Pilot License Types and What They Mean

Just like you need a license to drive your car, a pilot license is important to have for operating an aircraft. According to the FAA, “pilot licenses” are really called “pilot certifications”, but we’ll be referring to them as “pilot licenses” throughout this blog for the purpose of basic understanding and explanation. Using the information below, you can identify which pilot license – or types of pilot licenses – you’ll need to accomplish your aviation goals.

Generally, when it comes to earning different types of pilot licenses, individuals are required to meet certain age, English language and other basic eligibility minimums, so it’s important to make sure you’re coinciding with each. Acting as pilot in command of an airplane requires a pilot license issued by the FAA, medical certification and a government-issued photo ID. Additionally, ratings can be added to a pilot license (certificate), giving the pilot permission to conduct certain operations.

There are privileges and limitations that accompany different pilot license types as well. In fact, each pilot license allows its holder to fly aircraft of a certain category and class. “Category” is a broad term for type of aircraft, such as airplane, rotorcraft and lighter than air, while “class” is more specific and alludes to a plane’s operating characteristics, such as single engine or multi-engine, as well as land or sea.

There are all different types of pilots out there, and if you’re ready to take flight but aren’t sure what’s required for you to do so, read on!

Sport Pilot License

Although a sport pilot license is rather restricted, obtaining it could be an excellent first step in pursuing further licenses.

A sport pilot license can certify you to fly a light sport aircraft (LSA). Individuals are not authorized to fly at night, or with less than 3 miles of visibility, nor in Class A-D airspace classes or airports. This is very limiting in most parts of the country. Your sport pilot license only allows you to carry one passenger, and not for compensation beyond shared expenses.

For a sport pilot certificate, a person must:


This license is excellent for hobbyists.

Recreational Pilot License

A level beyond the sport license is the recreational pilot license. This can be a great license for local flying.

The recreational pilot license shares many of the same flight restrictions as the sport pilot license, only for larger aircraft. License holders can still only carry one passenger and cannot fly within Class A-D airspace. With a recreational pilot license, you can only fly during daylight hours in good weather and within 50 nautical miles of your home base.

To earn your recreational pilot license, you must:

  • Pass a written knowledge and practical test
  • Hold a student or sport pilot license
  • Complete at least 30 hours of flight training


The recreational pilot certificate is useful for just as the name states: recreation! For those types of pilots interested in short-distance, leisure flying, this might be the right certificate for you. This can also be a great license to get if you’d like to earn a private pilot license later, but it’s not required.

Private Pilot License

Above a recreational pilot license is the private pilot license (PPL). A private pilot license removes many restrictions but does not make a pilot eligible for compensation or hire.

Depending on whether a flight school operates under Part 61 or Part 141, there are variances in the private pilot license requirements that follow. In general, however, an individual must:

  • Pass a written knowledge and practical test
  • Hold at least a student pilot certificate
  • Complete at least 35 – 40 of flight time minimum


A private pilot license opens the door to opportunity. With these pilot license types, you’re able to carry more than one passenger (up to the amount of weight your aircraft can hold) and fly outside a 50-mile radius – even outside the U.S.! With your PPL, you can fly at night and at towered airports. This license is required for those interested in furthering their career and earning additional licenses.

An instrument rating can be added to your PPL, although this is not a certificate by itself. This allows you to fly “by instruments”, which means you can operate in situations with restricted visibility. An instrument rating is incredibly important to have if you plan to fly long distances and/or professionally.

Commercial Pilot License

For anyone pursuing a career in aviation, a commercial pilot license is necessary. With this license, you can fly for compensation.

For a commercial pilot license, a pilot must:

  • Pass a written knowledge and practical test
  • Hold at least a private license
  • Complete 250 hours of flight time for part 61 and 190 for part 141


A pilot can conduct operations for compensation and hire with their commercial pilot license. Types of pilot jobs available for CPL holders include tour pilots, banner towing pilots and of course flight instructors after gaining an additional Certified Flight Instructor certification from the FAA.

Airline Transport Pilot License

For most commercial pilot license holders, the goal is to fly for the commercial airlines, which requires an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. Depending on their education background, a pilot will either need to obtain a restricted or unrestricted ATP license to become a commercial airline pilot.

For an ATP license with unrestricted privileges, the pilot must:

  • Be at least 23 years of age
  • Pass a written knowledge and practical test
  • Have a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine time
  • Complete a minimum of 1,500 flight hours


An R-ATP is available for graduates of FAA-approved bachelor and associate degrees and for pilots who haven’t yet met the above age and/or hour requirements. Until they’ve met the age and flight hour requirements, the R-ATP will give them the opportunity to work as a co-pilot with the airlines earlier upon completing the ATP Certification Training Program (ATP CTP), an additional course that trains pilots to fly in an airline environment. The requirements are as follows:

  • Be at least 21 years of age
  • Pass a written knowledge and practical test
  • Have a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine time
  • Complete the ATP CTP
  • Complete a minimum of 1,000 flight hours


With the R-ATP, pilots are able to work as First Officers alongside a Captain as is typical at the commercial airlines. A graduate of a college or university needs 1,000 flight hours if he or she earned an approved bachelor’s degree and graduates with an associate’s degree need 1,250 hours to earn the ATP. Without a degree, you’re still required to meet the 1,500 hour requirement. Military pilots require 750 hours flight time and 200 cross-country hours for their ATP.

If you’re ready to launch your airline career, these types of pilot licenses are necessary to obtain.

For those in the AeroGuard Pilot Pathway Program, students will go through their Private, Commercial and CFI licenses, receive a guaranteed interview for a CFI job with AeroGuard to build their 1,500 hours and then complete their ATP training at SkyWest Airlines. This offers a simple, direct and accelerated path to the commercial airlines.

Drone Pilot License

A drone pilot license is a unique option if you’re seeking adventure in your life, but aren’t looking to man an aircraft.

For those types of pilots interested in flying drones, you’ll first need to obtain a remote pilot certificate. To earn this license, you must:

  • Be in proper physical and mental shape to safely pilot a drone
  • Pass an aeronautical knowledge examination


Drones are aerial devices that can be used for recreational and professional purposes. Upon obtaining these pilot license types, you can do freelancing, transportation work, film-making – the list goes on! It’s important to understand all the rules and regulations that apply when flying your drone.

Helicopter Pilot License

Helicopter licenses function similarly to the licenses outlined in the content above, but as a separate category: rotorcraft. Helicopter license holders can be private or commercial pilots.

You’ll need to obtain several types of pilot licenses to fly professionally as a helicopter pilot, however, you must first earn your private pilot helicopter license. To do so, it’s important to:

  • Pass a written exam
  • Complete 40 hours of flight time


There are a variety of types of pilot jobs as a helicopter aviator, including federal agency positions, search-and-rescue, emergency services and more. If you’re interested in flying helicopters, for leisure or professionally, be sure to understand that the classes and categories follow airplane license formatting, just for rotorcraft rather than fixed-wing aircraft.

The commercial opportunities for helicopter pilots are fewer than their fixed-wing counterparts, so for many, a category transition to fixed-wing offers an exciting new career path. For these pilots, less training time is required as they are already licensed pilots proficient in many aspects of flight. AeroGuard’s Rotor Transition Program accommodates these individuals.

The Pilot License for You

Pilots of all skillsets soar the sky, some recreationally and others, professionally, which is what makes being an aviator unique.

It’s important to do your research and determine your aviation goals to understand the pilot license you’ll require for your success.

Begin Your Career Today!