How Hard is it to Get a Pilot License

Guides · 6 min read · May 16, 2022
how hard is it to get a pilot license

There are different reasons to believe that getting a pilot’s license is hard depending on the perspective taken.

On the one hand, there are the costs, which depending on the flight school and the flight training program, can be very high for some people.

On the other hand, the whole process takes a series of steps and requirements that mainly depend on the pilot level the person wants to reach. This means that the person can become a private pilot, a commercial pilot, or any other level of certification.

We will focus on the latter, so keep reading to learn what really takes to become a licensed pilot.

Flight school to get a pilot license

Flight school usually involves flight training, but also ground school. Yes, to get a license, the student pilot also needs to learn a good amount of theory.

The pilot should study the theory before or at least parallel to flight training since most of the knowledge will be applied in pilot training. In fact, one of the requirements to start flight training is to take and pass the FAA knowledge test for student pilots.

The fact is that getting a student pilot certificate is a must to start flight training, which is why most flight schools request their students to have it before applying to their programs.

A student pilot an an instructor flying a small aircraft over a bay.

Student pilot certificate

Apart from taking and passing the FAA knowledge test, these are the requirements to get the student pilot certificate:

  • Being at least 16 years old
  • Third-class Medical Certificate granted by the FAA
  • Being fluent in English
  • Owning a valid driver’s license
  • Acknowledging that you cannot take passengers with a student certificate
  • Getting approved by an FAA Examiner or FAA Inspector

The last point in the list above may be the most difficult one because it means that a flight instructor must endorse you to fly solo. This is normally achieved by proving that you can perform safe takeoffs and landings, maintain control of the aircraft, and make decisions with good judgment consistently while putting safety first.

Getting the student pilot certificate is very important because it will allow starting pilot training towards the private pilot license, the one most student pilots try to get to start their career.

After getting the certificate, student pilots can start both ground school and flight training. The topics that are usually studied at ground school include, but are not limited to:

  • Aerodynamics
  • Aircraft Limitations & Procedures
  • Air Law
  • Communication
  • Crew & Aircraft Management
  • Human Factors
  • Navigation
  • Technical aspects of aircraft
  • Weather

As we are speaking about how hard getting a pilot license can be, it is relevant to point out that for some people ground school is where they suffer the most. This is especially true for those student pilots who already have a family and/or a job, so making their timetables work can be a headache. Others find specific topics difficult, like communication for shy students.

Flight training

Flight training is at the core of becoming a pilot. As happens with many other disciplines such as sports, a prospect pilot needs to develop the necessary skills before playing at the professional level.

Flight training involves hands-on experience. The student pilot will start by learning to fly small and simple aircraft to develop the skills required for the most basic flying maneuvers.

At the same time, the student pilot will start building up the flight time required for a specific license, normally being the private pilot’s license the first one to achieve. It is important to highlight that flight time usually involves both hours flying with a flight instructor and solo flight hours.

An alternative license to get first would be the sports pilot certificate. Other available licenses are the recreational pilot certificate, commercial pilot certificate, and airline transport pilot certificate. Let’s get into the details of the licenses now.

Sport pilot certificate

This certificate is considered the easiest to get among the pilot’s licenses available. This pilot license is the one that requires the least number of flying hours (only 20). However, you need to be a certified student pilot, so you will need a third-class medical certificate and all the other requirements we mentioned earlier.

It is also important to keep in mind that this certificate is limited to a small number of airplane types and situations where the pilot can actually fly. Among the aircraft that the pilot with this certificate is allowed to fly, there are:

  • Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA)
  • Aircraft with 51 mph maximum landing configuration
  • Aircraft with 138 mph maximum straight and level flying
  • Aircraft with no more than 2 seats
  • Aircraft with fixed pitch or ground adjustable propeller
  • Fixed landing gear aircraft

While this may seem like enough for some, the truth is that the certificate comes with the following limitations. A pilot with this kind of certificate is not allowed to fly:

  • In the dark
  • In controlled airspace
  • Without express permission from a country out of the US airspace
  • Above 10,000 feet
  • With passengers
  • When visibility is less than 3 miles
  • In an LSA that can reach more than 100mph without training
  • Under contract or for any compensation

Recreational pilot certificate

This is very similar to the previous certificate, with the main difference being that it requires 30 hours of flight time instead of 20. Half of those hours must be with a flight instructor.

