Private, Sport, and Recreation Certificates - What is the difference?

In the beginning there were birds in the sky, and they soared and wheeled to their heart's content, and it was good.

And then, eons later, men like Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier and Otto Lilienthal figured out how they too could float and soar through the air, and it was better.

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And then, as the 19th century became the 20th, men like Samuel Langley, Guilio Douhet, Louis Bleriot, Alexander Bell, and Wilbur and Orville Wright found that they could install an engine and propeller on this device and then actually control where they flew, and it was even better.

And then the government saw what had happened and said "Whoa. This is too much fun. These people should have licenses." And aviation changed.

Well, actually, the government never really said it that way, but the truth is that all aspects of our life in the air are governed by regulations and licenses. And because people, societies and technology continue to change, government involvement has also changed over the years.


The early pilots taught themselves to fly and then taught others. And if a person thought he had the skills and the money to buy an airplane, he was ready to go. Eventually, the government, through the new Civil Aeronautics Authority (Now the Federal Aviation Administration) set some training and skill requirements for would-be pilots, and established the privileges allowed at various levels. And the basic level of licensed pilot was entitled "Private Pilot". Today that basic level is joined by the Recreational Pilot License and the Sport License. And piloting has more options and more confusion.

So now that we have three different licenses, which is most appropriate? It depends on how each potential pilot intends to enjoy flight. (And while all three of these licenses can be attained for single and multi engine airplanes, as well as for gliders, rotor-craft, balloons, (and more), we are going to limit this discussion to single-engine airplane licenses.)

Private Pilot

This is still the rating most people have in mind when they hear a friend say, "I am a pilot." The day a person passes the flight exam for this rating is the day the FAA bestows an extremely large set of flying permissions. The new Private Pilot can legally fly to any airport in the country, from the smallest grass strip to JFK in New York.

She can fly airplanes with one, two, four, six seats or more. She can fly in the daylight, or at night. And subject to "endorsements" and "type ratings" just about any single engine airplane is available to her. Flight training for Private Pilots who are taught by a free-lance instructor is governed by Federal Air Regulation (FAR) Part 61 subparts C and E. For those students who get their instruction from a formal school instead of from a free-lance instructor, their instruction will be governed by FAR Part 141, Appendix B. In either case, the new pilot will become accomplished in the hands-on flying skills of taking off, landing and navigating from one point to another. He will learn the details of operating at small unimproved un-towered runways and at large airports with control towers and radar controllers. He will receive instruction in, and will practice solo, flying cross-country to distant locations. He will learn to fly at night and will receive an introduction to flight by instruments only.

Private pilots are not allowed to fly for pay, but there are a couple of small exceptions. For example, if a Private Pilot is flying with friends, they can split the costs equally. A Private Pilot can use an airplane to travel to business locations. And a Private Pilot with at least 500 hours of flight experience can participate in various charitable flights even though participants might pay a fee.

By regulation, a Private Pilot will attain at least 40 hours of experience (under part 61 or 35 hours under Part 141) which will include at least 20 hours of instruction and 10 hours (five hours under Part 141) of solo practice. And that 20 hours of instruction, by regulation, will include at least three hours of cross-country training, three hours of night training, three hours of instrument training, and three hours of review for the flight examination. (Since these 12 hours of regulatory instruction leave only eight hours of the 20 hours of instruction mandated, nearly all students will receive more than 20 hours of instruction.  Full details are here)

At the end of the training, the would-be Private pilot will undergo three examinations- a written exam, an oral exam and a flight exam. The written exam is multiple choice and must be successfully completed before taking the oral and flight exams. The oral and flight exams occur somewhat simultaneously. One side note about the written exam is that a person who holds a Private or Recreational License for airplanes is not required to take any more written exams for any other type of aircraft.

Medical Exam – Yes, there is that. A would-be Private Pilot must pass a third-class medical examination which is conducted by an FAA aero-medical doctor. This is the least stringent of the medical examinations and is generally not a problem for healthy individuals with correctable eyesight. In many cases, even those individuals with some level of disability can attain a waiver with the help of their flight instructor, local FAA office, and aero-medical doctor. This examination is repeated every five years for pilots under the age of 40, and every two years for pilots over that age.

In 2016, Congress Directed the FAA to amend the regulations concerning medical examinations, directing that the Third Class Exam for Private Pilots be eliminated for pilots who have had an exam within the past ten years.  Those rules are supposed to be in place by mid - 2017.

Recreational Pilot

As airplanes became more complicated, and airspace around cities became more congested, the training for a Private License included more and more topics. Finally, many pilots shouted "Enough! All I really want to do is fly from my little runway, far away from the large cities. And I only want to fly in clear sunny weather with spouse or kids during the day. I don't need all of that regulation." And so, with the help of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and others, the Recreational Pilot License was created.


