The FAA Private Pilot Certification Process Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The FAA Private Pilot Certification Process

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The following information1 details the requirements for certification, and subsequent privileges under the FAA's guidelines for student pilots and private pilots (certified, non commercial pilots) in a single engine, land-based aircraft.

FAA stands for Federal Aviation Administration. Hence, these rules apply to all student pilots learning to fly in the United States, and all private pilots, foreign or domestic, who wish to fly in the USA. The significance of this is that pilots must always adhere to local aviation rules. In other words, even if you are a member of the European Union these rules will apply to you if you wish to fly one day in the United States.

Student Pilots

A student pilot is limited to the conditions and operating rules of a student pilot certificate. To be eligible for a student pilot certificate, a student must be at least 16 years old and be able to read English.

A solo flight is defined as a flight in which the student is the sole occupant of the aircraft. In order to operate an aircraft in solo flight a student must meet the following requirements:

  • The student must satisfactorily pass an informal knowledge test of aeronautical knowledge which addresses airspace rules, airport procedures where the solo flight will take place, flight characteristics and operational limitations for the make and model of the aircraft to be flown. The student's instructor will administer the test and review all incorrect answers with the student before authorising the solo flight.

  • Before the solo flight, a student must log flight training for the following flight manoeuvres. The following manoeuvres must be demonstrated to the instructor's satisfaction before the solo flight is authorised:

    • Flight preparation, pre-flight planning, engine and aircraft systems operation

    • Taxiing and engine run-ups

    • Take-offs and landings, including with crosswind

    • Straight and level flight, and turns

    • Airport traffic patterns, entry and departure

    • Collision avoidance, windshear and wake turbulence avoidance

    • Descents, with and without flaps, with and without turns

    • Flight at various airspeeds, including landing speed, which is referred to as 'slow flight'

    • Stalls in which lift is insufficient at low airspeeds. This includes entry into stalls from various attitudes, and subsequent recovery of the aircraft from the stall.

    • Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions.

    • Ground reference manoeuvres; flight around and in reference to points on the ground

    • Approaches to emergency landings with simulated engine malfunctions

    • Slips to a landing. A slip is a manoeuvre where opposing rudder and aileron are forced, in order to control a descent. A slip may increase the rate of descent or be useful when flying in strong crosswinds.

    • Go-arounds. This refers to an aborted approach to landing and subsequent 'go-around' for another approach.


A student pilot may not:

  • Carry a passenger

  • Be hired, to carry property for compensation, or for any business

  • Fly to international destinations, except from Alaska to Canada

  • Fly when visibility is less than three miles by day or five miles by night

  • Fly when the ground is not visible

  • Fly contrary to the limitations given by the instructor

Cross-Country Solo Flight

A solo cross-country flight is defined as any flight over 25 miles from the airport of origin. The student must receive instruction for cross-country flight, prior to being endorsed for cross-country solo flight by the instructor. The instructor must fly the route with the student prior to any cross country solo flight over 50 miles and the student must receive instruction for procedures at the destination airport.

All cross-country flights must be conducted under VFR conditions. Visual Flight Regulations are limitations on flight based on available visibility.

Further instruction must be received on:

  • Navigation and use of aeronautical charts

  • Use of compass for navigation

  • Analysis of weather reports and forecast

  • Emergency procedures

  • Operation over hazardous geographical terrain

  • Use of radios for navigation and two-way radio communication

  • Advanced take-off and landing procedures. These include short-field, and soft-field take-offs as well as crosswind take-off, approaches and landings.

  • Best-rate and best-angle climbs

  • Control and manoeuvrability by sole use of aircraft instruments, including various manoeuvres and use of radios and air traffic control directives. This simulates the situation of no visibility outside the aircraft. Since a student pilot must conform with Visual Flight Regulations the situation may arise when visibility falls without it being the student's fault. Therefore this exercise serves to simulate the situation of no visibility and subsequent use of instruments for flight. To simulate no visibility, the student normally wears a hood to partially cover the eyes, making only the inside of the cockpit visible.

Private Pilots

A student pilot who has passed various examinations may receive a private pilot certification. A private pilot must meet many of the requirements of the student pilot as stated above. Therefore, only the additional requirements of the private pilot are included below, as well as the additional privileges.

To be eligible for a private pilot certificate the pilot must be at least 17 years old and have received instruction and passed the requirements mentioned in the 'student pilots' section.


In order to receive a private pilot certificate a student pilot must:

  • Pass a written test on the following subjects:

    • Federal Aviation Regulations

    • Accident reporting

    • Use of the Aeronautical Information Manual

    • Use of aeronautical charts for navigation

    • Radio communication procedures

    • Weather situations and critical weather avoidance

    • Safe and efficient operation of aircraft

    • Effects of density altitude (temperature/humidity and altitude) on take-off and climb performance

    • Weight and balance computations

    • Principles of aerodynamics, engines, and aircraft systems

    • Aeronautical decision making and judgement

    • Pre-flight actions

  • Pass a check ride (practical flight exam) on the following subjects:

    • All flight proficiency subjects mentioned in the student pilot section above

    • Pre-flight procedures

    • Basic instrument manoeuvres (similar to those mentioned in the student pilot section)

    • Night operations

    • Post-flight procedures

  • Log the following flight experience:

    • At least 40 hours of total flight time

    • At least 20 hours of flight time with an instructor

    • At least 10 hours of solo flight time, consisting of:

      • At least five hours of cross-country solo flight

      • At least one solo cross-country flight for over 150 miles, with a minimum of three stops at three airports in between

      • At least three take-offs and landings to a full stop in an airport with a control tower

    • At least three hours of cross-country flight instruction

    • At least one cross-country flight of over 100 miles

    • At least ten take-offs and ten landings with a full stop

    • At least three hours of flight solely based on instruments (under the hood- eyes partially covered). This includes manoeuvres and operations.

    • At least three hours in preparation for the check ride (practical flight test)

Privileges and Limitations

  • A private pilot may carry passengers.

  • A private pilot with more than 200 hours of flight time may demonstrate an aircraft to a prospective buyer.

  • A private pilot may be reimbursed for search and rescue or state/federal flights.

  • A private pilot who meets further requirements may tow a glider.

  • A private pilot may not be hired by a business or by passengers.

For Further Information

You can find further information about the FAA and certification, as well as other useful information at the FAA Website. One of the most extensive suppliers of pilot tools and materials is Jeppesen. The best way to find a flight school, from the thousands of airports in the United States, as well as more information on how to become a pilot, go to the Student Pilot Network Website.

1Rules and regulations are referenced from the FAR/AIM2001 (Federal Aviation Regulations/Aeronautical Information Manual 2001)- the pilot's bible.

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