional training with an instructor on cross country, night flying and/or in airspace requiring communication with Air Traffic Control.

Private Pilot – The Private Pilot certificate has been around the longest, and is often what people mean when they say they “got their license.” There are fewer restrictions on the type of airplane you can fly and the places you can fly to, and there are plenty of options for add-on privileges, like Instrument and Multi-Engine ratings. The minimum training time is 40 hours–at least 20 with an instructor and 10 solo–but most students take 60-80 hours. This training time may also very depending on the rules under which the flight school operates. You may here terms such as training under Part 61 vs. Part 141 – read about the differences here.

For all three of these certificates, you’ll be required to complete ground training (which can be largely accomplished online), a written exam and a flight test. Only the Recreational and Private certificates will require that you earn a medical certificate, but read why that’s not a big deal.

Also remember that you can change your mind as you train. For example, Sport Pilot training time will count towards a Recreational or Private license. It’s also worth noting, that every pilot has to solo (fly the airplane by himself) as a first step so there is no need to make a decision quickly. The most important first step, take an introductory or discovery flight at your local airport!

Read our entire Getting Started series for more answers.

John Zimmerman
1 reply
  1. Usual says:

    Why would you recommend the Rec certificate? There are 5 new Rec checkrides per year and only 3 are successful. Literally 85 active rec pilots.

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