First of all, Recreational pilots are limited to piloting aircraft with four seats or less and with a single engine of less than 180 hp and may only carry one passenger. They are restricted to a radius of 25 miles from home airport. That can be extended to 50 miles with permission (and training) from an instructor. Flights beyond 50 miles require all of the instruction required for Private Pilots. They may only fly to and through airspace requiring radio communication if they receive instruction for that airspace.

Recreational Pilots may not use their aircraft to as part of their business or any charitable activity, may not fly at night, and must fly at least once every six months until they have 400 hours experience. Recreational Pilots with fewer than 400 hours who have not flown in the previous six months will need a review flight from an instructor.

Like the Private rating, the Recreational rating can be obtained from a free-lance instructor under FAA Part 61 Subpart D, or from a formal school under FAR Part 141, Appendix A.

Their training will include 30 hours of dual and solo instruction instead of 40 for a Private license. That decrease comes from decreasing the total instruction requirement from 20 hours to 15 and the solo requirement from ten hours to three. Additionally, the night and instrument training is eliminated and the cross-country training is reduced from three hours to two.

Medical Exam - This is the same as for Private Pilots.


Sport Pilot

The addition the Sport Pilot license was (and is) the biggest, most confusing change in pilot licensing in the last forty years. And like the Recreational license, there is some history involved. In the mid-sixties and early seventies, a few people discovered that they could strap a large kite to their, jump off of a cliff or hill, and actually glide.

After a while, others discovered that you could do the same thing if you attached a small seat to the kite or wing. And others who had been parachuting realized that the parachutes had become so maneuverable, that you do the same thing with a parachute. And then it became inevitable that someone would hang a small engine and propeller under the wing of a kite or parachute and "ultra-light" aircraft were born.

For several years, theses pilots were small in number and flew, both literally and figuratively, under the FAA radar. Eventually, however, their numbers grew, and their engines and "flying devices" grew, and finally the FAA felt the need for some level of regulation. For many years, the level of regulation was, "if you stay below this size, we won't regulate you." And the FAA essentially came to agreement with the industry that the ultra-light industry could be self-regulating.

However, the industry finally grew to the point that the FAA felt the need to regulate both the aircraft and the pilots. (Up to this point, pilots who flew at the Recreational and Private levels could fly only aircraft registered and maintained to FAA requirements. Aircraft flown by ultra-light pilots faced no FAA regulation.)

And thus the Sport Pilot License came to be. With this body of regulations, the FAA "gaveth" and the FAA "tooketh". In the view of many people, the largest thing that the FAA "tooketh" was the right to fly unregulated aircraft in an unlicensed fashion. But there were some benefits as well.

Sport Pilots are governed by FAR Part 61, Sub-parts J and K. The regulations became complicated quickly, as they tried to cover all of the various types of aircraft that had grown up as well as the pilots who flew them. But I am only going to cover the regulations concerning Sport Pilots flying airplanes and leave the powered parachutes, weight-shift aircraft, gliders, etc. for another time.

Sport Pilots (airplane) must receive at least 20 hours of flight time, including 15 hours of instruction and 5 hours of solo. (Compared to the required 40 hours total with 20 hours and 10 hours dual and solo for a Private Pilot.) Like the Recreational Pilot, the Sport Pilot does not need to receive instruction in night or instrument flying, nor does he need to receive instruction in flights requiring radio contact with control towers or radar controllers. He will receive at least two hours of cross-country training, and must fly one solo cross-country of at least 75 miles.


Sport Pilots have all of the restrictions of the Recreational Pilots with two curious exceptions. Sport Pilots do not have the 400-hour restriction described above, nor is there a 50-mile distance restriction. However, Sport Pilots (airplane) do have one more significant restriction. Where Recreational pilots can fly four-seat aircraft with no weight restriction, Sport Pilots are restricted to one- or two-seat aircraft weighing no more than 1320 lbs

But, in all of the regulations that the FAA imposed on the ultra-light family with the Sport Pilot regulations, they made one very large concession. Sport Pilots are not required to obtain a medical certificate. If a person holds a valid driver's license, has never been denied a third class certificate, and has no no medical condition that would preclude safe flying, that person can receive a Sport License.

So which license is best for you? If you expect to travel regularly to an airport with a control tower, or at night, or if you expect to fly long distances, you should probably seek a Private License. This is also true if you anticipate flying with more than one passenger.

If your flying will be limited to a rather small area around your home airport, a Recreational or Sport License might be better.

And if you do not wish to obtain a third class medical examination (but have no reason to assume that you would not pass one), your best bet would be the Sport License, although this distinction may vanish in 2017.