While this certificate has fewer limitations than the previous one, it does not cover as much as the private pilot license yet. The recreational pilot is limited to:

  • Flying up to 50 nautical miles from the airport where training was received
  • Flying in airspace where communication with air traffic control is not required
  • Flying with sunlight
  • Flying aircraft with no more than 4 seats
  • Flying without receiving compensation
  • Flying with only 1 passenger

As you can see, while this certificate can be achieved quicker, it still has plenty of limitations when compared with the private pilot license.

A private pilot controlling a small plane on a cloudy day.

Private pilot

Becoming a private pilot is already a great achievement and the private pilot license immediately allows you to fly a great number of different airplanes as the pilot-in-command, fly solo, or carry passengers. Yet, it does not allow you to get paid for doing so, which is why most pilots move towards the next level, becoming commercial pilots.

However, one of the main requirements to be a commercial pilot is building up the flight time, something that can be done more easily if you already have a private pilot license.

How hard is it to become a private pilot?

Telling whether it is hard or not, and defining how hard becoming a private pilot is can be very subjective.

For some people, the most difficult and perhaps tedious part of the process is learning the theory at ground school. Fortunately for them, taking a dedicated private pilot course could be quicker and reduce that struggle. For others, a flight maneuver while learning to fly may be what they find the most difficult.

In any case, what is true is that it requires time and effort, but hard work is usually well rewarded.

Private pilot’s license

To become a private pilot you will need to get a private pilot license, also known as a private pilot certificate. The main difference with previous licenses is that it requires more flight training with a minimum of 40 hours of pilot training although the average private pilot takes 50 or more to achieve the skills.

Another relevant difference is that the private pilot license requires training during the night, and solo flight time across the country covering more than 150 nautical miles.

The entire process usually takes anywhere from 2 to 6 months. To complete the process and obtain the private pilot certificate, the student must pass the FAA written test, an oral board administered by an FAA examiner, and a check ride with an FAA inspector where the student flies as the official pilot-in-command.

Commercial Pilot Certificate

After getting their private pilot certificate, many student pilots take the next step to finally start earning a living as a pilot, and this is getting a commercial pilot certificate. Remember that the private pilot certificate does not allow you to earn money from flying.

Of course, a commercial pilot certificate means that the pilot will have more responsibility, so more knowledge and training are required.

In general, the requirements to get this certificate include:

  • Being at least 18 years old
  • Having a second-class FAA medical certificate which requires a more comprehensive medical exam than the third-class certificate
  • Owning a private pilot certificate
  • Being fluent in English
  • Completing the training and logging the required hours for single and multi-engine land class rating requirements
  • Logging 150 to 250 hours of flight time
  • Passing an aeronautics written test of 100 questions
  • Passing the FAA oral and flight tests conducted by an FAA inspector, FAA-designated examiner, or authorized check instructor

After receiving the certificate, the private pilot can be considered a professional pilot. However, carrying passengers is still not allowed, and the only jobs that can be taken include things like crop dusting, cargo transport, and aerial photography.

Airline Transport Pilot Certificate

Frequently known as ATP, this is the license most pilots try to achieve, especially those wanting a long-lasting career in the airline industry. With this certificate, the pilot can actually carry passengers commercially, both for an airline or under a private contract.

Of course, this is the certificate that takes longer to get, as it requires all the previous steps. The general requirements to get an ATP certificate are:

  • Logging a minimum of 1500 hours of flight time, including 100 night flight hours and 500 hours cross-country
  • Being at least 23 years old
  • Owning Instrument Rating
  • Completing an extensive written test
A person in a flight simulator learning to fly, holding onto the control column.

How long does it take to become a pilot?

At this point, you can already have an idea that how long it takes will depend on the pilot license you want to get, whether you need more or less flight training to get it and whether you decide to go into a full university program, a common flight school or follow a simple private pilot course or something similar.

In general, the most common for a pilot who wants to fly for an airline is to take an Airline Pilot Program, and these usually take around a year on average to complete.

Is becoming a pilot worth the cost?

Again, this may be subjective. What’s more, we are biased because we love aviation, so we believe the answer to this question is definitely a yes. However, if being in control of aircraft is not your ultimate goal, you can still find other career paths in the aviation industry. From maintenance and safety to airport and airline operations and management, there is a lot to choose from.

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Carlos Collantes
Carlos Collantes
A mechanical engineer and aviation enthusiast dedicated to share some knowledge by creating top-notch content, especially in engineering and aviation topics.

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