There are six different pilot licenses aspiring pilots can acquire. Some are much easier to obtain than others, and the type you want to acquire will ultimately depend on your goals.
Besides age, these include the aircraft you want to fly, the number of passengers you want to carry, whether you want to fly at night, whether you want to be financially compensated for flying, and more. But for now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
All the licenses will allow you to get behind the cockpit and experience the joy of solo flight firsthand.
We cover all six in order of increasing privilege (least to most restrictions and limitations), as well as the minimum age you must be to qualify.
It’s good to know that you don’t always necessarily have to acquire one license before being able to move onto the next one either.
6 Main Types of Pilot Licenses
Student Pilot License
While you don’t have to be a certain age to fly a plane (there is no minimum or maximum age requirement), you do have to be at least 16 years old to obtain a student pilot certificate.
This allows you to fly solo and log solo flight time that is necessary to obtain a private pilot license and beyond.
If you want to fly gliders or balloons instead, you only have to 14 years old. This is because they are much easier to fly than aircraft like airplanes and helicopters.
Sport Pilot License (SPL)
A sport pilot license is a great option for pilots who want to fly for fun.
The license covers light-sport aircraft (LSA), which includes small airplanes, gliders, powered parachutes, trikes, balloons, and airships.
The minimum age to acquire an SPL is 17 years old, though it is 16 for gliders and balloons.
If you know you will only be flying for fun, and are happy with certain restrictions like only flying during the daytime, not entering any airspace classes that require radio communication, only being able to carry one passenger, and not being allowed to fly with less than 3 miles of visibility, it is a good option.
The requirements to obtain the license are fairly simple and won’t take too long, requiring just 20 hours of flight time.
Recreational Pilot License (RPL)
Not happy with flying light-sport aircraft and want to be behind something bigger and more powerful? The recreational pilot license is for you.
While a recreational pilot license shares similar restrictions to a sports plot license, nighttime flying and cross-country restrictions can be lifted if you receive extra training and endorsement from an FAA-certified instructor. This is not an option you have available to you with an SPL, as it is ineligible for additional ratings.
You must be at least 17 years old to qualify for a recreational pilot license.
30 hours of flight is required.
Private Pilot License (PPL)
A private pilot license has several benefits compared to an SPL and RPL, and it is the initial goal of many pilots on their pathway of earning additional licenses and ultimately becoming a professional pilot.
A PPL allows for the possibility of commanding any aircraft (subject to appropriate ratings). Many restrictions are also lifted, though a PPL will still not make you eligible for compensation or hire.
Perhaps best of all, you are able to carry more than one passenger, and even split the cost of gas, aircraft rental fees, and any other flight expenses with them.
I can tell you firsthand that there is nothing quite like the freedom of being able to fly your friends and family within the USA and even outside the country.
A third-class medical certificate must also be obtained from an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) who will test things like your near, distant, and color vision, as well as your hearing.
The minimum age to qualify for a private pilot license is 17 years old, though it is 16 for gliders and balloons.
At least 40 hours of flight time must be logged.
Commercial Pilot License (CPL)
You must be at least 18 years old to get a commercial pilot license and become a commercial pilot. With this license, you can be financially compensated for flying.
This means that you can be compensated for carrying persons or cargo, engaging in commercial air tours, for aerial work (crop dusting, banner towing, fire fighting), to name just a few of the job roles available to you with this license.
A second-class medical certificate is required to acquire a commercial pilot license. It has more stringent requirements than a PPL, like possessing near vision that is correctable to 20/20 instead of 20/40.
A private pilot license is a prerequisite, as is completing 250 hours of flight time.
Related: Commercial Pilot Vision Requirements
Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL)
If your ultimate goal is to be an airline captain for a commercial airline operation, only an airline transport pilot license will do.
An ATPL is the highest level of piloting ability and therefore requires the most stringent qualifications, including a minimum of 1,500 flight hours. Despite this, to qualify for an airline transport pilot license you only have to be at least 23 years old.
However, there is also a restricted form of the ATPL (referred to as an R-ATPL). A minimum of 1,000 flight hours is required, completion of an ATP Certification Training Program, and you have to be at least 21 years old.
An R-ATPL will let you be a first officer – in other words, a co-pilot.
Age Limits for Other Pilot Certificates and Ratings
When thinking about learning to fly for fun, recreationally or professionally, the above six licenses have you covered.
But there are a few other certifications and ratings that you should be aware of too.
Instrument Rating (IR)
An instrument rating is the next step most pilots follow after earning a Private Pilot License. This is because it allows a pilot to fly under instrument flight rules, thereby lifting certain restrictions.
You must be at least 18 years old to acquire an instrument rating.
Flight Instructor Certificate (CFI)
Becoming a flight instructor is a great way of logging the flight hours necessary to obtain an ATPL and become an airline pilot. You also get paid along the way while keeping your skills and knowledge sharp.
You can see why a flight instructor certificate (CFI) is such a popular option for many, even though for most it’s a means to an end.
You must be at least 18 years old to obtain a flight instructor certificate.
Multi-Engine Rating Certificate
A multi-engine rating allows pilots to operate aircraft with more than one engine.
You must be at least 17 years old to qualify for this license.
Multi-Engine Instructor Certificate
A multi-engine rating instructor certificate allows pilots to operate as a flight instructor in aircraft with more than one engine.
You must be at least 18 years old to qualify for this certificate.
Ground Instructor Certificate
You don’t actually have to be a pilot to become a ground instructor. Passing a few FAA knowledge tests is all that is required.
You must be at least 18 years old to obtain the necessary certification to become a ground instructor.
Remote Pilot License (RPI)
A remote pilot license covers UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).
You must be at least 16 years old to qualify for this license.
Pilot License Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a maximum age to obtain a pilot’s license?
There is no maximum age to obtain a pilot’s license with the exception of an airline transport license. By law, there is a mandatory retirement age of 65 for airline pilots.
How old you have to be to fly a helicopter?
While helicopters fall under the category of rotorcraft, they still largely follow the license types described above.
This means that you have to be at least 16 years old to obtain a student pilot certificate and fly solo, 17 to earn a private pilot license, and 18 for a commercial license.
How much does it cost to get a pilot’s license?
The cost to obtain a pilot’s license can vary widely and depends on several things, including your goals and aspirations to progress beyond a certain license, your age, the necessary training supplies, and other gear and equipment.
Clearly, a license that has more stringent requirements will require more training in the form of flying lessons, and studying for written and practical tests.
Your age is another factor.
If you are currently 16, for example, then you do not yet qualify for anything beyond a student pilot license.
To generalize, you can expect to pay the following:
- Student Pilot: $75-200 (for the medical certificate)
- Sport Pilot: $4,000
- Recreational Pilot: $6,000
- Private Pilot: $10,000
- Commercial Pilot: $25,000
- Airline Transport Pilot: $5,000 (on top of prerequisite licenses)