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.

Eligibility and Flight Time Requirements

The time it takes to earn a private pilot license rests on a number of factors.
The time it takes to earn a private pilot license rests on a number of factors.

To be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a private pilot, student pilots must be at least 17 years old (for most types of aircraft), although they can begin training when they're younger than that. They must be able to communicate in English -- read, write, speak and understand the language. Student pilots also need to enlist a certified flight instructor (CFI) to oversee their training and endorse their logbooks. That means when they acquire certain skill sets or complete important new maneuvers, their instructor makes note of it in his or her logbooks. When the student is ready for solo flight, the instructor will note that, too.

Private pilots usually must complete a minimum 40 hours of flight time, though some flight schools are more meticulously structured and rigorously certified by the FAA, so their minimum is 35. Most student pilots, however, still need more than the 35 to 40 hours before they're fully prepared. Estimates vary, but many fall within the range of 60 to 75 hours [source: FAA]. At a minimum, 20 of those hours are flown with the instructor -- who can take over if necessary with newer students -- and 10 of those hours are flown as supervised solos.

At some point, student pilots seeking private certification also need to visit an aviation medical examiner certified by the FAA for a physical. They'll continue having medical examinations on an ongoing basis (every five years if you're under 40 and every two years if you're over) to ensure their health status is still up to standards. Similarly, a private pilot may periodically need to undergo proficiency checks and flight reviews to continue flying, especially if he or she doesn't fly regularly.

Next up, it's time to train.

Training for a Private Pilot License

The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is the most-produced model of any aircraft, so it's among those commonly used for student training.
The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is the most-produced model of any aircraft, so it's among those commonly used for student training.

It's best to fly frequently while training to earn a private pilot license, and to study hard, because there is a lot to learn. Students need a thorough base of both practical and theoretical knowledge to be successful pilots.

Student pilots need to understand the four forces at work -- lift, weight, thrust and drag -- because each plays a critical role during flight. Regular flying simply involves keeping the four in check, but in order to climb, descend or turn, a pilot needs to know which forces to manipulate, and which aircraft control surfaces to adjust in order to accomplish necessary movements.

Then, both during ground school and in the air, student pilots must learn about all of the parts of the airplane and how those parts interact, as well as information regarding preflight, in-flight and post-flight checklists.

After that, there are regulations, rules and systems to learn, including:

  • Flight control systems
  • Radio protocols
  • Navigational principles
  • Weather forecasting
  • Safety regulations
  • Collision and turbulence avoidance techniques
  • Emergency procedures
  • Ground maneuvers
  • Flight maneuvers

Flight maneuvers alone encompass a lot more skills, including takeoffs, landings, slow flight, power-on stalls, power-off stalls, crossed-controlled stalls, elevator-trim stalls, secondary stalls, accelerated maneuver stalls -- and don't get us started on turns. Before a pilot is fully prepared, all of these lessons need to be mastered in a variety of conditions.

But when a flight instructor does think his or her student pilot is ready, it's time for testing. Find out more about that on the next page.

Receiving the License and Other Considerations

When the weather isn't cooperating, pilots have to fly by interpreting their instruments alone.
When the weather isn't cooperating, pilots have to fly by interpreting their instruments alone.

Once a student pilot's training is far enough along, he or she must pass a final comprehensive knowledge test that assesses how well that individual grasps all aspects of flight, from completing the preflight checklist to performing flying maneuvers to properly handling landing protocols. If all goes well, the sky's the limit -- except for a few additional considerations.

Private pilots, for example, are not allowed to fly for economic compensation or financial gain. They can, however, require passengers to share in the direct cost of operating the airplane, which includes paying for expenses such as fuel, oil, rental charges, airport parking and landing fees. That being said, they can fly for qualifying charitable and community events. The number of occupants a private pilot can carry is unlimited based on the size of the plane, their range is unlimited, and they can fly at night.

Private pilots (along with most other types of pilots) can also seek additional ratings and endorsements in order to have more freedom while flying. One common example is for pilots to become certified to fly under instrument flight rules (IFR, as opposed to the visual flight rules, or VFR). When visibility is reduced -- which is common considering cloud cover, fog and storm fronts -- pilots must rely on their instruments to guide them. An IFR rating greatly increases a pilot's versatility in the air, and it's just one of many additional certificates an ambitious private pilot can aim for.

For more info about life in the air, look over the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association Web site. (Feb. 20, 2011)
  • Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. (Feb. 20, 2011)
  • Federal Aviation Administration Web site. (Feb. 20, 2011)
  • "Learn to Fly." (Feb. 20, 2011)
  • "The Spirited Skyhawk." Cessna. (Feb. 20, 2011)