How Private Pilot Licenses Work

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Private pilots enjoy a special privilege few people ever encounter: They can hop in an airplane and fly themselves far above the rest of us. They get to experience the sense of freedom and exhilaration that's inherent in aerial flight, while we're crawling around boxed in our cars, bound by narrow roads and bossed around by blinking traffic lights.

Earning this privilege, however, is no simple matter. It takes times, dedication and a whole lot of dollar signs to make it happen. In the United States, pilot licensing is under the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration, which itself is part of the Department of Transportation. More than 600,000 people in the United States are licensed to fly an aircraft, and of those, some 250,000 have private pilot certificates [source: Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association]. It also costs thousands of dollars to obtain a private pilot license, and many who start training don't complete it, though those who do rarely seem to have any regrets.

Prospective pilots can aim for several different certificates. The most basic, of course, is qualification as a student pilot. They need this in order to start the process of learning to fly in the first place. Once they're certified as students, some of the less rigorous licenses they can aim for include sport pilot and recreational pilot. These are easier to earn than a private pilot license, but that's because they come with restrictions so there is less to learn. Recreational pilots, for example, can only carry a single passenger and they have to (generally) remain within a 50-nautical-mile-radius of whatever airport they're based, although with additional training, they can be certified to take off from others. They're also limited to flying during daylight hours and at times when the weather conditions are good.

Private pilots, on the other hand, enjoy a lot more freedom in the air. But more on that in a bit. Let's kick things off by covering eligibility requirements on the next page.