Being a felon isn’t necessarily a disqualifying factor in getting a pilot’s license.

Whether someone who has committed a felony is able to get a pilot license or not depends on the severity and type of felony committed, the type of pilot license they want to acquire (and the class of medical certificate that goes with it), along with a couple of other factors.

The Path to Getting A Pilot License If You’re a Felon

Student Pilot Certificate

A student pilot certificate is required for any aspiring pilot who wants to start logging solo flight time and work towards obtaining higher certification.

To be able to log solo flight time, a third-class medical certificate must be obtained, which requires passing an FAA medical exam that is conducted by an aviation medical examiner.

Medical Certificate (Applies to all pilot licenses)

For anyone who has committed a felony, this is the first obstacle they may have to overcome.

One of the disqualifying factors in obtaining a third-class medical certificate (or any class of medical certificate) is in regard to substance dependence and abuse. If the felony committed falls under this category, it may count as a disqualifying factor.

The caveat is if it’s been 2 years or longer, and there is enough clinical evidence to prove that an applicant has overcome any substance abuse and dependency issues.

In the FAA’s own words, this means that, according to medical records, there is “established clinical evidence, satisfactory to the Federal Air Surgeon, of recovery, including sustained total abstinence from the substance(s) for not less than the preceding 2 years.”

Furthermore, if a criminal conviction was based on an alcohol or drug charge, a pilot license can not be applied for until at least one year from the date of the conviction.

Background Check (Applies to all pilot licenses)

Before a student pilot certificate can be issued, a background check through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is required.

According to the TSA, a felon is deemed a security risk and automatically disqualified from getting a pilot license if any of the following crimes have been committed:

  • Espionage
  • Treason
  • Sedition
  • Terrorism
  • Murder
  • Unlawful possession, use, sale, distribution, manufacture, purchase, or in otherwise any way dealing in an explosive or explosive device
  • Improper transportation of a hazardous material
  • Transportation security incident
  • Conspiracy or attempt to commit any of these crimes

If a felon was released from incarceration after conviction within five years of the date of the application, the following crimes are also disqualifying:

  • Unlawful possession, use, sale, or dealing in a firearm
  • Extortion
  • Dishonesty, fraud, or misrepresentation related to a crime listed in this section and above
  • Smuggling
  • Bribery
  • Immigration violations
  • Distribution, possession with intent to distribute, or importation of a controlled substance
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping or hostage-taking
  • Rape or aggravated sexual abuse
  • Assault with intent to kill
  • Robbery
  • Violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Conspiracy or attempt to commit any of these crimes

Sport Pilot License

To be eligible for a sport pilot license, which covers small airplanes, gliders, powered parachutes, trikes, balloons, and airships, a student pilot certificate and valid U.S. driver’s license is required.

However, no medical certificate is necessary, which means that felons can get a sport pilot license quite easily and without having to jump through many hoops.

Recreational Pilot License

A recreational pilot license (RPL) is a step-up from a sport pilot license in that it lets pilots fly bigger and more powerful aircraft.

With extra training and endorsement, certain restrictions like nighttime and cross-country flying can be lifted.

Again, no medical certificate is necessary – just a valid U.S. driver’s license.

Private Pilot License

A private pilot license lifts many of the restrictions of an SPL and RPL, and is a prerequisite to be eligible for higher certification, and ultimately becoming a professional pilot.

With a PPL, a pilot can command any aircraft (subject to appropriate ratings), and carry more than one passenger both domestically and internationally – they just can’t be financially compensated.

A third-class medical certificate is required for a PPL.

Note that obtaining a PPL comes with more costs. Not only will flight training be more expensive, but more equipment and accessories will be required, too.

While you don’t need to buy the best aviation headset or best aviation handheld radio, these costs soon add up.

Commercial Pilot License

A commercial pilot license is the first type of license that allows a pilot to be financially compensated for flying.

A pilot can carry persons or cargo, including conducting commercial air tours, banner towing, and aerial work, to name a few pilot roles available with a CPL.

A second-class medical certificate is required to be eligible for a commercial pilot license. Passing the FAA medical exam should not pose any problems for felons, with the same requirements listed above.

Airline Transport Pilot License

A felon wanting to work as an airline pilot will be a very large hurdle to overcome.

According to 14, Part 61.153(c) of FAA regulations, to be issued an airline transport pilot license (ATPL), which is required to fly for major airlines, a pilot is required to be of “good moral character”.

This language is quite vague and does allow the FAA some leeway and discretion to be used.

An examiner will ask an applicant if they have been convicted of a felony. If they have, further inquiry about the conviction will be made.

If the examiner deems that the nature and disposition of the conviction mean that the applicant doesn’t necessarily have “good moral character”, they will have to consult with regional counsel for a final decision.

However, even if a felon manages to obtain an airline transport pilot license, there is no guarantee that they will be able to be hired as an airline pilot.

Airlines have their own policies when it comes to hiring felons – and considering that airline pilot roles are competitive, it’s likely that another candidate will ultimately be chosen.

Furthermore, Canada has very strict entry requirements, which could pose another issue for felons who want to work for an airline, depending on their prior conviction.

A first-class medical certificate is required for an airline transport pilot license, with the same requirements and restrictions as mentioned above.

Getting a Pilot License With a Criminal Record

Possessing a criminal record does not necessarily prevent anyone from obtaining a pilot license – even in the case of an airline transport pilot license that is required to become an airline pilot.

However, a criminal record may prevent someone from being eligible for certain positions as a professional pilot, depending on the type and severity of the crime (misdemeanor vs. felony), and company hiring policy.

Keep in mind that the FAA conducts a criminal background check on pilots before they are hired, too.

Getting a Pilot License With a DUI

You can still get a pilot license with a DUI, though will likely face delays in obtaining your license, as the specific details are investigated.

If there are multiple DUIs on your record, you face a much greater chance of being rejected for a pilot license. Multiple DUIs can be seen as a substance dependence and abuse issue, which is a disqualifying factor for an FAA-issued medical certificate.

The FAA Medical Test Doesn’t Test for Drugs

No. The FAA medical test, which is conducted by an aviation medical examiner, will not test for illicit drugs.

While an urinalysis will take place, it’s just sugars and protein levels that are checked as possible indicators of diabetes or kidney disease. There is no check for illicit substances.

Can a Felon Get a Helicopter License

Whether a felon wants to get a license to fly airplanes or helicopters, the same regulations and requirements apply. Therefore, everything in this article also relates to a felon who wants a get a helicopter license.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.