A private pilot certificate gives you the privilege of flying virtually wherever and whenever you’d like, and is also the first step toward a career as a professional pilot. As a private pilot, you may fly for pleasure by yourself or you may carry passengers. FAA regulations do not allow you to be compensated for your services as a private pilot, however; you may share flight expenses with your passengers. When flying as a private pilot, you will be operating under visual flight rules (VFR) where special weather requirements pertaining to clouds and visibility must be met.
To obtain a private pilot certificate, you must be at least 17 years old, and have a minimum of 35 flight hours in an FAA part 141 approved school (non-approved schools require 40 hours). However, a realistic average is approximately 65 hours of flight training. You must also pass the FAA private pilot written examination (a 60 question multiple choice test) and a flight test with an FAA Designated Examiner. You must pass a Class III medical exam with an FAA-approved doctor every five years if you are under 40 years old; otherwise, every two years.
Commercial Pilot Certificate
A commercial pilot certificate allows you to be compensated as a pilot, however; many pilots achieve this certificate just to continue training and improve their skills and knowledge. Pilots who are interested in pursuing a career in aviation must obtain a commercial pilots certificate.
To exercise the full rights of a commercial pilot, you must have an instrument rating (see ratings), be at least 18 years of age, hold a Class II medical certificate (somewhat more stringent than a Class III), and have a minimum of 190 hours of flying in an FAA part 141 approved flight school (non-approved schools require 250 hours). You must also pass an FAA written examination and a flight test with an FAA Designated Examiner.
Airline Transport Pilot Certificate
To obtain an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate, you must hold a commercial pilot certificate and have at least 1500 hours of flying. You must pass an FAA written examination and a Flight Test with an FAA Designated Examiner. This is the highest class certificate available and it allows you to perform pilot-in-command responsibilities for commercial airlines and other transport operations.
Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) Certificate
The Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) is a separate certificate which authorizes you to give instruction in an airplane and teach others how to fly. As a flight instructor, you may instruct private or commercial students. You may also obtain additional instructor ratings to teach instrument (CFII) and multi-engine (MEI).
To become a flight instructor, you must be 18 years old and hold at least a commercial pilot certificate, as well as an instrument rating. You must also pass two FAA written examinations, and an FAA flight test for each instructor certificate/rating sought.